The Dog Looks Happy Upside Down
by Meg Pokrass
Etruscan Press, 2017

Reviewed by Bryce Johle

One can only hope that their book review could be as concise and affecting as one of Meg Pokrass’s stories in her collection, The Dog Looks Happy Upside Down. Sporting fifty raw and honest vignettes, this text beckons the reader into explicit glimpses at the frailty of relationships through the powerful recollection of daydreams, failures, and awkward almosts.

Most attractive in this book are Pokrass’s clear, minimalist moves within each compact story, lacing them tight with care. Broken down into their short, flash-fiction form, there’s a sense that there’s more to each moment, yet they feel complete; we have all the information we need to connect with the specific emotions she sprinkles forth. On that note, while being labeled “flash fiction,” all of these read like radiant poetry. Especially at her most concise in cases like “Sit In Here,” all the fixings of the prose poem are at work.

He lives in dreams with me but he wants it to stay that way; a scene in a movie right before the middle when the popcorn is still perfect. I’ll follow him into a deep blue anything.

With a slight detachment from the rest of the story, she mesmerizes the reader with acute metaphors that are exquisitely enigmatic.

All of the entries in this collection achieve this poetic success, but “The Light-well” is particularly thoughtful, supported by a strong sense of symmetry. Pokrass opens with an image of a light well in the middle of an apartment complex, where pigeons fly down, make nests, and rarely make it out again. The core of the story lies between the main character and her roommate, Zoe, who was recently mugged and needs to be cared for after breaking her shoulder and suffering from the trauma of the event. The narrator calls the rain-flooded light well “pigeon suicide.” This seems to be paralleled in the lives of the two characters; it’s not clear whether the narrator is male or female, but their same-sex relationship is implicit in one of her final lines:

She nuzzles my neck, and I decide there is nothing more thrilling than calling the conservative parents of my lover, people who voted for Jesus in the last election and wear red, white and blue hats and slippers—people who will end the wonderful times we are having here.

These details enlighten the reader to the couple’s own light well struggle, whether they’re rained out by Zoe’s conservative parents or the more aggressive public, represented in Zoe’s maiming.

“The Light-well” and many others exhibit Pokrass’s ability to write with stripped-down prose. She’s able to open up her often nameless characters into real, bare beings within a limited word count, occasionally using sexuality and sexual encounters. “The Cooling” is a passion-fueled piece. It features Kim and Todd, both still kids in school (although their age isn’t stated), who seek intense and risky ways to spend their summer days together. In one scene, the two spy from a tree as the newlywed neighbors fornicate. Pokrass tackles this young erotic experience with tact:

Watching it makes Kim squeamish, so she watches Todd’s mouth and her face gets hot. To quiet her pulse, she thinks about her brother’s face, her brother’s return. They watch until the end. Then they slide off the tree.

This story is just one of many examples of Pokrass’s dabbling with carnal scenes and passionate characters.

Pokrass’s book makes a hellacious footprint when regarded as a holistic entity. The stories will make a reader feel a thousand different moments all at once. Like walking circles around the Picassos at Centre Pompidou, this collection gives off a multi-angular vision of provocative, real life. It’s a little absurd, sometimes hilarious, and reminiscent of early-twentieth-century cubist delirium.

The quick and potent constituents of The Dog Looks Happy Upside Down feel like racing up a tree and grabbing onto bough after bough, each one cradling a nest of wailing chicks. As you pass them, the chicks make their first jump, but you’ll never see them touch the ground.


Book Review: THE BOWL WITH GOLD SEAMS by Ellen Prentiss Campbell

The Bowl with Gold Seams
by Ellen Prentiss Campbell
Apprentice House Press, 2016

Reviewed by Kelly Dasta

Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s debut novel, The Bowl with Gold Seams, is a touching work of historical fiction which focuses on themes of acceptance, love, and overcoming tragedy. Campbell tells the story of the Bedford Springs Hotel in Pennsylvania that served as a detainment center for the Japanese ambassador of Berlin, his staff, and their families during the summer of 1945. The narrative is told from the perspective of Hazel Shaw, a Quaker who is employed at the hotel after her husband, Neal, goes missing in action while fighting the war in Japan and her father passes away. The story’s prologue and epilogue show Hazel’s present life in 1985: She’s the headmaster at Clear Spring Friends School faced with the decision to accept the resignation of a black teacher, Jacques Thibeault, who she believes is falsely accused of sexual assault by a troublesome student. If she does not accept, she risks being fired herself. After the prologue, we go back in time to Hazel’s past at the hotel. People are hostile towards the detainees, but Hazel sees them as equals, so she befriends them and gives them books. When the war ends, Hazel is grief stricken to find out her husband is dead, so her friend Takeo Harada leaves her a bowl that has been broken and repaired using gold seaming.

The title, The Bowl with Gold Seams, captures how Hazel’s life (and the lives of others) can be broken and repaired just like the bowl: “This bowl has been broken and mended many times. It has lasted. And so will you.” Hazel lost her husband who fought in Japan, but she is kinder to detainees than anyone. Hazel’s ability to transcend surface-level judgments illustrates how anyone is capable of looking past borders to care for and respect each other. Despite being set over half a century ago, the themes in the book are completely relevant for our contemporary world and the struggles surrounding acceptance. I appreciate how the framing of the story in 1985 demonstrates how past experiences affect the decisions we make in the present. Hazel stood up for minorities in the past and carries her experiences with her to the present, stating, “Jacques is a fine teacher. And I have to say it—he’s one of our only minority teachers, too. We can’t sacrifice him to slander and extortion.”

However, as good as the story is, I must admit there are minor issues with the writing. Some important scenes are glossed over, such as the progression of Hazel and Neal’s relationship and the moment Hazel’s father dies—both are told in compressed time. The book is only 215 pages, perhaps if it were longer and if Campbell had let those moments linger, these scenes would resonate more. Adding to the short length, certain descriptive details are left out, making some passages confusing. The opening paragraph is vague and left me with no sense of location because there was limited description of scene and action. There were several places in the book similar to this that left me wanting for clarification and description.

Despite these issues, The Bowl with Gold Seams emphasizes the importance of standing up for minorities, and it’s hard to criticize a book with such a strong and relevant message. Hazel is flawed like all of us, but she is kind to the detainees even if it risks her safety, and she stands up for Jacques, even if it means getting fired. It is a quick read, but not the easiest read. The reader will be looking to feel a bigger emotional impact in certain sections, but the ones that do resonate will open your eyes to empathy and beauty.