Book Review: Without a Net by Ana Maria Shua

Reviewed by Noah Gup

The circus is a place of both wonder and terror; the audience is simultaneously amazed and frightened by the performances. We hold our breath while the trapeze artist flips through the air and gasp in amazement when the lion tamer sticks his head in his beast’s mouth. In the circus, humans can fly, and animals walk on their hind legs. The rules of reality are bent. Ana Maria Shua displays the innate surrealism of the circus in her newest collection Without a Net (Hanging Loose Press 2012, translated crisply by Steven J. Stewart). In her book, Shua addresses nearly every aspect of the circus, using it as both a metaphor and a springboard. Despite the varying content and sheer volume of her stories, Shua’s collection displays and expands upon the quirkiness of the circus, while ultimately transcending its subject matter to create a universally appealing book.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of Shua’s book is its format. She writes self-described “microfiction,” or hyper-short stories no longer than half-a-page. Some display characteristics of science fiction, while others are historical tales of real-life circus performers. Yet the current that travels through all of Shua’s fiction is the magic realism of fellow South American authors. Like Marquez and Cortázar, her stories are dreamy and often surreal, bouncing from ancient Rome to far in the future. The shortness of her stories allow for Shua to deviate from the classic rules of fiction, crafting work that often resemble prose poetry.

Shua’s best stories are microcosms of our world distorted through a funhouse mirror, both tangible and giddily bizarre. In “Naumachias and Pantomimes,” Shua begins by describing the Roman practice of condemning criminals to death by reenacting fights, eventually connecting this show to the modern spectacle of war. “Flyers and Catchers,” a story of seven sentences, manages to be both personal and profound, where circus performers are only the jump off point. The two-part “Gautulians and Pachyderms,” while not directly referencing the circus, conveys the sadness of animals tortured into performing and the bond between animals and man. And “My Dream Circus” is breathtaking with its minimal romanticism and is a perfect example of this style:

There are no drunken clowns nor horseback riders, there’s no animal tamer nor submissive tiger, no gypsy making a bear dance ballet, no knife thrower or death-defying assistant, no acrobats, no trapeze artist, no candy venders, no jugglers, there are no dwarves, no big top, no banners no gentle elephants, no magician with lightning fingers. Just you and I are there. And they clap for us.

Within Shua’s condensed prose, there is no room for literary flourishes. However, there is elegant, unadorned beauty to this simplicity.

Removed from its unique style, Without a Net provides an interesting perspective into the history of the circus. The book is meticulously researched and full of true-to-life details. The lives of real performers, whose stories are strange enough to be fiction, add authenticity to Shua’s depiction. Even more, the author often blurs the line between reality and fiction, using historical performers but twisting their stories to unrealistic ends. This mirrors the fantastic world of the circus, where the impossible becomes real. However, it is occasionally frustrating to parse through what is factual and what is fictionalized.

With over one hundred stories in her book, Shua’s collection can be an exhausting read. Despite individually engaging stories, their brevity constantly forces the reader to shift focus, and I found myself wishing some stories could be expanded upon. Even more, not all stories can stand independent of the collection. One template that Shua utilizes in several stories is beginning with actual details from circus history but adding a strange, absurd twist at the end. This structure, instead of containing the thematic complexity of her finest work, resembles an awkward, wordy joke. While these eye-rollers could be a nod to the vaudeville days of circus performances, they pale in comparison to Shua’s more profound stories.

Despite the quality of individual stories, Shua manages to make a collection that is both cohesive holistically and immediately satisfying. Without a Net is Shua’s eighth collection of microfiction, and one can only hope the Argentinian author continues to write more of these beautiful, bizarre, little gems. Like the conjurors and clowns described in her collection, Shua entertains and tricks the reader with her twisting fiction. But after leaving the surreal funhouse of her writing, the details of her stories and their concentrated emotions are impossible to shake. Shua writes small, simple pieces that are as powerful as novels. That, in and of itself, is a kind of magic.

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The 400-pound Nutritionist

by Jim Danger Coppoc

I have a friend. One of those friends. The type who goes to parties intent on sharing her personal life with anyone who will listen, hoping to get some sort of support/advice/sympathy. She’s tragic and gorgeous, so of course a good chunk of the party is always willing to comply.

I can remember clearly a night a couple years ago when this friend holed up in the far corner of a backyard barbeque with a self-proclaimed “nutritionist,” and listened intently for most of an hour to piece after piece of diet advice from this almost total stranger.

This almost 400 pound total stranger.

To be clear, I am a large person myself. 263 pounds. Hypertension. Fatty liver. Cheeseburgers in every artery. I am the last guy anybody should ever go to for diet advice—and that’s my point.

I have friends who take diet advice from fat people, financial advice from broke people, and life advice from the chronically unhappy, and none of it has ever made any sense to me. If I ever start telling you my ten best tips to lose weight and feel great, walk away. There’s nothing I could say that you should trust.

It is the same way with poetry.

Workshop after workshop, chatroom after chatroom, conference after conference—experience tells me that it is the loudest voices and flashiest personas that get listened to, and the shy poet in the corner who is writing some of the most exciting work of our time never seems to get heard at all.

So my project this month was to try to upend that. Instead of going to the magazines and websites and other usual sources for advice on how to be a better poet, I went straight to the source. I spoke to a couple of the best poets I know—people I want to write and be more like—and did my best to listen to what they have to say. I’d encourage you to check out both of these poets yourself—if you like what they write, maybe you’ll find something useful in what they have to say about writing.

First, National Book Award finalist Patricia Smith, whom I love both for her musicality and for her fierce openness dealing with really difficult subject matter time and time again:

I’d say never settle for the language as it is presented to you. Writers often make the mistake of assuming that we’re all working from the same canvas–but a good part of the joy in writing poetry is tweaking, reshaping, inventing, learning rules (prosody–absolutely necessary) in order to shatter them in gleeful and blatantly sinful ways. If the word you need doesn’t exist, create it! That’s a way of stamping a signature on your work. Your goal should be having a reader recognize your work, whether or not your name is on it. For that to happen, you’ve got to wrangle language and make it your bitch! (Did I just say that?)

Next, Pushcart Prize winning poet Matt Mason, whom I love for his humor, his theatricality, and his ability to take on even the deepest subjects with warmth and gentleness that completely disarm his audience:

I would tell the developing poet: don’t try and write poems to match what you think poetry, as established, is. Imagine what you wish poetry was and write that.

I say this as after college I wanted to keep learning about poetry so would go to book stores and pick up this and that award-winning poetry book and find myself disliking every one. Seeing this, I had a long time wondering if what I was writing was poetry. Fortunately, I kept writing it and, when I heard Galway Kinnell, award winning and established poet, read “Oatmeal,” finally heard a “big” poet read a poem I wish I’d written, so maybe what I was writing WAS poetry.

Well, hopefully it is, at least…

These people are my heroes. If there is anyone on the planet I need to learn from, it’s them, and now here in this blog research I have the thumbnail versions of exactly how these people approach poetry and the poet’s life. If there is any advice anywhere I can trust to help make me better at what I do, it is this.

So now to you. Who are your heroes? Who are your 400 lb nutritionists? Who should you be listening to, and whom should you take with a grain of salt?

There’s a whole world of good, useful and trustable knowledge and experience out there, just waiting for us. It’s about time we dove in…

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Directives from Downtown

By Publius

The following directives have come from the head office, known to all of us simply as “downtown”.

