Most Read Reviews January to June 2022
Based on readership
All the Songs We Sing – Edited by Lenard D. Moore
Contra natura by Rodolfo Hinostroza Translated by Anthony Seidman
A Poetics of the Press: Interviews with Poets, Printers, & Publishers edited by Kyle Schlesinger
Smoking the Bible by Chris Abani
A Feeling Called Heaven by Joey Yearous-Algozin
The Upright Dog by Carl Fuerst
Anvilhead by Rustin Larson
Empty Graves: Tales of the Living Dead by Jonathan Maberry
getting away with everything by Vincent Cellucci and Christopher Shipman
A Way of Looking by Jianqing Zheng
Good Reads for Winter Days
The Short Stories of Tolstaya
By Ray Greenblatt
Tatyana Tolstaya is from the noble and intellectual Tolstoy family. She was born and educated in St. Petersburg, then spent many years in the U.S. teaching. On her return to Russia she hosted a very successful interview show on TV. The first book she wrote—On the Golden Porch (1987)—is what I will write about. I found the two most outstanding characteristics were her startling imagery and raucous sense of humor.
Tolstaya has a marvelous ability to bring children alive with all their idiosyncrasies. “Flus would scream and bang at my ears, banging on red drums, surrounding me from eight sides and, swirling wildly, project a delirious film, always the same: a wooden honeycomb filling up with three-digit numbers.” (7, LOVE ME, LOVE ME NOT) She does not deny a child’s imagination: ”The children couldn’t shut their eyes at night, sitting up like white columns in their beds.” (122, DATE WITH A BIRD)
And yet, a sadness invaded them and could stay with them for life. A boy loses his grandfather: “Surfacing from the magical bottom of childhood, from the warm, radiant depths, we open our chilled fist in the cold wind—and what have we brought up with us besides sand?” (49, ON THE GOLDEN PORCH)“His soul was boiled like egg white hanging in clumps on the trees rushing toward him; sour sorrow filled his mouth.” (128, DATE WITH A BIRD) The child can also pity others: “Lord, the world is so frightening and hostile, the poor homeless, inexperienced soul huddling in the square in the night wind.” (13, LOVES ME, LOVES ME NOT)
Under the oppression of Communism no one gets away unharmed emotionally,
women and men alike. “Rimma cracked—she looked around and saw that time kept flowing on, yet the future still hadn’t arrived.” (107, FIRE AND DUST) “Life had gone and the voice of the future was singing for others.” (112, FIRE AND DUST) “Thousands of years, thousands of days, thousands of translucent impenetrable curtains fell from the heavens, thickened, turned into solid walls, blocked roads, and kept Alexandra Ernestovna from going to her beloved, lost in time.” (35, SWEET SHURA) This image says it all: “Life had shown its empty face, its matted hair and sunken eye sockets.” (113, FIRE AND DUST)
Yet, moments of joy and love do exist. “His words glistened with winy sparkle. He led her to a restaurant and the crowd parted for them, and the coat check took her raiments as if they were the magical swan feathers of a fairy bather who had come from the heavens to a small forest lake. The columns emitted a soft marble aroma, and roses floated in the dim lighting. Vassily Mikhailovich was almost young, and Isolde was like a wild silvery bird, one of a kind.” (68, THE CIRCLE) And dreams can sometimes bode good: “Sleep came, invited him into its loopholes and corridors, made dates of secret stairways, locked the doors and rebuilt familiar houses.” (179, PETERS)
But memory fails. “Only a trace of her voice in my head, incorporeal, seeming to come from the black jaws of the telephone receiver.” (141, SONYA) “Now the backs of the seated people are translucent like gauze, and with frightening speed, their laughter falls to pieces, recedes in the distance—catch it if you can.” (141, SONYA) “How restlessly the transparent, tamed shadows of our imagination scurry when the noises and smells of real life penetrate into their cool, foggy world. (22, OKKERVIL RIVER)
Again we feel depressed. “The rain, darkness, and window-bending wind reflected the white solemn face of loneliness.” (17, OKKERVIL RIVER) A person dies. “The yellow dog gently closed his eyes and left through the snowflakes up the starry ladder to the black heights, carrying away the trembling living flame.” (49, ON THE GOLDEN PORCH) “Life had begun to turn its not-good side toward Pavel.” (131, SWEET DREAMS, SON) “Peters sat with his leftovers, as immobile as a suitcase.” (189, PETERS)
