north of oxford book review

Misguided Behavior by Leah Mueller

Unknown

By Charles Rammelkamp

“I walked purposefully down the cobblestone streets, as if I knew exactly where I was headed. I’d figure out the direction as I went along, like I’d done many times before,” Leah Mueller writes in the story, “Leaving Bisbee.” It kind of sums up the narrator’s modus operandi throughout these tales. Subtitled Tales of Poor Life Choices, the stories are not so much about “misguided behavior” as they are about improvising with the less than ideal hand you’ve been dealt.

There’s a sly humor at work in these stories, too, as is evident from the very title of the book. Mueller can also finish off a tale of hardship with a spark of dry wit. Take the story, “Other People Ruin Everything,” a bit of graffiti she reads on the wall in a bathroom stall in a bar in Seattle. (“Hell is other people,” Sartre famously wrote in No Exit.) She’s gone into a bar she used to frequent, for old times’ sake, only to be waylaid by the other customers there, people with their own agendas. When she leaves, she finds a parking ticket on her car: the whole neighborhood has been gentrified since she was last there, along with new parking restrictions. The whole evening underscores the wisdom of the graffiti. But she concludes with the reflection, “On the other hand, most of us manage to do a damn good job on our own.” Hah!

In these autobiographical tales that span over three decades, we follow the protagonist from one weird job/situation to another, starting with her mother, in “Running from the Law.” Polly drives up to Chicago from Mexico with several pounds of marijuana stowed in the car.  She has a half-baked idea to sell the pot for a fortune – or rather, to have her daughter sell it for a fortune! (Later, in “Queen of Rage,” she will goad her son to steal a Christmas tree!) Needless to say, it doesn’t work out.

Then there’s the telephone sex scam (“The Lust Peddlers”), the pole-dancing in a New Orleans bar (“Nobody’s Prerogative”), life as an itinerant astrologer reading tarot cards, and in the soul-numbing, yet funny story, “The Clown Chronicles,” dressing up and passing out fliers on Michigan Avenue in Chicago for a sketchy outfit called the Education Zone.  The story begins: “An extended period of abject poverty led to my decision to become a clown.” She answers an ad that begins: “Fun job! Man or woman with cheery disposition and friendly personality….” Cheery? Friendly? You can imagine how that job requirement goes down.

It’s a life of invention, ad-libbing, extemporizing, as she gets blindsided left and right, and yet, she maintains a stoic attitude. “Despite my own hardships,” she writes in “The Other Side of the Cage,” a story about being stoned and lost in a zoo in New Orleans with her boyfriend, “I remained entrenched in the belief that my luck would change.”

Not all of the stories are about jobs, of course, but also about complicated relationships. The narrator’s dumped and been dumped by more boyfriends than you can keep track of, married at least three times. And then there’s that strange mother! Talk about having to make adjustments on the fly!

“People tell me I’m an extrovert,” she writes in “San Francisco Heart,” “but I don’t believe them. I’m way too fond of losers to be an extrovert. Losers are awkward, unable to play well with others. They’re my tribe.” Elsewhere she writes, “I felt infinitely safe with fucked-up people.” “San Francisco Heart” and the following story, “Leaving Ypsilanti,” are about a problematic relationship with a character named Greg, with whom she carries on an affair while being married to another guy named Roy. Yeah, it’s complicated.

In one amusing story, “Cities Where You’ve Lived, As Boyfriends,” Mueller mashes up these threads of romance and making a life for yourself (job, family, etc.). “Portland is your hipster boyfriend with a tongue ring,” she starts. Kalamazoo? “…the boyfriend who gets drunk, smashes your possessions, and steals your laptop so he can sell it to buy crack.” Then there’s Chicago, Tacoma, Seattle, where she ends with characteristic Mueller sardonic wit: “Seattle won’t even answer your calls.”

And where does it all end? Remember, this is a person who is confident her luck will change. The protagonist of these tales is an optimist, essentially, who refers to her “grim, Germanic sense of responsibility.” In “Time to Go, Grasshopper,” the narrator remarks, “I can sleep at night, knowing I’m not too much of a fraud.” Is there such a thing as karma for this person?

The final story, “The Sunshine Court,” set in 2025, depicts a rosier finale. The protagonist, Lola (mostly the narrator identifies herself as “Leah” in these stories, but Lola has similar attitudes, habits and outlook), a woman in her early 60’s, has settled into a retirement community in the state of Oregon that sounds too good to be true. Simpatico neighbors who look out for each other in interesting ways. A fantasy? A happy ending? You decide.

These stories are funny, erotic (“The Great Canadian Beaver-Eating Contest,” for one, set at the Burning Man festival in Nevada), insightful and brave.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Misguided-Behavior-Tales-Poor-Choices/dp/1989225241

Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by Future Cycle Press.