1. Downtown has mandated that 70% of all English lessons involve the teaching of non-fiction.

2. We are not to use our textbooks for the teaching of non-fiction. We are to xerox everything.

3. We need to cut back on xeroxing. Thus, we are given only one ream of paper per month. The two broken xerox machines will not be fixed.

4. We are to prepare an extensive semester pre-test. When I review the directions, I estimate that mine will be fifty pages. No one is to collaborate. Each test is to be individually prepared. All tests must be pegged to state standards. The state standards are things like, “The students will write in Standard English.” Nonetheless, each item in our test is to contain a justification of, for example, why I want my students to master Standard English.

5. We are to have a “word wall”, vocabulary words that we put up on our wall.

6. We are to prepare to have our walls painted.

7. The “company snitch”, our academic consultant, tells us that she will visit each class, following which she’d “like twenty minutes of our time” for a follow-up consultation. One year, she visited my class 38 times in one semester. Think about it. 38 X 20 = you count the hours.

8. I’m to attend an all-day meeting on Saturday, this to discuss how to teach college level courses offered in the high school. I mentioned to the downtown poohbah that I taught college, as an adjunct professor, for twenty-plus years. She just stared at me like I’d handed her my bowtie and asked for change.

9. I am to give individualized instruction to each of my 150 students, a third of whom are reading below grade-level, a quarter of whom have been speaking English for approximately an hour and forty-five minutes.

10. We may give a state test. Or not. But we are to prepare for both.

11. The art department was told to ignore all the directives this year, because that department is not involved in the state test, and, therefore, is not important.

12. The French and Spanish teachers have been laid off, because “Those aren’t important languages.” This from a principal who goes on to remind us to beautify our rooms with “decorums”, the same guy who periodically addresses the “freshmens”.

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Dance Review: Texture Contemporary Ballet In ‘Perpetual Motion’

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Texture Contemporary Ballet is just two years young, and the company is already taking huge balletic steps. They have impressed the local dance scene, but have been noticed nationally as well. The Jacob’s Pillow Inside/Out Festival in Massachusetts will host the company as one of only a few groups from Pittsburgh.

In fact, hot off their latest performance at the New Hazlett Theater, the group is set to hit the world renowned festival this Friday.

“Perpetual Motion” ran for four consecutive shows over the weekend and featured four world premieres. The choreography was mostly split between Alan Obuzor (Artistic Director), Kelsey Bartman (Associate Artistic Director) and Gabriel Gaffney Smith (Dancer and Composer for the group).

In the first piece, “Mulberry Way,” more than ten dancers took the stage. In Part 1, the large group showed off their classical and contemporary skills, blurring the lines between genres.

Using a more melancholy sound by the rock band, Elbow, the following two sections slowed down, and had a more emotional component. In a lovely trio (Part 2), Amanda Summers moved through two doors and between two partners with beautiful technique and a relatable lack of clarity.

Part 3 featured a quartet of difficult partnering that was both inventive and emotive. To close the piece, the entire group entered for a playful section that ended on a deeply satisfying note.

“Wash” was the second dance on the program, a duet between Bartman and Smith and music by Bon Iver. The two moved smoothly in and out of the floor, alternating between quick and sharp to slow and sweeping dynamics. Their relationship had believable tension.

The third piece, “Broken Mirror,” was the highlight of the evening. With solid choreography reminiscent of the late great Merce Cunningham, the large cast used walking patterns to transition in and out of movement phrases. The dance had a slow build that crescendoed near the end and eventually subsided into the subtle partnering and solo movements of the beginning. In its simplicity, the audience was lulled into a mesmerized state.

The program ended on a high note with live music by Meeting of Important People. Although the piece, “MOIP,” went on a bit too long, the dancers’ energy was infectious. Some parts had humor that required acting and more jazzy technique. Some parts were downright contemporary, practically non-balletic, and proved the span of each performer’s experience.

Mostly, though, “MOIP” was a celebration of movement that ended with an elated fall to the floor and quick blackout. The dance was a testament to the energy of Texture and their staying power among the city’s finest dance companies.

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Unsolicited Advice

by Nola Garrett

I like riding Pittsburgh’s T. I especially like riding it on Steelers’ game days late Sunday mornings when the cars are packed with anticipation and good will. I’ve heard Steeler jersey-clad fans welcome opposing jersey-clad fans to Pittsburgh, give them directions, suggest good places to eat, and even wish their team good luck. Makes me feel good about living here. So, last fall I was unprepared for the squat, middle-aged guy wearing a leather-sleeved Steelers’ jacket standing near the car door when he shouted “Don’t you believe in Pittsburgh’s laws?” at two teenage boys wearing Steelers jerseys.

The entire packed car fell silent. One of the boys lifted his beer can, took a defiant sip. The other boy lowered his beer can to his thigh.

“Drinking alcohol on a train car is illegal! Don’t you respect Pittsburgh’s laws?” shouted the middle-aged guy.

The boys turned away from him. The beer sipper clutched his can to his chest.

More Steeler silence ensued, broken by the leather-sleeved guy’s taunt, “Try drinking beer on D. C.’s Metro! Down there, see how quick you get arrested!”

Just then, The T arrived at the Wood Street Station, three stops away from Heinz Field. Neither boy moved.

The doors opened, and the middle-aged guy leaned down to the small speaker phone mounted on the doorway pole. He pushed the green talk button, shouted “There’s two teen age boys drinking beer on this car!”

A couple of new riders squeezed through the door into the car’s ongoing silence. The two boys looked at each other, and as the doors started to close, clutching their beer cans they scrambled out past the middle-aged guy to the platform. The train began moving and so did the Steelers’ fans’ now ordinary, noisy anticipation.

&

I’m just back this hot June Monday morning from buying a half gallon of skim milk at Rite Aid. As I walked home by way of the Gateway T Station that always reminds me of the Paris Louvre’s controversial glass domed Annex, I passed the Faith Gallo Memorial Garden: two concrete, boat shaped planters that have gone untended for more than a year. Faith’s planters were in full bloom with common wild flowers! So, out of my purse I fished my travel scissors to cut myself a bundle of Queen Anne’s lace, Oxford ragwort, and teasel—the Marilyn Monroe of thistles that compliments any bouquet, dried or fresh.

Of course, my theft failed to go unnoticed by three 20 something, tattooed, cigarette smoking, summer-clad women standing nearby.

“Hey, Lady! Them ain’t flowers. Those are weeds!”

“No, they’re flowers,” I righteously responded.

“Lady! Those are weeds!”

“Depends on how you define flowers.”

I kept cutting a few more strands of bright yellow ragwort, then grinning I finished my walk home to a nearby building to arrange in a crystal vase my bouquet.

And, I’m still parsing the irony of one woman’s parting sotto words—“Her elevator doesn’t make it all the way to the top floor.”—here where I dwell on the 7th floor at the cheap end of a 27 storey condominium with a view of Mt. Washington’s spired church and the Allegheny River’s golden bridges, straining to hold us all together here in Pittsburgh.

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Ode to My Son’s Audiobooks

by Dawn Potter

My younger son, Paul, is an eighth grader at Harmony Elementary School, a down-at-heels K–8 building in rural central Maine that houses about ninety students and a handful of underpaid staff members. So a few weeks ago, when he carelessly remarked, as he was pacing around the kitchen gobbling a pastrami sandwich, “You know, Mom, I think my writing style is most influenced by Dickens and Twain,” I stifled a laugh. Not much Dickens gets read at Harmony Elementary School. Yet with a second sandwich in hand, he continued to chatter on, cogently discussing the novelists’ variable syntax and sentence strategies, their interest in the minutiae of dialogue, his own dependence on hearing the sound of a sentence rhythm before knowing what he was going to write, and on, and on.