Children, women, men all find life at times hopeless, destructive. And yet, some weather through it all. “Peters smiled gratefully at life—running past, indifferent, ungrateful, treacherous, mocking, meaningless, alien—marvelous, marvelous, marvelous.” (192, PETERS)
It is fairly easy for a professional author to come up with some imagery. However, not every writer can pull off humor. I feel it must be built into the nervous system. Tolstaya has that ability too. In HUNTING THE WOOLY MAMMOTH she shows it through the character of Zoya. She puts on airs: “She opened her lips only a millimeter to taste the profiteroles in chocolate sauce, pretending for some intellectual reason that it wasn’t very tasty.” (52) She poses again: “Her face was supposed to reflect the fleeting nuances of her complex spiritual life, like exquisite sadness or some refined reminiscence.” (53)
She doesn’t really love the man she is trying to capture. She hates the great out-of-doors: “Among offensively hearty strangers bawling cheerfully over their dinner made of pea concentrate.” (54) He just won’t play the game she expects him to: ”But this one comes on his own, gets up close, grazes, plucking at the grass, rubbing his side against the wall, napping in the sun, pretending to be tame. Allows himself to be milked! While the pen is open on all four sides.” (59)
What she wants is to be worshipped: “Oh, they would have sculpted her soul, her pain, all the folds of her blanket the right way, they would have sculpted her and then fixed it up on tippy top of a dizzying, lacy cathedral, at the very top, and the photo would be in close up: Zoya. Detail. Early Gothic.” (60)
In THE CIRCLE a man is married but takes his wife for granted. He sees her in a hair salon: “My God—long wires were attached to a reddened, albeit very happy head, with protruding diodes, triodes, and resistors.” (63) Women love clothes: “A cow gives birth in suffering so you can have shoes; a lamb is sheared screaming so you can warm yourself with its fleece.” (64) Women love make up: “Your pink cheeks come from boxes of flying dust, your smiles from golden containers with strawberry filling, your smooth skin from tubes of grease, your gaze from round transparent jars.” (64)
However, “you don’t pick wives: they simply appear out of nowhere by your side, and you’re struggling in fine netting, bound hand and foot; hobbled and gagged.” (65) He admits that they teach you many things but are they important. “How to clean spoons, and the comparative physiology of meatballs and patties; he knew by heart the grievously brief lifespan of sour cream.” (65) Some foods he found ugly: “In the face of annual death nature gets scared, turns around, and grows head down, giving birth in the final moments to coarse, harsh, clumsy creatures—the black dome of radish, the monstrous white nerve of horseradish, the secret potato cities.” (68)
He wants to escape. “Sometimes he wanted to be born a fiery southern youth; or a medieval alchemist; or the daughter of a millionaire; or a widow’s beloved cat; or a Persian king.” (65) Or even have an affair. “Once, dropping off sheets at the laundry, Vassily stared into the blossoming clover of cotton expanses, and noticed that the seven-digit notation sewn onto the northeast resembled a telephone number; he secretly called, and was graciously welcomed, and began a boring joyless affair with a woman named Klara.”(66)
He kept searching for the answers to life. Perhaps a Rubik’s cube: “Spent weeks twisting and twisting its creaking movable facets, until his eyes grew red, waiting in vain for the light to another universe to shine at last from the window.” (73) “He spent hours standing on his head with his legs crossed in someone’s apartment near the railroad station, between two unshaven, also upside-down engineers, and the rumble of the trains outside the house speeding into the distance shook their upraised striped socks.” (74)
Plot is limited in these stories, mostly no more than vignettes. However, the characters are 3-dimensional and varied. It is primarily the imagery that makes every page sparkle. And the humor makes us laugh at human foibles, often with tears in our eyes.