A Slow Boiling Beach by Rauan Klassnik

slow boiling beach front cover

By Greg Bem

“The sound of a train, ship, flute. Children drift into the trees. Heads on poles, on the back of a truck, firing into the air. They sing birthmarks and stiches all over me. Red and green mirrors. A blurring knife.” (from “MOTHER AND CHILD”, page 11)

Rauan Klassnik, author of The Moon’s Jaw (2013) and Holy Land (2008), has once again painted a portrait of a universe as disrupted as it is confident, as demented as it is formulaic: A SLOW BOILING BEACH is that portrait and it is as fascinating as it is ornamental, brute ugliness and attraction rippling with horror and total, existential embrace of traumatic moan, sigh. The language of an interior of pain, violence, and sexuality is masked with hallucinations and thrills. There is the heartbeat rhythm that lines these pages as they slice and splay organized disorder from page to page.

“I wrap it around me as I’m jerked up into the burning air. Cold swaying hooks. A knife pushed slowly into my heart. The dog’s head comes off in my hands.” (from “A DESTROYED NERVOUS SYSTEM”, page 13)

The “antithetical literary work” contains a fairly structured format. Six sections composed of scattered prose that strings together the monstrous, horrific story of an individual or sequence of individuals (depending on how far you lean over in your chair while reading it) who come together to merge or separate in active, desecrating union. There is a sexuality that is vicious and filled with animosity. There is a figuring of Thanatos that flares time and time across the individual pieces. These motifs blend and blur. They exaggerate and suffocate. They are united as much as the human and other animal figures are united. And it is profound, A SLOW BOILING BEACHin its potency to persist as an unnerving guffaw into the 21st Century abyss.

“An owl sits in a tree. I’ve had enough pain and euthanasia. When I climaxed it felt like someone shoving knives in my eyes.

“You are asleep, digging into the cold. I swallow them all gliding in over the snow. Boys hanging in the trees.” (from “IN A PYRAMID”, page 38)

The book’s six sections have underlying threads, which show their surfaces elaborately and illusively. There is illusion and there is provocation. Tones move from mercurial to vainglorious. There is ever the hint that this world can be refracted. It is at once cubist and at once dominant in its language and the underpinnings of the literary reality that may or may not matter. In the end: these are prose poems that can continue to end as much as they can continue to begin. Like Battaile and Camus: the mythos is captured through an ever-consuming sense of awe and dread that glistens and terrifies one in the same. For Klassnik’s speakers, the swirling appearance of this horrific reality is both urgent and disturbed, both inspiring and damning. It is a kaleidoscope of realization (epiphany towards meaning) and function-meets-nonfunction. It is opportunity and it is suffering. The resulting aesthetic, developed across the pages, is one of shadow and that which is long-since wrought. It is, as the title of the book suggests, a slow boil.

“A sky bruised like a corpse. So peaceful. A horse dipped in gold. And she’s sitting in the garden, painting the lunatics. Bloodshot. Thieves.” (from “THE RICHEST YACHT”, page 43)

As with Klassnik’s former collections, there is a distinct emphasis on the multisensory imagery of material and surface. That which we (as living, livid beings) are composed by. That which we must work with. That which we can use and abuse. In which we find constraint. There are holes, niches, corners, and funnels. There are places of privacy and intimacy, and places of public affect. There is metal, plastic, and wood. There is flesh, feather, scales, shells. Materials are universal, collected, and polarizing. Within the book, examined is the material world of detritus that forms our contrasted realities and perceptions of the agony of experiencing and knowing within those realities. It is also the material world that affords us the symbols that allow us our rituals. From anuses to eyeballs, from fetuses to cakes, living means confronting all of the lived experience without exception. It is fuel for the speakers of this book to persist in their desires and their agonies.

“I take the bus. A bunch of convicts lighting up the skies flowing beneath their cages. They love the river. And the gaudy azalea bushes. People are killing. People are kissing.” (from “PHEASANT IN THE ROAD”, page 51)

Much like Dante and de Sade, the realities by which and through which Klassnik writes are largescale and appropriately daunting. They are unconquerable, indomitable, and forever chastening.

“You call out like birds.

“You are filled with mist, a scent, livid, flying and triumphant.

“You come from the womb and anus. A giant eye with little eyes hidden around it in the branches and grass. Plague creeps through.” (from “POLLEN”, page 95)

Philadelphia’s Kim Gek Lin Short partially describes the book as a “slashed paradise to the max—the civilizing byproduct of subjugation.” Both inviting and unreasonable, A SLOW BOILING BEACH finds its invitations and antagonisms through its sourness, its revolt. It is the difficult to swallow. The awkward and punishing. It is the bright that leads to blindness. It is ripe with upset and disintegration, and can cause brows to raise and buttocks to clamp shut ever-so-slightly. Ever so demonically, ever so mildly. It is a book that stiffens the back and smothers the breath. And it is also a book of imaginable solutions to the world that has shattered and fragmented. Through Klassnik’s megalomaniacal efforts, the poetry of this landscape still rings with Keatsian romanticism. It is still raw with the rupturing, inescapable beauty of our consciousness, no matter how agitated and impalpable at times its heights reach. To be with these efforts is to swallow Klassnik’s worm, to approach Klassnik’s giant eyeball, to await the outpour of fluids and results and to process them the way we always process them: with the agonizing intention perpetuating hideous and beautiful growth and, like the speakers themselves, a drowning sense of fatigue. And it is our sense of fatigue, collective, systemic, and from the skull that weighs all of us down towards the earth. “Its face is a skull. It pulls a soft face on,” writes Klassnik (“MY WEDDING DRESS”, page 74), and with this meeting of the intimate we find the grotesque, clever and relentless as ever.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Slow-Boiling-Beach-Rauan-Klassnik/dp/1688984313

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.