My hands buried in bread dough, I turned to gape at him. This boy, devourer of every teen dystopian novel that comes down the pike, not to mention The Comic Book History of the Universe and all of John Tunis’s 1940s baseball novels, was speaking of Dickens and Twain as if the sounds of their sentences were a part of his own brain structure, his own progressions of thought. Yet he had never read their books. What he had done was buy recordings of them from iTunes and then listen to them again and again and again.

“Read to your children!” tout the school-library posters; and, indeed, as long as your kids remain literary naïfs, reading aloud is a reasonably good way to lure them into books. Although five hundred consecutive performances of Good Night, Moon can drive a tired father to near-insanity, repetition is what children long for: they need to hear the same words over and over again; and if that comatose parent happens to mumble “fork” instead of “spoon,” his toddler will give him an earful. But as my husband and I soon discovered, a daily read-aloud menu of mediocre children’s literature was rotting our cerebella. And if it was softening our brains, how could it be really be nourishing our children’s?

Herein lies the problem: listening to literature over and over again is invaluable for growing minds of every age, but listening to stupid literature over and over is analogous to existing on a diet of Doritos. Of course Doritos have their charms, just as a certain amount of stupid literature can be tonic and invigorating. For instance, even though my ear finds the dialogue of the Harry Potter novels excruciating (“Harry, don’t go picking a row with Malfoy, don’t forget, he’s a prefect now, he could make life difficult for you. . . . ” “Wow, I wonder what it’d be like to have a difficult life?” said Harry sarcastically), it thinks that the dialogue of the Hardy Boys’ novels is hilarious. (Meanwhile, Biff had untied Chet. The heavyset teen had slumped to the ground in a dead faint. “Out cold,” Frank said. . . . Chet opened his eyes and blinked. “I’m alive!” he exclaimed. “Thanks, guys.”) But how would I know the difference if I hadn’t read both? The issue, then, isn’t having a reading diet that includes third-rate literature but the importance of developing a close familiarity with complex and various writing styles—of gaining an intense familiarity with their sounds, patterns, shifts, and surprises of language, character, structure, and theme—and learning to ask conscious and unconscious questions about those elements.

My children were not reading prodigies. Although they were always at the top of their primary-grade reading classes, they, like most of their peers, struggled with the exhaustions of decoding multisyllable words and tracking syntactically complex sentences. Yet their ears could comprehend those words and sentences—and they were eager to hear them. As their before-bedtime reader, I could not keep pace with their intense interest in stories—particularly Paul’s enthusiasm for repetition. Thus, I latched onto recorded books as a way to keep him not only engaged in complicated tales but also gainfully distracted from me.

I wasn’t altogether comfortable about taking this route. Those pedantic library posters had convinced me that I was probably a bad parent because I would do almost anything to be allowed to read silently to myself rather than aloud to my children. Moreover, I myself had zero interest in listening to audiobooks. I needed my own imagination to invent the sounds of my favorite characters; I didn’t want to poison them with someone else’s voiceover.

If, in the years of my callow new-parenthood, someone had claimed that listening over and over to a recording of David Copperfield would count as rereading David Copperfield, I would have crankily shouted, “No!” Yet the enormous impact of aural repetition on my son’s reading and writing skills has forced me to retract that reactionary shout once and for all. No, Paul hasn’t learned to love sentences in the same way that I learned to love them. If anything, he’s been luckier. When I was fourteen years old, my Dickens adoration was focused entirely on character and plot: it never occurred to me to listen to how the writer had invented them. In other words, I was learning Dickens by eye, whereas my son is learning Dickens by ear. What’s taken me till middle age to absorb he has absorbed before starting high school.

But a comprehension of sentence craft is not the only gift these books have given him. One day, when he was about nine years old, after a long afternoon spent sorting baseball cards and listening to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, my son walked into the kitchen and said, “Mom, I don’t understand something. How come Jim has to do what Huck says, even though Jim is the grown-up?”

When a rural fourth grader in one of the whitest states in America is able to pinpoint, with a single, wide-eyed question, a central theme not only of Twain’s great, complex, ambiguous novel but also of our national history, of the terrible immoralities embedded in the human condition, then technology has done the author an immeasurable service. For it has helped my young child to learn, in the words of essayist John Berger, that “the boon of language is not tenderness. All that it holds, it holds with exactitude and without pity. Even a term of endearment: the term is impartial; the context is all. The boon of language is that potentially it is complete, it has the potentiality of holding with words the totality of human experience. Everything that has occurred and everything that may occur. It even allows space for the unspeakable.”

If it takes an iPod to deliver that message to our children, then so be it.

[first published in the Sewanee Review, fall 2012]

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Book Review: Big Ray

Big Ray
By Michael Kimball
Bloomsbury, 185 pages, $23, ISBN: 978-1-60819-854-2

Reviewed by Barrett Warner

Most metaphors weigh a few ounces. Big Ray weighs five hundred pounds. He isn’t the sort of metaphor that fits through a window. Think grand piano. And we’re talking dead weight, not live weight, so right away we know that all of Michael Kimball’s skills—his deft handling of gesture—aren’t going to be much help as he walks and drags and pushes the big refrigerator across nearly two hundred hysterically sad pages. Kimball does the heavy lifting, but don’t just sit there, help him! I did my part by making sound effects. Grunts and groans and gasps.

It’s amazing the author found the ends of some paragraphs. It’s amazing this story ever got told. When the book was released last September Kimball gave plenty of interviews, explaining the Rick Moody-like trans genre—half-memoir, half- roman a clef. Kimball doesn’t just write close to the wound. He does a cannonball off the high dive. Once he’s in the pool of old scars we see him doing an Esther Williams backstroke so precise the saltine cracker balanced on his forehead never gets soggy.

Big Ray is a predatory glutton. While I like to believe that every effect has at least two causes, Big Ray’s past is one of those that just sort of happens. His death unlocks the grief and memory of his son who tells the story. Although he died seven years ago, the story is told as if it had only happened a few pages before the book’s beginning. The son is still preoccupied with its details and logistics this long after.

My heart leaps up when I behold, some say. Those afraid to leap tend to have a lack of faith. It’s the landing—not the jump—that worries them. The son has a persistent not-knowingness—even the first sentence of this book contains the hedging word probably. He doesn’t know how old his father was when he died: “I can’t be exactly sure because my father had been dead for a few days before anybody found him…probably five days.”

The son’s way of grasping what he cannot understand is to learn the order of things, as if knowing all the minutes could make an irrational hour seem comprehensible. This book is an obsession on chronology. When he’s confused the son repeats what he knows and starts over, trying to find the connections between abstract effects and concrete causes. This is why, although he has his own life, a marriage, the world of a different city, the son is still a very young adult in spite of being his thirties. He knows what he feels, the physical reactions to his emotions, without knowing what those emotions are even seven years later.

As a witness, the narrator is unreliable because he seems so unformed, but we’re drawn into his experience by his methodical openness, his deadpan, his tone of Oh well, someone had to have their life destroyed. The fact that he seems to have so little agency for his own life is charming. Haven’t we all shrugged at life? Isn’t that why we cry when no one is looking? The son says in the early going: “For most of my life, I have been afraid of my father. After he died, I was afraid to be a person without a father, but I also felt relieved he was dead. Everything about my father seemed complicated like that.”