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Golden-Porch-Tatyana-Tolstaya/dp/0679728430
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. Ray Greenblatt has two books out for 2020: UNTIL THE FIRST LIGHT (Parnilis Media) and MAN IN A CROW SUIT (BookArts Press).
This is How He Learned to Love: Stories by Randall Brown
By Thaddeus Rutkowski
The very brief stories in this collection by the founder of Matter Press are related by theme (many focus on family relationships) and by their consistently surprising points of view. Randall Brown’s poetic descriptions of ordinary occurrences are juiced up, squeezed together, and laid out in passages that open one’s mind to what might otherwise have gone unnoticed. Even the book’s cover art reflects this magnified approach: Over a blank-beige background, we see the enlarged, almost abstract head of a grasshopper or praying mantis whose eye pupils point in different directions.
In the micro story “Deliberately,” near the beginning of the book, the main character (a boy) finds a relic in the ground: a cone-topped beer can. The odd-shaped can provides a link to the past, when the boy’s mother, as a teenager, might have buried the can in the ground as “a time capsule.” Was the boy’s mother a drinker? Possibly. In the present, the boy becomes aware of “a pen of guinea pigs left out in the sun.” Do the neglected pets have anything to do with the lost beer can, with the boy himself? The boy’s mother denies responsibility, but it is implied that she should have watched the animals—and perhaps the boy himself. All of this comes in a “story” that is about eighty-five words long.
If there is a narrative arc in this book, it follows the protagonists/narrators as they move from childhood to adulthood. In “A Slight Adjective Used to Describe a Sound,” the main character has a wife and a daughter, and teaches online. (The piece is prescient in that many college teachers lecture online in these days of quarantine.) The husband/father/teacher goes away to “the sea” for a few days. Here, the main issue arises: Why does Robert Frost characterize the din of waves as “misty” in the line “The shattered waves made a misty din”? (The line comes from the poem “Once by the Pacific,” which is not named here.) The waves, the protagonist thinks, “not the din, should be misty.” The piece ends with an encounter with an unidentified woman who talks to the man, then throws her lit cigar into the water, where supposedly it will make a “rusty sizzle.” The story ends as the mystery of another “misty din,” that of the doused cigar, is about to unravel.
Most of the thirty-seven stories in this collection, which was first runner-up in Sonder Press’s chapbook contest, are less than a page long. But as a result of the interior design (where all pieces start on a right-hand page), the book is ninety-two pages long. This Is How He Learned to Love could be a quick read, but I recommend lingering over the stories. Rereading brings the rewards of discovering new meanings below the chiseled surfaces.
You can find the book here: www.thesonderpress.com
Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of seven books, most recently Tricks of Light, a poetry collection. His novel Haywire won the Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s members’ choice award, and his memoir Guess and Check won an Electronic Literature award for multicultural fiction. He teaches at Medgar Evers College and received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.
Winter Honeymoon by Jacob M. Appel
You can find the book here: Winter Honeymoon | BLP
I Have The Answer by Kelly Fordon
By Laura Hulthen Thomas
The title of Kelly Fordon’s new short story collection confidently asserts I Have the Answer, but these thirteen sparkling, insightful stories answer intimate conundrums about love, identity and relationships with ever more complicated questions. Teens on the cusp of adulthood grapple with phantom limbs and the true meaning of exorcism and faith. Vanished husbands, re-imagined as pale imitations of the men they once were, provoke their partners’ scrutiny rather than closure. To their skeptics’ surprise, “crazy” characters who claim to have all the answers actually prove they do. As characters seek peace and acceptance in offbeat, unexpected ways, Fordon reveals that finding the answer more often means asking the right question.