 

 

 

The City of Folding Faces by Jayinee Basu

the city

By Nicole  Yurcaba

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Jayinee Basu’s The City of Folding Faces explores a multitude of themes relevant to our own current American society. Mara, the novel’s main character, is an everyperson of sorts. Her struggle as a Ruga—a subculture composed of those individuals who have uploaded themselves into a conscience-expanding system that defies human limits known as Roulette—to communicate to her non-Ruga boyfriend, Arlo, provokes the reader to think about the discrimination of transgenders in the military and the workplace as they appear in day after day in our own world. For example, at one point in the novel a news release states that “Belgium has proposed a bill banning Ruga individuals from being employed in governmental positions” (66). This ban effects Hanne, Arlo’s one-time lover and a Ruga who suppresses her dimensional dysphoria by using a nasal spray she developed, who left Belgium but eventually decides to return. More importantly, the fictional ban echoes the Trump Administration’s 2019 transgender military ban of nearly 15,000 transgender troops serving in the military, as well as the subsequent follow-ups by military academies to ban transgenders from enlistment, all of which cited gender dysphoria as a reason for the block.

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Hanne’s character in the novel opens the discussion regarding what lengths people go to in order to conceal or deny their identities, a discussion that is more and more important in American society where discriminatory public policies regarding transgenders and others of the LGBTQ+ community often force people into emotional, even mental, seclusion. Though the novel does not focus on Hanne’s struggle with her Ruga identity, it alludes to the struggle, since the reader sees Hanne utilizing a nasal spray that she developed in order to suppress her Ruga tendencies, and the reader experiences, along with Hanne, the painful effects of identity suppression. At one point, in an attempt to help Mara, Arlo asks Hanne to give him access to the nasal spray, though the spray has not been federally approved for public use, and Arlo is unaware of Hanne’s Ruga identity and her use of the spray.

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While Hanne makes the choice to return to Belgium under dangerous and hostile conditions, Mara makes the choice to undergo a radical, figure-changing surgery that modifies her face in order to express the inexpressible. The surgery, nonetheless, has consequences: Ruga are increasingly ostracized, discriminated against in the workplace, and ultimately banned from the rest of society. Mara also grapples with the loss of her relationship with her boyfriend, Arlo. Again, an informed reader might think of the Trump Administration’s transgender military ban. Theoretically, under the Administration’s ban, those transgender individuals who have already enlisted and serving can stay in the military, as long as they are out and have a diagnosis. However, many transgenders—much like the Ruga in Basu’s novel—fear promotion denial, deployment denial, or forced discharge.

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At a turning point in the novel, Mara leaves Arlo to live with not only a group of Ruga, but also the creator of Roulette, who struggled with dimensional dysphoria and desired to create a safe place for Ruga members. For awhile, it seems that Mara and Roulette’s creator will form a creator-creation romance. What happens is a shock: Mara eventually returns to Arlo, after stealing her memory files from Roulette’s creator, and Arlo becomes a character that many might see as the antithesis of American society’s attitudes towards those who choose otherness, a different or new identity, etc.: accepting, welcoming, and progressive in his attitudes: “Some people grow steadily, like a tree. Others are like volcanic rock, the accumulated sediment of serial eruptions. Arlo was an analog vine creeping along the violently digital protrusion of her existence” (98). Thus, Arlo, in one person, represents the many Americans and citizens of other nations who have opened their homes, their hearts, and their lives, to love and acceptance, such GLAAD and other local and national support groups for those who are transitioning.

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Basu’s novel is brief, sparse, and open, and the openness allows the reader to interpret and engage with the novel at superficial, metaphorical, philosophical, and even spiritual levels. The City of Folding Faces allows readers to enter a society radically similar—maybe even radically prophetic—yet different from our own, where the issues and choices those of otherness face are real and every day. The novel also implicitly asks the reader to search within themselves to find the answers to difficult questions posed by the acceptance of otherness, as depicted by Arlo’s eventual acceptance of Mara’s Ruga identity, and society’s eventual tailoring of itself to meet individual needs. At both the figurative, the personal, the universal level, The City of Folding Faces asks “What’s next?” When interpreted through the current lens of American social and political issues, The City of Folded Faces becomes a must-read for those engaged in discussions regarding identity, fluidity and even race.