Kimball’s willingness to engage the idea he’s created, to flesh out the metaphor, gives each of us a craft workshop in describing things which there are no words for. He doesn’t settle for calling his dad a fat monster, but rather, like Sexton “wondrously tunneling” into her own beasts, Kimball focuses on logistics. The way Big Ray sat in his truck sideways in order to drive, only able to make right turns. The way he sits on the floor because nothing can hold him. The way he pees all over the bathroom because he can neither see his penis nor the commode. In one old photograph of Big Ray in fifth grade “He’s trying to smile, but it looks like he hasn’t learned how.” Our rational mind doesn’t want to believe in the father, but our practical mind cannot not believe in him.

While the father becomes more real, more alive, in every chapter, the son is completely open about how pathetic his upbringing is. He doesn’t have any judgments to put on his dad’s head. The son seems nonplussed about missing out on a world that excited the rest of us. My buddy Rachel talks about that special age of boys who are carrying toy guns in one hand and teddy bears in the other. Big Ray’s son skipped that part of life. The world is just something to walk through—to endure—for the molested speaker. In one instance, the father’s inability to deal with his childhood wounds—his own father shooting and drowning all of the cats—contrasts mightily with the son’s trying explicitly to deal with the old hurts centering on his father:

That story was why, when I was growing up, I wasn’t allowed to have a cat. That was why I also wasn’t allowed to have a dog or any other kind of pet—no matter how many times I asked. As some kind of shiny consolation, my parents would buy me glossy photobooks of cats and dogs for my birthdays and Christmas. Sometimes, when I was feeling particularly lonely, I would pull one of the glossy photobooks down from the bookshelf in my bedroom and start naming the cats or the dogs.

The phenomenologists—if they exist—are not always right Kimball seems to be saying. We don’t know if something matters just because we can name it. We’re not even scratching the surface, because living isn’t only about the concepts. It can help us when we’re lonely, but no amount of drinking your own tears will slake your thirst. The complexities are what push back against answers and knowing, and the more the son describes the father, the more he seems to be describing himself: “I don’t know if my father ever realized he was having an unhappy life.” The son has a coin collection while Big Ray has a racy pinup medallion, and in one episode the son observes: “Sometimes, I look at the hair on my arms and it makes me think of the hair on my father’s scary arms.”

Kimball is very slow to release information to the reader. When we first learn of Big Ray’s obesity in chapter nine it’s as if the son is reluctant to describe one way in which he and his dad were so different: “I need to say something else about my father. I don’t feel good about this, but the first thing I think about when I think about my father was how fat he was.” Kimball’s pacing uses many hundreds of micro paragraphs which approach us like mile markers. Some of the dolmens are rhapsodic and some are brief, and the chapters do not end, but merely stop. New chapters sometimes reflect a new time sequence, but not always. The plot points are based equally on action and realization, which is a little closer to how things seem in life where consciousness seems to matter as much as actually doing something. Soon after passing a mile marker which contains fat jokes, we come upon the next: “I hated him, but I wanted him to like me. I was ashamed of him, but I wanted him to be proud of me.”

This duality is present in one of my favorite scenes in the book when the father and son are playing poker. Big Ray is broke, and has to borrow money from his son to make ante: “…he had used half my life’s savings to win the other half of my life’s savings from me.” This brief reminiscence becomes one of Stuart Dybek’s “Magic Objects” toward the end of the novel when the son takes Big Ray’s ashes to Law Vegas.

Kimball is not shy about telling interviewers he wrote Big Ray in three months. Although we can all agree this had something to do with his having lived the book his whole life, I believe it has more to do with his developing skill as a writer. This is Kimball’s fourth book, although it’s his third published book since his third book, Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story on a Postcard, was published, and re-published, recently. There’s also a collection of short stories which must be cooking.

Subject matter—in spite of overwhelming the speaker—is only part of the lyric in Big Ray. What exactly is Big Ray to the rest of us? Is Big Father a new of way of calling Big Brother? How do we write about weighty issues like AIDS, rape, child abuse, poverty without the subject overtaking the art?

There are many ways to answer these questions. This novel is one of them. A story about the child in each of us. A story about the Big Ray in each of us. That’s the value of looking at Big Ray as a metaphor and not only as Michael’s dad. If the child is the father of the Man, surely we must all be cousins. Bloomsbury re-released Big Ray in paperback this past June making it a perfect Father’s Day gift. It might not be what he had in mind, but it’s better than giving him another suit tie with strawberries printed on it.

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Data Driven Research

by Publius

In education, we are fond of data. Data driven instruction. Data based results. So here is a bit of data. I have 160 students, seven classes. And counting. This is only the first week. But let’s say I stay at 160 students.

And let’s say I give each student a few paragraphs to write. And let’s further say I take three minutes to grade each paper. That’s eight hours of grading. That’s my Saturday. Another assignment, and there goes Sunday. If I am foolish enough to give each class so much as another sentence to write, then, come Monday, I’m behind on my grading. And I’ve got the data to prove it.

Oh, yea, and I usually don’t grade a lot of papers after school, because, for one, I supervise some after school activities, and, two, I’m in bed by nine because I’m tired. I get up at 5:30, and I’m at school around 6:30 or 7. I don’t grade papers before school. I use that time for planning. I only have one free period every other day. I’ve got data on that, too.

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Top Secrets

By Karen Zhang

On the day when the US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden announced to the world how the US has been spying on its competitors as well as its allies through traditional and modern technology, everyone – the media pundits in this country as well as diplomats from other countries — acted astounded and perhaps enraged.

The US government is reportedly sweeping up Internet data and millions of Americans’ phone records in its search for foreign terrorists. In addition, according to Snowden, the NSA has been hacking China for some years, including targets in both Hong Kong and mainland China.

Although as I write this, Snowden is still at large, discussion about the cyber-attacks between the US and China continues. If you click on the Chinese online forums, you will find Snowden has more supporters than enemies in China. Chinese people praise Snowden’s courage and honesty.

Imagine if there were a Chinese Snowden confessing the ruling party’s top secrets to the world, do you think he would still be alive? I bet the Chinese government will hunt him down as hard as the US searched for bin Laden.

Despite the harm that Snowden may have caused to the US national defense, Americans seem to have different opinions about their personal information being collected by the federal government. If you ask any American whether she thinks its accectable for her government to spy on her, unless she is a desperately-show-off person like a reality show star, most of them would say no.

Yet, the popularity of the social media such as Facebook and Twitter tells me that Americans are careless – and scareless — about protecting their own personal information. Are they aware that the pictures they posted online or the personal information they left on a webpage may someday be misused? Given the fact that Americans are so sharing, it does not make it hard for NSA to spy on any individual. Just a simple click on Google, you may find some surprises about yourself.

The Snowden affair has rippled through the governments of a number of big nations. One diplomat said that there are no eternal friends and no perpetual enemies, but permanent interests in international relations. I don’t think the US government will stop the spying despite the protests from the European Union. I do hope China and the US will become, even only temporarily, friends rather than foes. Since the secrets of both countries have leaked, thanks to Snowden, let the two nations work together for everyone’s best interests.

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What’s the Most Important Detail?

by Dawn Potter

“We know there must be consciousness in things,” writes Mark Jarman:

In bits of gravel pecked up by a hen
To grind inside her crop, and spider silk
Just as it hardens stickily in air.

Many poets might just as easily say, “We know there must be consciousness in words.” By fitting together individual bits and pieces of language, they work to create a facsimile of life, one that may reach even across centuries to touch the most unsuspecting of readers.