Learning to ask questions rather than live with dead-end answers drives many of the stories’ plots. In the collection’s opening story, “The Shorebirds and the Shaman,” an affluent freelance designer battles a self-imposed isolation after her husband’s untimely death. Fordon deftly choreographs Corinne’s rage and loneliness into humorous moments that pick at her wounds before healing them. When a friend tricks her into attending a weekend of New Age therapy, Corinne’s emotional journey from outrage and skepticism at a shaman’s dubious medium act is both funny and heart-wrenching. The story ends with Corrine’s moving repossession of her life, not by burying her dead, but imagining her husband resurrected through the therapeutic group role play she’d dismissed: “Whatever they’d had…It was worth study.” Corinne’s recovery from acute grief is like the reluctant migration of the Lake Erie shorebirds she and her husband once studied: “It’s the fact that they can’t see across that stymies them…It literally stops them in their tracks until they’re so cold they have no choice but to brave it.”
Some of Fordon’s characters don’t seek to question their lives so much as find a way to tell a different story about both the past and the future. In “Jungle Life,” a young man repeatedly interviews his Alzheimer’s-stricken father about a buddy’s fate during a WWII recon mission, only to hear a new version every time. As the son wonders which version is true, he also comes to realize that picking the truth is more his own choice than his father’s. In “Get a Grip,” an architect whose her husband leaves her for another woman is visited, or rather crashed, by her crazy neighbor. Mary Keane, the neighbor, imagines a coffee klatch with Maura’s husband Howard, Oprah and Thomas Jefferson. “Are we going to participate in the politics of cynicism or the politics of hope?” Mary Keane demands of Maura, who hadn’t yet known she’d been struggling to answer this very question. This comic resurrection echoes the plot of the collections’ first story, but while Corrinne’s role-play revealed what was eternal about her marriage, seeing Howard in the company of his betters prompts Maura to remember that his complaints about her faults had long hidden her desperate wish for him to leave. When Mary Keane pantomimes throwing the imaginary Howard out of her house, Maura holds the door wide open.
Who tells the story, and which version of the truth they offer, are beautifully examined in “Devil’s Proof,” when a Catholic school teen’s fear of Satanic possession collides with her coming of age questions about sex, love, and danger. When Marie learns that the 70s cult classic “The Exorcist” was based on a true story, she worries over the film, which was shot in Georgetown, her home: “I’d grown up with a Catholic fear of the devil, but I had no idea that he could just decide to lodge inside a person against her will.” Her father’s comment that he believes devil possession is “very rare” strikes her as less of a reassurance than a comment on her parents’ fraying marriage. Seeping through the story’s wry, muted humor is a sobering contemplation of the various ways places and people have possessed and are still possessing others. Fordon expertly uses rich details of an historic Georgetown school campus to suggest the conundrums of privilege: “The (Senior) Lodge… was rumored to have sheltered runaway slaves during the Civil War. The leaded glass windows still sported names and dates (the earliest: 1802) etched into the panes with former students’ engagement ring diamonds.” Fordon leaves it to the reader to question whether the names etched with diamonds would use their status to protect, or to oppress. Later in the story, an ambiguous sexual encounter poses more brutal questions about the true meaning of permission and desire, and whether consent is arbitrated by the devil outside of us, or within us.
Throughout the collection, Fordon’s sly humor about middle-class perks—Costco, grocery delivery services, trendy psychotherapy, binge shopping—bind together the women who both rue and rely upon these props. In “Tell Them I’m Happy Now,” a mother of three young kids proves her dedication to home and hearth through hectic renovations and redecorations, including painting her daughter’s bathroom a garish Barbie-pink, complete with a Barbie mural staring down the toilet. Crazy neighbor May Keane proclaims that her mother “…went to the land of Costco, where all of her dreams come true.” These women’s devotion to the comforting, if blinding, pursuit of privilege is comic, but not played for laughs. Fordon neither judges nor questions these material quests and coping mechanisms, but allows the women’s shared experiences of grief, loss, and love to wade through their stuff. With humor, wisdom, and a dash of crazy-making, Fordon’s deft, lyrical writing and gentle yet pointed comedy create endearing, realistic characters looking for the very answers the reader hopes to find.
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0814347525/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i0
Laura Hulthen Thomas heads the undergraduate creative writing program at the University of Michigan’s Residential College, where she teaches fiction and nonfiction. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in Witness, Epiphany, The Cimarron Review, and many other literary journals. Her short story collection, STATES OF MOTION was a finalist for a Foreword Reviews Indie Award.