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You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07PVCW7FS/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_taft_p1_i1

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Nicole Yurcaba is a Ukrainian-American poet and essayist, who teaches at Bridgewater College and serves as the Assistant Director to the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival. Her poems and essays have appeared in The Atlanta Review, The Lindenwood Review, Whiskey Island, Raven Chronicles, and many other online and print journals. While her poems often focus on Ukrainian culture and the Ukrainian diaspora experience, her essays primarily focus on US Army Special Forces. She lives in West Virginia, and she holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University.

Venusberg by Anthony Powell

venus

By Ray Greenblatt

Anthony Powell (1905-2000) is primarily known for his 12-volume series of novels A Dance to the Music of Time. It took him some twenty-five years  (1951-1975) to develop this massive work covering fifty years in the lives of his many characters. From its publication came fame, riches, and a BBC series. After reading this accomplishment, I grew curious to know what he had first written in the 1930’s.

I chose to read Venusberg (1932) to see if Powell’s style had changed over the years. Indeed it had: before the high seriousness of the Dance series, he had used comedy as his major device.

I –Characters

Since people are the mainstays of any novel, let us meet them first. Powell sometimes tosses a number of characters at the reader; however, his acuity in  defining them helps make each person memorable. Lushington, a journalist, is our protagonist. “He was a serious young man with a pink and white face who believed implicitly in eventual progress on a scientific basis although he had had Anglo-Catholic leanings in his City days.” (5) Powell sees religion as just one of the many interchangeable traits that make up a twentieth century person. “An almost absolute business inability and perhaps some hereditary flaw in his character had led him to journalism and being ambitious he hoped one of these days to become dramatic critic on a paper with a decent circulation.” (5) People seem to stumble into jobs pretty much by chance.

Lushington’s friend Da Costa, working in the Venusberg embassy, was the man Lushington was going to visit. “A dark young man with a greenish, horse-shaped face, stood beside him, also watching the sea, his mouth a little open as if at any moment he were going to laugh.” (37)”Da Costa like Lushington was shy. But whereas Lushington’s shyness took the form of creeping about rooms pretending that he was really not there at all, Da Costa’s manifested itself in shouting loud and laughing and upsetting things to counteract this feeling of personal inadequacy.” (5)

Pope, Da Costa’s butler, nearly steals the novel for his eccentricities. “Pope had an unhealthy complexion, strangely discoloured, mineral rather than flesh, and hair so fair that it was nearly white.” (38) “Pope always found difficulty in leaving a room expeditiously. Undisciplined, he gave out vitality in such wrong directions as Da Costa with enormous force.” (67) In a moment of extreme tension, “at the other end of the line Pope gobbled in a kind of ecstasy of fright and refinement, at intervals making a sort of clucking noise as he poured strings of unconnected, ingratiating words into the transmitter.” (136)

Many of the minor characters are also intriguing. Waldemar is a captain in the army and friend of Da Costa: “Waldemar, regarding him as a typical Englishman and as such prepared for the worst, was a little afraid of him. Waldemar himself was a quiet, studious young man whom circumstances rather than taste seemed to have brought to the high calling of arms. He was shy and his tunic was a great deal too tight and whenever Da Costa asked him whether or not he would eat a certain dish he always said ‘Perhaps’ as a polite method of throwing the onus on Da Costa.” (44)

Powell can also depict the nature of children well. Little Panteleimon is a five- year-old:  “Little P’s face was large and round and he stood there, leaning, with all his weight on one leg, gazing in front of him with an expression of convinced and dogged cynicism. “ (93) Then Powell goes more deeply as the mother confronts him: “Little P fixed her with his fishy wide eyes and moved away slightly, crossing one leg behind the other and pointing his toe in the First Position. He was an elderly, world-weary child dressed in the travesty of a sailor suit.” (93)

II – Humor

Already we have been getting hints of humor in the way Powell expresses himself. Some of the humor borders on pathetic often with a comic double punch line. Da Costa was going to take a job with a relative but “his relative, as it happened, retired soon after his arrival but this was due to a personal whim and was unconnected with Da Costa’s shortcomings.” (7) “He had never been in love before, except slightly with one of his first cousins, who was already engaged to a man in the Treasury.” (6) “But she was a girl who felt that life should be full of meaning and she broke with her second husband, a film producer, because he adapted one of the minor classics too freely.” (10)

Many of the people are just downright silly. The French minister’s wife: “She came from Rennes and almost all the fun she got out of life was being rude to the German minister whose surname happened to be of some international significance.” (64) Lushington has been having an affair with a German woman:

“’I do not know,’ she said. ‘Perhaps you will remember me when you see your English girl again.’

‘But you are coming back with me to England.’

‘Oh yes. I forgot.’”

Play on words is another device Powell uses effectively:

“’Woman has become her own master.’