A few summers ago, as I sat reading Middlemarch on the front porch of the Robert Frost Museum in Franconia, New Hampshire, a teenage boy came around the corner of the house. He was about eighteen years old—tall, curly-haired, athletic. Plopping himself down on a table, he crossed his arms and looked me in the eye. “Are you a poet?” he asked.

After I admitted that I was, he leaned back. Still holding my gaze, he announced, “‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ is the bomb.”

I did what anyone would have done under the circumstances, which was to become slack-jawed and slightly dizzy. Undeterred, the boy remarked that Alfred Tennyson was his favorite poet, that he’d accidentally discovered Tennyson’s poems in a book in his grandfather’s house; also, that he hadn’t quite gotten his brain around “In Memoriam” and that other long stuff but “The Eagle” and “The Kracken” were also the bomb.

We talked. What he liked about these poems, he explained, were the details—those particular combinations of words that pulled him directly into the poet’s imaginative world. “I like that he makes me be there.”

Think of details as a poem’s information. The poet relays this information by choosing words and phrases that evoke specific characters, places, or situations while also advancing narrative action, lyrical intensity, and thematic unity. As Theodore Roethke explains, “The poet must have a sense not only of what words were and are, but also what they are going to be.”

In her memoir The Gift, H.D. wrote of her child self’s growing awareness of the link between observation and the urge to repeat, reframe, reinvent what one has seen : “It was not that I thought of the picture; it was that something was remembered. . . . You saw what was there, you knew that something was reminded of something. That something came true in a perspective and a dimension (though those words, of course, had no part in my mind) that was final.”

Image is the customary poetic term for a mental picture translated into words. Images are constructed of details, and precise nouns are their foundation. For instance, in the opening stanza of her poem “The Burn,” Terry Blackhawk chooses a handful of plain yet exact nouns to solidify the details of place:

I saw it once in a sycamore
at a fishing spot near the lagoon,
one of the tree’s three trunks combusting.

“Sycamore” is the accurate name of the tree. The compound noun “fishing spot” adds a casual connotation to the more exotic “lagoon.” In the last line the poet avoids repeating “sycamore,” this time allowing herself to draw back to the more general “tree,” which visually and sonically reinforces the repeated t sounds in the line. Blackhawk’s only adjective is “three.” Her only verb (until the shock of the participle “combusting) is “saw.” The imagery of this stanza depends primarily on those solid, simple nouns.

In “Christmas Eve in France,” Jessie Redmon Fauset also chooses a handful of basic nouns, but she reveals and varies her details by adding adjectives:

Oh, little Christ, why do you sigh
As you look down tonight
On breathless France, on bleeding France,
And all her dreadful plight?
What bows your childish head so low?
What turns your cheek so white?

Even though “On breathless France, on bleeding France” repeats the same noun twice, Fauset’s shift from “breathless” to “bleeding” entirely reconfigures the imagery. Yet the adjectives are similar in sound, so the line retains its songlike quality even as it disrupts my mental picture of the situation.

Some poets, such as Ted Hughes, choose details of ornament that seem as weighty as the nouns they modify:

Lizard-silk of his lizard-skinny hands,
Hands never still, twist of body never still—
Bounds in for a cup of tea.

The extract’s grammar, like its subject, is jumpy. In “Lizard-silk of his lizard-skinny hands,” the hyphenated repetition shifts from compound noun to compound adjective. Hughes repeats the noun “hands,” the adverb-adjective combination “never still.” In the last line he tosses us the vivid verb “bounds,” yet we’re hardly aware that it’s the first verb in the extract. Thanks to the precise arrangement of his nouns and modifiers, Hughes has created the sensation of action from the details of a physical description.

The details in a poem do more than create specific images. They may also advance narrative action, develop character, hint at a back story, intensify a mood, reinforce sounds, and so on and so on. In the words of Baron Wormser and David Cappella, “Details are the confluence of observant intelligence, apt feeling, and thematic sense.” For example, the details in the opening stanza of Siegfried Sassoon’s “The rank stench of those bodies haunts me still” draw together a present-tense situation and layered memories of other times and places to construct a unified moment of consciousness.

The rank stench of those bodies haunts me still,
And I remember things I’d best forget.
For now we’ve marched to a green, trenchless land
Twelve miles from battering guns: along the grass
Brown lines of tents are hives for snoring men;
Wide radiant water sways the floating sky
Below dark, shivering trees. And living-clean
Comes back with thoughts of home and hours of sleep.

[from a draft-in-progress of The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Autumn House Press, 2014)]
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People First

By Karen Zhang

Early this year, the news about the Boston bombing shook the world. The tragedy not only injured over 250 innocent lives, but also killed three others, including a Chinese student. Perhaps because the victim is a Chinese—the only foreigner in the death toll, Chinese at home and abroad are paying attention to the incident.

Now three months have gone. While China is coping with its sorrow for another tragedy in which two young Chinese died in a plane crash in San Francisco, there is the news that the family of that Chinese graduate student killed in the Boston Marathon bombing will receive US$2.2 million compensation. You may have learned about this long before you read this article. But what I want to address is it shows how Americans value life—even a foreigner is no difference.

If one’s life can be measured by money, the compensation to the Chinese graduate student is overpaid by Chinese standards. The contrast of attitude toward life between China and America is drastic. I was not at the scene when the Boston bombing occurred. But for the following two weeks the national news showed touching images of strangers helping strangers selflessly in the surge of community feeling.

Not only that, upon the request of local officials, a foundation to assist victims and families affected—known as the Boston One Fund—was soon established right after the April 15 attack. Unlike the government-mandated US$7.1 billion fund for victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the entire fund for victims in the Boston Marathon bombing comes from private donations. Within a few months, the foundation has raised more than US$60 million for the victims and the families.

By comparison, a number of children who died in the Sichuan earthquake five years ago from the collapse of the shoddily built schools are still seeking compensation. Or, let’s say if someone got robbed on the street, will a Chinese be the first one to stop the thief? Or will he be to afraid and indifferent to help a stranger?

In China, I would not trust the drivers to let me cross the streets even though I have the right of the way. I am always warned I should look at the traffic but not the lights. In America, if you drive, for example, in the parking lot of a mall, you have to yield to the pedestrians. Even though you have the right of the way, say at the change of a traffic light, if a pedestrian passes by your car, you have to stop and let him or her go.

No matter from the current events or from my everyday life, I deeply feel the significance of “People First” in America. As Chinese often say, you should treat others as you want to be treated.

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Book Review: The Polish Boxer

The Polish Boxer by Eduardo Halfon
Bellevue Literary Press 2012

Reviewed by Noah Gup

The line between fiction and nonfiction is strangely, sometimes frustratingly, blurred in Eduardo Halfon’s newest book, The Polish Boxer. The novel begins in a Guatemalan college classroom with a narrator also named Eduardo Halfon. This presumably fictionalized characterization of the author is the narrator for the globe spanning length of the collection, jumping from the Guatemalan countryside to a Serbian brothel. While the book’s prose doesn’t always support its intriguing concept, these delicately linked stories defy classification and offer a unique medium where personal writing need not be factual.

The structure of Halfon’s book is puzzling. It is broken up into individual stories, and while most are independent, a fictionalized Halfon narrates them all. The search for heritage is a repeated trope, both within Halfon’s family history and with a pianist/acquaintance, Milan Rakic, in search of his own Gypsy heritage. These two arcs extend across the collection, and are the strongest threads that create a cohesive bond among the stories. In this regard, the eponymous story is the collection’s centerpiece. In this elegant tale, the narrator finally hears the story of his grandfather’s experience in Auschwitz. It’s reserved and simple, matching the halting pace and clear awkwardness of their conversation. The connection between the two characters, bolstered through whisky, is startling in both its intimacy and its reserve. Just like the collection as a whole, the biggest questions posed are left unanswered.