The Middle Ground by Jeff Ewing
By Charles Rammelkamp
The characters in the nineteen stories that make up Jeff Ewing’s new collection, The Middle Ground, all seem to be trying to come to terms with bleak realities for which they bear some responsibility but whose fuzzy dimensions go way beyond their grasp. Indeed, as the story “Coast Starlight” begins: “Clifford could have been anyone, though no one from around here.”
In the story, Clifford, who may be a con man after all, fills a waitress’s mind with fantasies of movie stardom. Elena. Elena’s daughter asks her, “Don’t you wish something exciting would happen to you just once?” Elena remembers Clifford, then. Elena is married to the dull but reliable Matias. When she makes an impulsive trip to Los Angeles (aboard a train called the Coast Starlight) in a half-baked plan to pursue the dream of stardom, only to return to the stoic but forgiving Matias, you’d think there might be a moral here, like something out of The Wizard of Oz. “No place like home.” But no, at the end Elena, if somehow wiser, is still indecisive, hovering ghost-like in the middle ground.
What is the middle ground? In the eponymous story, another one in which a parent and child clash over dreams, Ewing writes of the son, “He was one of those who can’t think any further than the negation of things. No nuance, no middle ground.” In the middle ground there are no clear answers to the situations people find themselves in. Maybe this, maybe that. Some of this, some of that.
Indeed, several of the characters in these stories deal with an unexpected celebrity that seems to shine a light on their lives, but only in a confused and upsetting way. The little girl Anna in “Lake Mary Jane” who is bitten by an alligator while she is swimming becomes a fleeting figure of interest, and she is forced to consider events in a new light. “When the gator had bit down, it was just a thing that was happening to her.” Then come the doctors, the reporters. Her dad and a character named Emily (mother? sister?) react in complicated ways. Finally, somebody shoots a gator in the lake they claim was the one that bit Anna. But her reaction? “All she knew was it had left its mark on her, which is what love does.”
In the first story, “Tule Fog,” the narrator remembers his high school girlfriend Lisa who became a celebrity of her own, giving motivational speeches, selling books and DVDs, on the subject of “Moving On.” She clearly moved on from the narrator, who feels stuck in his bleak California town where “no one anywhere, not even the dead, will wish they were here.” It should be noted that Lisa dies in an airplane accident near Lake Tahoe. “It took over a year for the wreckage to be discovered….”
Similarly, in “Coast Starlight,” as she’s finishing her shift at the diner, Elena comes upon another waitress, Shelly, flipping through a National Enquirer and, “tsking and shaking her head” at the shenanigans of the dubious famous people whose shenanigans are detailed in the scandal sheet.
“These people got everything you could want, and nine times out of ten they piss it away,” she said.
Elena asks her coworker, “You think it’s different here?”
“Jesus, yes. Are you kidding? Nobody’s got anything to piss away.”
It’s strange and perplexing how right there in the middle ground where nothing is clearly one thing or another how events will make you feel your insignificance. And certainly this seems to be the great challenge for so many of the characters in these stories, this urge for a meaning to one’s life. The very title of the final story in this collection, “Hiddenfolk,” gives a hint to the great trials most of these characters face. “Dick Fleming is Lost” gives another, a story in which the protagonist, George, becomes obsessed with the whereabouts of a former classmate, who has gone missing. “Maybe Dick Fleming would be found,” the story concludes, “and maybe he wouldn’t. Either way he was no longer alone.”
The stories in The Middle Ground are bleak but thought-provoking and end with the same ambiguity with which they begin, though indeed there is always a kind of resolution. Nothing ever quite ends “happily ever after,” but the characters all reach a kind of self-understanding that makes their destinies easier to accept.
You can find the book here:
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore, where he lives, and Reviews Editor for Adirondack Review. His most recent books include American Zeitgeist(Apprentice House) and a chapbook, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts ( Main Street Rag Press). Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, is forthcoming from Future Cycle Press.