‘And very often someone else’s mistress.’”(118)

At an embassy dinner the American minister says:” ‘Isn’t this party great? It takes you back somehow. The pictures, the armour, the old paneling. Even the dresses and the uniforms. Why we might be at the court of Catherine the Great or the Roi Soleil. Don’t you get me, Lushington? See how I mean?’

‘This sandwich takes me back further than the armour.’”(130)

And there are physical moments: “Da Costa, all legs and arms, sitting in an armchair, as if his limbs had been thrown there without arrangement.” (56) “His wife, whose immense proportions seemed as if they might at any moment evade the neo-classic creation she was wearing.” (125) “His overcoat hung on him quite loosely as if it were suspended from a hook somewhere beneath his neck.” (75) “There were two doors at the entrance, one of them so heavy that only very strong people could get into the hotel at all without help and even those who managed to push it open, unassisted by the hall porter, were often swept back into the street at the very moment when they had seemed on the point of gaining admittance.” (35) “

Other moments of humor are more sarcastic, ironic: “Her father, a captain retired from the Marines, who had lost his wife’s money by judicious investments, lived in a bungalow on the south coast with his eight children and this used sometimes to make him appear a discontented man.” (10) “The girls at the next table were not interested in Waldemar either as they and the manager were equally familiar with the rates of army pay.” (47) “The American minister, who with the help of the German leading-lady was energetically lowering his country’s prestige at the far end of the room.” (49) “Baroness Puckler, who said that in the days before the war when anarchists were an adjunct to any public function of any importance, no royalty would have dreamed of taking so much trouble to remain alive.” (87) Even a couple deaths at the end of the novel did not suppress the humor.

III – Style

Anthony Powell’s novel is only 152 pages long with 37 chapters, which averages four pages per chapter; some of those chapters are one paragraph.  These techniques blend to make the plot move quickly.  Strangely enough, the title Venusberg is never used in the book; we must conjecture that that foreign city is where men and women are searching for love.

He employs vivid participles to good effect: “A group of cavalrymen stood behind him, leaning romantically on their sabers, mopping and mowing at their friends in other parts of the hall and assisting the room’s chiaroscuro with a solid background of red breeches.” (124) He often juxtaposes opposites in one sentence to subtly demonstrate the vagaries of life: “The boat was small. It smelt of cocoanut oil and was to call at Copenhagen on the voyage.” (24) Sometimes he totally omits details, as we do in life: “’To speak of morals,’ said the host, ‘have you heard the latest story about Madame Gomez?’

It was a good one.” (71)

And Powell’s run-on sentences capture life’s awkwardnesses: “Art and letters exhausted, Pope began to roam among the litter of his personal reminiscence, exploring the cramped furtive lanes of memory, winding this way and that through the tinsel by-ways of his past, petting and cosseting his ego, warming it at the glow of innumerable self-congratulatory episodes that had, it seemed, lighted the road.” (74)

But for me metaphors are his most powerful stylistic tool, assisting to convey his humor. Regarding people, “His presence, slowly getting to work like the warming up of an engine.” (41) Lushington gets a job: “But there was a circumstance that gave to the appointment some of the tang of a stale joke, a flavour used-up but at the same time forceful and disturbing like a tune running tiresomely in his head.” (5) “She looked at Lushington under her heavy lashes and he became aware of contact with her. She dropped her eyes suddenly, like pulling down a blind with a snap.” (20) Sometimes the image becomes an abstract artistic one: “The younger one turned and looked at him too and in profile her cheek bones and long, blacked eyelashes made an angular pattern against the varnished walls of the dining room.” (18)

Things and places also come into three-dimensional focus. “This last person carried a heavy instrument as for jacking up a lorry. With this contrivance, which proved to be a survival from the early days of printing, he stamped all the passports which he considered to be in order.” (34) “The food and wine in the restaurant were like the decorations, heavy and pretentious.” (45) “Ortrud and Baroness Puckler were there wearing all their coats and scarves and standing beside a cairn of suitcases.” (33) The start of a day: “Shrill voices that jarred against the thin atmosphere of morning.” (134) The cleaning of a room: “The atmosphere, the fumes of sweat and disinfectant, was midway between an operating theatre and a corner of the monkey house.” (139) A newspaper office: “Lushington went down the stairs which were of stone like those of a prison or lunatic asylum and were, in effect, used to some considerable extent by persons of a criminal tendency or mentally deranged.” (4) “The North Sea, an engrailed tract of sheet iron, heaved a little.” (14) Whether it be metaphor or simile, the image is unique and forceful.