The blurring of what is true versus what is fictionalized is both clear and nuanced. The book is peppered with clues and red herrings for those attempting to parse fact from fiction, starting from the introductory quote from Henry Miller: “I have moved the typewriter into the next room where I can see myself in the mirror as I write.” The narrator in The Polish Boxer is a reflection, perhaps a distortion, of the author’s true self. Both are Guatemalan professors, and both have roots in Judaism. This twilight gives his book a journalistic honesty while evading direct truthfulness. This duality comes to a head in the penultimate story, “A Lecture at Póvoa,” which chronicles Halfon’s attempt to write a lecture on how “literature tears through reality.” Applying to the collection as a whole, the fictionalized Halfon and his experiences transcend reality to make an extremely intimate and introspective book.

While the format of Halfon’s book is clearly complex, the narration itself is often bland and monotonous. Despite following the Halfon through several transformative journeys, he seems to stagnate, embodying the same skeptical, cigarette-smoking professor in every story. More, Halfon overemphasizes his descriptions through staccato repetition. When walking through a mysterious building in Sarajevo:

I sighed and thought I heard the echo of my own sigh. Then I thought I heard the scuttling of a rat. Then I thought I heard a shout. Then I thought I heard a bit of music hidden in some distant hissing. But no.

Later down the page:

I had gone beyond language. Beyond any rational concept. Beyond myself. Beyond any understanding of what was happening. Beyond any god or doctrine or gospel or borderline between one thing and another. Just beyond.

These descriptions, unsurprisingly, quickly wear the reader thin. In lighter stories such as “Twaining” and longer stories such as “Pirouette,” the drab writing can be difficult to plow through. It is when Halfon focuses on other characters (his grandfather, the Gypsy pianist, an Israeli he meets at a bar) that the prose feels lively and engaging.

Despite the often-tedious narration, The Polish Boxer remains a fascinating read. While its format and structure may ultimately be stronger than the actual execution, both individual satisfying stories and an overarching connectivity drive the collection forward. While Halfon has published several books in Spanish, The Polish Boxer is his first novel to be translated to English, and it demonstrates his unique, if challenging, new voice. Halfon is pushing the boundaries of fiction, displaying not only the writer’s soul, but also the twisting process of translating life into literature.

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My First Girlfriend

by Publius

The other day, all the teachers had to put security checks on our payroll accounts. So there’s ten questions. Your mother’s maiden name. Your high school. Like that. Then there’s, “What was your first girlfriend’s name?” Three of us are doing it together, so North says, “Sally.” And Art says, “My first girlfriend was Emily. What about you?”

“I called her Mama-san go boom-boom five dollar?”

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Book Review: The Golem and the Jinni

The Golem and the Jinni by Helen Wecker
HarperCollins, 2013

Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

In the beginning, a sickly Jewish man breathes an incantation on a ship destined for New York City, and his golem wakes. And he saw that the creation was good. Then he dies and severs the master-servant connection with the golem, leaving her open to the wishes and emotions of everyone. At the same time, deep within New York City, a tinsmith undoes scrollwork on a copper flask and releases a 1,000-year-old jinni. He has no memory of his capture—only hatred for the wizard who clapped the iron cuff around his wrist and stuffed him into the flask. Stuck there in 1899, the two beings must learn how to survive, discover a new purpose, identify a sense of self, and maintain secrecy concerning their supernatural abilities.

Thus, the stage is set for Helen Wecker’s beautiful debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni. She tackles the question of what a conversation would sound like between two entities bound to servitude. When the two finally cross paths, each tries to understand—but clashes with—the other’s perspective. Wecker put extensive thought into Chava and Ahmad’s characterization and history. Each one gradually develops a sense of humanity. Readers are proud of Chava’s minor successes of passing as human, and her fascinating discovery and understanding of her own unnatural nature. But Ahmad must act human and, try as he might to remain separate, humanity slips into his subconscious actions. Wecker always informs readers when this occurs.

“He leaned on the railing, propping his chin in his hand; [Chava] wondered if he knew how human he looked” (267).

“The Jinni let out a hollow laugh. Then he leaned forward and put his head in his hands. It was a startlingly human gesture, full of weakness” (316).

Compared with the conceited confidence of a jinni, human gestures seem to show weakness or doubt. Ahmad hates to fail, but Chava seems content to adopt flaws. For example, when she begins working at a bakery, she realizes that her movements are too quick and precise.

“…The Golem wasn’t nearly so certain of herself as she appeared. Passing as human was a constant strain. After only a few weeks she looked back on that first day, when she’d worked six hours without stopping, and wondered how she could have been so careless, so naïve. It was all too easy for her to be caught up in the rhythm of the bakery, the thumps of fists on dough and the ringing of the bell over the door. Too easy to match it, and let it run away with her. She learned to make a deliberate mistake once in a while, and space the pastries a bit more haphazardly” (122).

This passage shows how desperately Chava wants to find a normal place in life, but Ahmad doesn’t share this desire and is generally apathetic. Chava tries to embrace responsibilities and relationships, but Ahmad prefers to remain isolated from humans. They are lower beings to him, stuck in one form and incomprehensible. To Chava, they hold the key to her survival and destruction. And throughout this main plot, Wecker reveals that Ahmad was not without his flaws as a full jinni—he just wasn’t aware of them. The overall story seems to suggest that humanity is all about flaws, and to embrace them.

The Golem and the Jinni is reminiscent of Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book; it has a similar gradual unfolding of characterization, plot, and pacing, as well as an unprejudiced approach to religions. Some readers may think Wecker’s novel is too slow, but the story is steady and realistic, and includes various religions with an unbiased—if fantastic—view. Wecker skillfully incorporates Judaism, Christianity, Russian Orthodox, and Atheism beliefs and superstitions without conflict. The Golem and the Jinni’s existences are also well integrated. They are not attached to particular beliefs, despite the golem being created in a Jewish society. The only other servant creature Wecker could introduce would be an angel, and that one just appears as a statue. She hints that all religions are true, and to include an actual angel would claim that that only Christianity is true. The exclusion not only equalizes beliefs in the book, but also maintains the story’s logical consistency.

There are minor problems in the novel. Wecker effortlessly switches between characters’ perspectives without relying on many section breaks in narration. However, no character has a clear voice compared with each other or the narration; they are distinct by their emotions and habits only. Wecker also doesn’t designate chapters for either Chava’s world or Ahmad’s. Most of the time, plotlines and characters switch between chapters. But sometimes, chapters include both story arcs that also leap between eras. Readers become comfortable with the even switching between plots, and may pause to gain their bearings when Chava is mentioned in Ahmad’s chapter and vice versa.

Overall, Wecker’s language is mature and almost lyrical. When she describes a crescent moon as “…a rind of moon…,” readers can easily envision a thin and discolored curve in the sky. This same language pulls readers deep into each character’s emotions and lives: Ahmad’s boredom and frustration, Chava’s fear and anxiety, and the other characters’ consternation, curiosity, affection, and gratitude. When the story ends, readers will emerge from the thick Hudson River to breathe in a clear, single life again and almost miss the voices.