IV – Philosophy

Through his characters Powell has little positive to say about ocean voyages: “The sea was calm and the hard clearness of the night limited the illusion of space and accentuated the claustrophobia of sea-travel. The sea seemed shut in closely by the waves and the bright wastes of stars.” (26) “What’s she like? Well I imagine you know more about her than I do. You were almost alone with her in an open boat for several days. For all the privacy there is on those boats coming out here one might as well be on a raft.” (49)

Embassy life is constricting too: “I met one of their secretaries the other day at a tea party. We were both lodged in a corner and he thought I was an American engineer on his way out to some mines in Russia and I thought he was a French author on his way back. They have invented an entirely new form of boredom, like the worst moments of being in the boy scouts at one’s preparatory school.” (40)  “All around him was the used-up atmosphere of the end of a party.” (132)

Powell has a chance to highlight some American traits: “Lushington shook hands with Cortney who said with a conversational burr as sweet and low as the vox humana of some mighty cinema organ . . .”(43) “They give their best diplomatic posts to business men who need a rest or lawyers who have flown a bit near the wind in their own country. They send publishers to the more important capitals but the people here have to put up with smaller fry.” (41)

The view of policemen is also jaundiced: “There were two gendarmes at the entrance to the block of flats. These, stage policemen out of a knock-about farce, stopped him shaking their heads. They stood in front of the door, grunting and intransigent, making signs that he could not go in, their expressions that of highland cattle.” (137) However, death is feared and respected: “Here then was that rather astonishing mystery about which so much had been said that when the fact itself was there no further comment was possible. For the moment no near at hand formula seemed at all adequate. This was something well-defined and at the same time not easy to believe in.” (138)

Anthony Powell opened his novel with a mystical view of the city where ships somehow meld with the houses: “There were streets and houses among the docks and looking between these it seemed that ships were moored in the thoroughfares of the town itself.” (34) And he concludes: “This was the last outpost of the unreal city and, prodigally dramatic, a soldier was standing on one of the bastions of the central tower leaning on his rifle, humped out by his helmet and pack into a gargoyle against the snowy castellations and pale stars.” (146)

Anthony Powell’ A Dance to the Music of Time considers so many major areas of life: politics, the military, history, business, the arts, etc. All of this is done in a very somber manner which does not detract from its power. The earlier writings were after something else: the comic adventures of a young man. Our author succeeded in this venue as well, joining the ranks of P.G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, and the also young Aldous Huxley.

You can find the book here:  https://www.fantasticfiction.com/p/anthony-powell/venusberg.htm

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.

 

 

The Big Impossible by Edward J. Delaney

imposs

By Charles Rammelkamp

The characters in Edward J. Delaney’s stories are all trying to figure out who they are, how they fit in.  “Writer Party,” an amusing story about self-absorbed writers hobnobbing at a cocktail gathering, begins, “I’m not really a writer; it’s just that I write.” And again, in the chapter of the novella, The Big Impossible, called “Buried Men,” the narrator, who more than once observes, “I was used to being invisible,” recounts a conversation with another itinerant worker. “We know you,” the man says, “The tall guy. The one who used to work with is. The one with the leather jacket,” each statement underscoring the ultimate unknowability of any of us. Home after the cocktail party, the narrator of “Writer Party” observes in conclusion: “I keep trying to convince myself that I’m not actually a writer.”

And more often than not, at the heart of the question, who am I? is a sense of guilt. In the first story, “Clean,” narrated in the second person, the protagonist spends his whole life with the secret that he killed another boy when he was sixteen locked in his skull. How often has he wanted to confess? After years, when it looks like his companion might tell the truth, “you were giddy that the secret might come out.” As the former munchkin from The Wizard of Oz, whom the protagonist of The Big Impossible encounters in a motel in Kansas, observes, “Living like you’re comfortable with what life deals you, that’s the big impossible sometimes.”

Indeed, the protagonist of “Street View” is very uncomfortable with his origins; possibly ashamed of his social status as a child, from a broken home, he collects academic degrees and becomes a hot shot professor at Harvard, puts distance between who he is now and who he was then. He is thrown off his game by a girlfriend he meets at UCLA, Estelle, who seems to intuit his origins. When he dumps her, “Not unexpected” she said. “Because you know that I know.” Spooked, he asks her what it is she knows, and her reply: “”You know that, too.”

David, the protagonist of the story by the same name, a school shooter, always picked on by the popular kids, likewise feels “invisible,” evaluates other kids as characters in a video game. Only at the end, when he acts out with a gun at school, is arrested and put in prison, does he see that he is “not invisible any longer.” But he has been “reduced to being a single entity, the least of what he was.” He feels he’s more than the freak people take him to be, but the story ends, “he tried to imagine who he might have thought he actually was.”

Many of these stories take place in New England.  The novella House of Sully that makes up the middle section of the book and the bulk of narrative, is a first-person account from the perspective of a teenage boy in a provincial Irish Catholic family in Dorchester, Massachusetts, in the tumultuous year of 1968. Jarred is trying to come to grips with the world. Only a boy of ten when JFK was assassinated, by the time Bobby Kennedy is shot, he’s on the verge of adulthood and coming to terms with politics, Vietnam, the Prague Spring, integration (Dorchester is becoming more black), even fashion. Air-conditioning, credit cards, are new. His parents’ “incorrigible squareness.” The bell-bottom trousers that he covets and which horrify his parents are at the tender heart of this story.  His mother, a good Irish housewife, suddenly wants a job of her own and out her marriage with Sully, a self-employed house painter. In August, Jarred and his father “sat down that night to watch the Democratic Convention in a way one might have The Friday Night Fights.” Mayor Daley’s Chicago.