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Book Review: Could You Be with Her Now by Jen Michalski

Could You Be with Her Now
Jen Michalski
Dzanc, 2013

Reviewed by Barrett Warner

Jen Michalski may have been listening when Nikki Giovanni spoke how the internet—how social media—was turning us into extroverted hermits. The shy Maryland author runs the biggy-sized literary platform JMWW. The site totes some 1,000 hits a day thanks to Michalski’s tenacious but quiet charm, and the way she keeps hundreds of conversations going without any eye contact. Likewise, Michalski’s stories are often driven by characters trying everything to make deeper connections with each other in spite of huge differences. Her energy seems anti-Modern, without being traditional, since she clearly moves away from the “loner, fractured self heroes” of the previous generation of novels. Instead of questioning why they exist, Michalski’s characters wonder, mustn’t there be one person, anyone, to share the world…who cares if it’s a Martian spider?

Michalski’s latest book Could You Be with Her Now consists of two novellas: “I Can Make It to California before It’s Time for Dinner” and “May September,” and you don’t have to Google anything to figure out one novella evokes a crisis of space and boundaries, and the other a crisis of time. First things first—a novella is not a short novel or a long short story. Rather, it uses a single tumultuous arc to get the readers someplace even before we’ve had a chance to deeply understand a complex plot, or the full ironic and conflicted ranges of the characters. We intentionally don’t get the whole story. In a novella, dramatic tension is not always between two characters (since we don’t know them well enough for that). It relies on the stress of the larger outside world coming inside for a visit and blowing things up for a little while.

The protagonist and speaker in “California,” Jimmy Dembroski, falls somewhere on the autistic spectrum. He requires lots of supervision, repetition and small school buses. We haven’t seen such a convincing not-knowing hero since Quentin Compson’s brother, Benjamin, but we’re a long way from Yoknapatawpha County. There’s a street name, a house, a neighbor, a Giant Food store, a MacDonald’s, a 7-Eleven. Everything else is California in Jimmy’s mind. Making it to California before it’s time for dinner ostensibly means making it to the unknown, which is only three or four blocks away. So it’s a journey, Jimmy on an adventure, and the world is journeying too, pulling him along, pushing against him. The struggle is about context. Jimmy’s literal perception—it’s all he has—means his experience is always two-dimensional. There is no boundary between concept and reality. Sound like anyone you know who lives by the internet?

For Jimmy, the world-wide web is really wide, and very sticky. “I watch the TV for my girlfriend Megan. She’s fourteen and I’m fifteen and every day she’s on the show that I watch about her. She’s pretty and I wish we could hold hands and kiss. My brother Josh is seventeen and doesn’t play with me and doesn’t like Megan. His girlfriend is not on TV and she’s not pretty.” Jimmy creates an intricate one-sided relationship with the after-school television star, part of his drive to “connect” in spite of being surrounded by a family that seems to want to disconnect from him. At a family “big talk” session, “Mom and Dad look at each other but don’t say anything.”

Jimmy’s quest for California begins innocently enough, since it’s only a mile or so up the street from his home in Maryland. He’s gone looking for Megan since Josh wants to watch his own TV show. The murder, kidnapping, and rape which ensue are released to the reader in Jimmy’s voice, associative to the edge of non sequitor. This lens softens the details, and gives the reader plenty of room to invest his or her own imagination. Jimmy’s voice is the lyric of this story. The plot he occupies is the narrative. Everything in between is metaphor. Michalski manages each strand like a poet, alternating the weave as she goes, until lyric and story and infinite possibility are one. Whether or not it’s a raft down the Mississippi River or an eighteen wheeler speeding down Interstate 95 to Florida, Michalski has written us into believing an improbable tale of migratory sociopaths.

Part of this is because Jimmy is someone who lives in everyone’s ego. Like many of us, Jimmy loves his routines. He cannot come any closer to connecting than repetition, but he also gets excited for surprises. When he returns from killing the girl he thought was Megan, his mother “calls for pizza and I am excited because we are having pizza and it isn’t Friday.” Hasn’t each of us wanted to wear our football jersey to work even when the home team wasn’t playing that night?

Jimmy’s ticks are charming too. His compulsion to have two of everything reinforces his fetish for companionship. He’s got two toy soldiers, and when given a lollipop by the truck driver who reminds him of an uncle, Jimmy quickly asks for a second one. When Josh takes him to the 7-Eleven he wants two Slurpees in one container. Almost all of his baseball cards are doubles. He orders two Happy Meals for himself, and since he doesn’t have enough money he orders two fries instead. Having mistakenly suffocated his hamster Mr. Kibble one night by sleeping on him, he wants another, Mr. Kibble Two.

Michalski has also given Jimmy the gift of pretending, which is a wink-wink form of imagination. Jimmy says, when the family is gathered for pizza, “I pretend I am a dinosaur eating people. Dad tells me to eat with my mouth closed because I am not a cow.” He also make-believes sleep and sort of wins us over with his analysis of himself which is held together with implausible, but irrefutable causes and effects. In some chapters the word “because” appears three times on each page, with comparable numbers of transition words like “but”:

I walk to Josh’s school, where we play pogs. I wish I brought my pogs because maybe
those kids will be there. I go behind the school. I have homework for tomorrow but I will
do it later because I can’t write on the ground.

Jimmy is lost in his own neighborhood. Fortunately there’s a truck stop nearby where he meets the driver, Ed, who is “short and fat like a Weeble and has a moustache like Yosemite Sam, but he is not a cartoon he is a real man.” Here, Jimmy makes a mental leap he never made with Megan. Well that’s animation for you, as opposed to reality programming (which must be really trying for someone who only sees in two dimensions anyway).

Ed’s truck, for all its horrors, also leads Jimmy to his first understanding of a different dimension and point of view, helping him to go beyond the flat screen of everything: “Mr. Ed’s truck is louder than our car… It’s fun because we’re tall and I can look down at the other cars. They look smaller than when I am in our car. It’s weird that things get smaller when you are not close to them but they really do not get small. I wonder if Mom would be small now if I saw her.”

I couldn’t turn pages fast enough to reach the conclusion of “I Can Make It to California before It’s Time for Dinner.” It’s rare that an author could give us so much existentialism, at least two answers for every three questions, and still build a story that has both pleasure and suspense. Part of it is that Michalski has fingered an ache in all of us. Life shouldn’t be about our aches, our emptinesses, how we lost the leg or hand. Life should be more about the connections we still try to find, the life in us that continues on with other lives around us. A soul is everyone’s best hope. Jimmy’s soul is checked by his lack of nuance, and as social media continue to train us against nuance in favor of averages and compromise, we risk losing our own best hopes for lighting the paths we must walk.

Nuance also plays an important role in “May-September.” The two protagonists, Alice and Sandra, are full of nuance. Not surprisingly, Alice’s former lover and Sandra’s former husband and her daughter Andrea haven’t any nuance at all. It has to do with pitch. Digital everything has given us even tempered pitch, where the “B” note is merely the average of the “a” and “C” notes. Well-tempered pitch on the other hand reflects the natural evolution of scale as it corresponds to the human ear. Alice and Sandra have tuned their lives to a well-tempered pitch, which is key to two women so different in ages (there’s forty more years one has lived that the other hasn’t) making a connection into a love affair.

It started with a computer. Sandra has one set up for her by a man who won’t look at her because she is so old. She plans to write a blog to keep her grandchildren informed about her and so that her daughter won’t worry that her mother lived so far away and so alone.

Alice had tried to talk her through the process on the phone—setting up the account, adding pictures, typing entries and labeling them and organizing archives. She said, yes, yes, yes, all the while knowing she would never remember these things. She wished she would die and leave the grandchildren nothing but her money, no stories, no strings. And when she hung up with Andrea, full of assurances that her first post would be coming within hours, days, oh but soon, she turned away from the friendly little void and played some of Chopin’s etudes.