In the midst of these upheavals, Jarred is very much trying to understand who he is and where his destiny lies.  Should he drop out of school? He’s suddenly in the minority and what good is “education,” anyway? In a final section set in 2001, when he comes back home to bury his father, the results of his decisions in that critical year are made manifest. And the mystery of the bell-bottom trousers that he was sure his parents had stolen and destroyed is solved!

In contrast to the first two sections, the third section, the novella, The Big Impossible, takes place out west, in the plains states. The protagonist doesn’t seem so much to be trying to understand who he is as trying to forget who he was, to erase his presence, start all over. It’s 1959, and he’s headed west. “I was living my life in small cycles, the way a man crossing a tough river thinks only of the next rock to grab.”

But even he, toward the end of the narrative, in older age, settles down with the single mother of a drunken sluttish girl, with whom he “adopts” the slut’s offspring, a kid named Bitsy. “I’d learned how not to be noticed,” he observes, summing up his life thus far, “how to make myself an ignored man.”

Only, guilt plagues the nameless narrator of this novella in the end, too, inevitable as sunrise.

There is a real depth of feeling in these stories, all of which follow lives from their beginnings to their ends. “And then, in old age, the reckoning,” as he writes in “My Name is Percy Atkins.”  These stories resonate with the reader, long after putting the book down.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Big-Impossible-Novellas-Stories/dp/1885983743/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=The+Big+Impossible+by+Edward+J.+Delaney&qid=1572174333&sr=8-1

Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by Future Cycle Press.

 

Jumping Drawbridges in Technicolor by Mike James

jump

By Lynette G. Esposito

Jumping Drawbridges in Technicolor by Mike James reads like notes to a friend.  The sixty-four pages of poems are vignette paragraph stanzas that reveal an analytical mind parading images across the page for the reader to interpret.

Divided into five sections, the tome, published by Blue Horse Press of Redondo, California, covers cross dressing, body types and other observations with dry sardonic wit that pokes at traditional conventions and judgments.  On page one, My Wife’s Shoes reveals that the narrator’s wife and he can interchange their foot wear.  The poem opens with:  Thankfully, my feet are small or hers are large….  The narrator observes that his wife looks like a British banker in my wingtips and he says I clean room after room in her flats.   The image of reversing roles is successfully captured in the trading back and forth with the seemingly genderless use of the shoes while their original gender intention is kept in tact.

When one looks at the poem, Wonderland on page seventeen, James explores the metaphor of Alice and the proverbial rabbit hole.  Within the seven- line one-stanza poem, the narrator of the poem suggests some rabbit holes are meant to be covered. If all is uncovered, the poem suggests it will be no more magic than the average garbage man out there collecting his stars.  The paradox of revealing kills the magic. In Grace Jones on page nineteen, a similar theme is presented. The poem says, Smile at all the secrets you wish to possess.

James takes presumed ideas such as the association with balloons and children to present a fresh perspective.  In his poem Frank the Balloon Man on page thirty-nine, Frank loves balloons but children, not so much.
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                                Honestly, he hated children.  Hated their laughs and the miniature
                                gaps of their smiles. Hated the clutching need of their fingers.
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What Frank loved, which begins the second stanza, was balloons.
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                                What he loved were the balloons. The feel of each on his
                                 hands, on his fingers.  He loved the squeaks as he twisted
                                 shapes into intentions.
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James has successfully presented a clear understanding of the old concept of judging a book by its cover. To see Frank with the balloons, one would assume the adult was working with them to please children.  The assumption here is proven false.

James accomplishes the views of what is and what is not through his many poems that perceive the world in a realistic way.  Why should Frank love children because he loved balloons?  Why can’t a husband raid his wife’s shoe closet?

On page sixty-three, That Last Ferryman, suggests the boat ride on the river of forgetfulness.  He begins the poem:
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                                  The Ferryman’s patience is as endless as his river.
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After the narrator states the rules of the ferry, he ends the poem:
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                                   And you certainly must not look back and wave at those disappearing
                                   on the shore while shouting, “See you soon!”
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The narrator has a suggested image of crossing from one life plane to another and what it is like in a way most readers can visualize and appreciate. James successfully presents poems in a clear direct form that encourages the reader to contemplate the subtleties that lie beneath the images.  The book is a good read and worthy of reading more than once.
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You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Jumping-Drawbridges-Technicolor-Mike-James/dp/0578465817

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Lynette G. Esposito has been an Adjunct Professor at Rowan University,  Burlington County and Camden County Colleges. Her articles have appeared in the national publication, Teaching for Success; regionally in South Jersey Magazine, SJ Magazine. Delaware Valley Magazine, and her essays have appeared in Reader’s Digest and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her poetry has appeared in US1, SRN Review, The Fox Chase Review, Bindweed Magazine, Poetry Quarterly, That Literary Review, The Remembered Arts Journal, and other literary magazines.

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The Dog Seated Next to Me by Meg Pokrass

the dog

By Charles Rammelkamp

Meg Pokrass’s flash fictions are like puzzles whose pieces you have to consider individually and together, to see how it all fits, twisting the kaleidoscope to consider the patterns. Often humorous, witty, they nevertheless touch on a sadness at the heart of the human experience. But if the fictions are often searing with a sort of alienation, estrangement, loneliness, they nevertheless also hint at joy. Indeed, the epigraph to this new collection, is an apt quotation from the great Russian writer Anton Chekhov: “Even in Siberia there is happiness.”

Pokrass’ writing is always fresh with insight and image. Sentence by sentence you can never be sure where she might take you next. Take this observation from the story, “Spider”: “We humans and insects are all in the same boat, hoping for food, praying for love.” As in so many of her stories in this collection, the female protagonist of this story has fallen out of love with her husband, though she remembers how he used to make her feel safe and implicitly misses that warmth of human connection.

Or take the story, “Cured.” It begins: “He tasted like a bologna sandwich.” How can you not read on to see what that means? We learn that the man has lost his wife, is saturated with grief. “Grief was not angular, it was soft, droopy wet.” The protagonist of the story, a woman whom we understand is likewise on the rebound, wants to comfort him, with her sex, yes, but not only. Yet the task just seems too elusive, in the end. So many of the women in these stories go on dates with guys they meet at internet dating sites, almost always with sad results.  “For months she’d ignore the stabbing feeling of her recent divorce,” she writes in “Hi, Hi, Hi,” a story about a futile email relationship that’s a reaction to the protagonist’s situation.

As the title of the collection might suggest, dogs have a metaphorical potency in these stories. Indeed, all pets do; rescue animals in particular are a sort of metaphor for the discarded partners who populate the stories. Nowhere is this more stark than in the story, “The Bite,” which begins, “You didn’t know he had escaped. You thought he was a terrific dog, smitten with you….” It becomes clear (sort of) that this stray is actually a man.  (First hint is when he follows her: “If he could talk, he may have said something about the ‘view’ (meaning your ass).”) He has a wife (“his owner”) who goes ballistic when she discovers the affair.  The woman “…screamed at you, growled a death cry that would stop chopped ice. Told you that you were ruining her life.”

A similar confusion between human and canine is found in “What the Dog Thinks.” The story starts: “Today she seemed to be chasing her tail. I mean, chasing herself into a bad mood. At 11AM she was wearing her astral nightgown and her Jupiter slippers.”  What appears to the reader as a dog at first crystallizes into a human being, like a photograph in a developer tray. Later in the story, the protagonist reflects, “I’m tired of being a wife. It’s not a job I’m good at.”

Dogs are mentioned in about eighteen of these stories (cats in about 7; a blue-tongued skink, otters and parakeets, too), including a labradoodle in “In the Middle of Nowhere.” (“Sometimes she wanted to run away from her husband, but she could not live without their labradoodle, Timmy.”) In “New Dog,” the protagonist reflects on the replacement dog a man she recognizes is walking in the park; the old one has recently died. It’s not as gentle as the original dog, but “She believes that one must dispose of the past. That dogs are similar to ex-husbands. Moving on is critical.” Recently divorced, it becomes apparent that the woman is coping. “”She’s learning how to be thankful rather than grateful.”

In the eponymous story, another marriage has fallen apart, but as in many of the stories, the protagonist has not actually been able to “dispose of the past.” Indeed, she finds herself with “the man who used to want me but is now my friend.” They are sharing a salad. “He is seeing a much younger woman now, so I talk to the dog seated next to me.”

Not surprisingly, several of the women at the center of these little stories are in therapy. In the story, “Margaret Thatcher,” “You talk to your therapist about all the guys you’ve loved. You charm her, a weekly comedy act.”  Grief as performance art. In the story “Prescription,” indeed, a dog figures into the therapist plot! It begins, “The last appointment, my doctor popped the question – asked me to pet-sit and house-sit for him while he traveled to Florence.” The doctor has an arthritic dog named Jeeves. The protagonist cares for the doctor’s garden while he is away. The story ends: “Jeeves waddles out and plunks next to me to sit in the sun.”

There’s so much unspoken emotion in Meg Pokrass’s fiction. It makes talking about her work difficult because you feel like you’re missing so much in the analysis and description. Joy? The joy is in the writing itself! You have to read her book to see what I mean! And you’ll be so grateful that you did! And thankful!

You can find the book here: https://www.spdbooks.org/Products/9781949790238/the-dog-seated-next-to-me.aspx

Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by Future Cycle Press. An e-chapbook has also recently been published online Time Is on My Side (yes it is) http://poetscoop.org/manuscrip/Time%20Is%20on%20My%20Side%20FREE.pdf

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