The young Alice, an MFA in her hip pocket and a day job at a bookstore, responds to the ad for a blog writer. Heat comes off almost every one of their exchanges, and Alice is so careful not to learn something about Sandra without revealing herself. She spends her first paycheck on bunches of grapes to bring Sandra. From their first meeting, the dialogue is seamless from experience (there isn’t any conversational punctuation and chapters don’t end, but start anew): “A splash of lilies on the table, cinnamon and violet and butter ones, bled into the reflection of window rain beneath them. The rain bled on the Steinway in the corner shadow and the coffee table and the low-light glass frames on the walls and the grandfather clock and Alice wondered how someone could live in a room full of rain.”

William Gass called the word “violet” a sexual shudder. In this brief description, Michalski gives us lilies representing spice, sexual shudder and the fat pleasure of butter. Add a corner shadow, some music and a reference to Time (the piano and the grandfather clock), and the outside weather coming inside, and this is what you need for empathy to take over the world.

This novella is one of the most moving stories I’ve read this year, and Michalski shows herself to be a remarkably subtle writer of a kind of writing that seems impossible to teach or learn. Unlike the second dimension preoccupations of Jimmy Dembroski, this pair are traveling in the fourth dimension, time itself, and timelessness. And to imagine it all started with a blog creation. So easily do they slip from trading notes about themselves, and photographs, to trading their lives with each other, and Sandra’s music, and Alice’s short stories. The outside world with its schedules and drivers and mechanical responsibilities doesn’t always comply and this add great drama to a love affair which is so simple and so essential. Drink plenty of water before reading the ending. Most of it will be coming out of your eyes. The groans that came out of me were so loud my therapy dog started barking in sympathy.

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Book Review: City of Bohane by Kevin Barry

Review by Noah Gup

Something is rotten in the city of Bohane. From the lines of hoor houses and dream pipe saloons in Smoketown to the bloodthirsty Cusacks in the Northside Rises to the head of the Hartnett Fancy, Logan Hartnett himself, brooding with his wife Macu in his Beauvista manse—it is troubled times in Bohane when Kevin Barry’s book begins. From page one, Barry dumps the reader directly into his engulfing and original city in his debut novel, City of Bohane (Graywolf Press 2012). His prose (explosive, uncontainable) exemplifies the hectic pace and beating life of his city, making Bohane a truly immersive environment. With casual brutality and the profanity-laced Bohane-slang, it’s not a novel for the faint of heart. But the proud citizens of Bohane wouldn’t have it any other way.

The book begins like the opening shot of a movie, following Logan on his nightly jaunt through the winding streets of the Back Trace. He is the head of the gang-in-power and dressed up to the nines with “a dapper buck in a natty-boy Crombie, the Crombie draped all casual-like over the shoulders.” Logan has his hands full, with the aforementioned Cusacks wanting war, his wife unsatisfied, and word of his nemesis the Gant Broderick returning to Bohane. He seems to be the only thing holding together Bohane, a small coastal city in Ireland “so homicidal you needed to watch out on all sides.” The year is supposedly 2053, though the dandy dress, lack of modern technology, and antiquated phrases suggest an earlier time. Yet somehow Barry makes all this believable, due to his old-meets-new Bohane vernacular. “Dude” and “hombre” are at home with “lardarse” and “shkelp.” Occasionally, the dialect is so thick that the meaning has to be puzzled out phonetically. While at first jarring, the city’s unique language eventually defines its atmosphere and rugged charm.

Even more, Barry’s tale bounces throughout his city, establishing a fictional location that is both believable and bizarre. When describing the slick Ol-Boy Mannion, a powerful political presence in Bohane, Barry demonstrates the complexity of “the Bohane creation”:

He was as comfortable sitting for a powwow in the drawing room of a Beauvista manse as he was making a rendezvous at a Rises flatblock. Divil a bit stirred in the Trace that he didn’t know about, nor across the Smoketown footbridge. He was on jivey, fist-bumping terms with the suits of the business district—those blithe and lardy boys who worked Endeavour Avenue in the Bohane New Town—and he could chew the fat equably with the most ignorant of Big Nothin’ spud-aters.

There is so much flavor to the city, so much excitement in the language, it makes other literature look monochromatic.

The novel tracks nearly a year in Bohane, broken into small chapters that follow Barry’s vivid cast of characters. In the maze of streets known as the Back Trace, watch out for Wolfie Stanners and Fucker Burke, footsoldiers in the Hartnett Fancy and hellraisers since youth. The grimy alleys of Smoketown are run by Jenni Ching, the sassy young head of the Ho Pee Ching Oh-Kay Koffee Shoppe. Looming in the shadows is the Gant Broderick, a not-so-gentle giant stricken by nostalgia. And watching over the pandemonium is Dom Gleeson, the hilariously hypocritical head of Bohane’s sole newspaper, The Bohane Vindicator. Bohane is acutely attuned to fashion, and Barry describes his stylish characters down to every last Portuguese leather boot. This adds a cinematic vividness, and coupled with his elegantly potent descriptions (“mouth of teeth on him like a vandalized graveyard but we all have our crosses”), his quirky characters fit perfectly with the grit and humor of their city.

The actual plot of the book is not nearly as unique as Bohane itself or its dialect. The trials and tribulations of running a gang have been chronicled extensively. If you’ve seen City of God or Gangs of New York there is little surprise in the novel’s development. Barry, with a wink, even plays with these tropes; a street skirmish is described after the fact in a darkroom as one of the Vindicator’s photographers evaluates his shoot of the fight. Barry’s stylized, intense and extremely profane prose enlivens what could have been a tired plot, adding integrity to the characters and jolts of genuine surprise. Even more, Barry refuses to give any easy answers, not about his morally corrupt but somehow sympathetic characters or about the specific history that left Bohane reeling into the past.

Bohane is a place that requires exploration, full of tiny wonders and exquisite (if occasionally revolting) details. That Barry is able to craft such an atmosphere from his style is laudable. That he is able to fill it with characters that exemplify both the beauty and horror of Bohane and that he can make the reader laugh and shudder (often at the same time) is a pleasure. Just as the Gant Broderick is drawn back from exile, the book exerts a gravitational pull on the reader. After finishing, the city of Bohane begs for another visit, another stroll down Riverside Boulevard. Despite the knife fights and the sour air coming off of the Bohane River, it’s nearly impossible to say no.

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Elegy for an Age

by John Samuel Tieman

I almost did my dissertation on post-modernism, but in the end decided to opt for a Ph. D. rather than a bullet in my head. But one thesis I had was that post-modernism is a critique rather than a fixed position. And it is a critique of Romanticism, Modernism being redefined by me as a sub-set of Romanticism. We dismantle what was — but that is very different from saying we have a fixed vision of what is, or what is to be. Post-modernism is, in a sense, a reflection upon the pain of transition. We know we are in transition, but have no idea what we are transitioning to. In the words of poor Ophelia, “Lord, we know what we are, but not what we may be.”

I am a member of a Church that may well be dying. I write essays and poems that never see a drop of ink. I say to my students, “Go to college,and get a job,” when I know they are not prepared for college, and there are no jobs. Aside from my colleagues, I’m the only person I know who has a pension. I’m the only veteran among my colleagues, and the only veteran among my friends. The corn is dying. Parts of the Mississippi are not navigable. Mere tolerance is what passes these days for liberalism. “Lord, we know what we are, but not what we may be.”

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