Archive for the 'Literature' Category

The Unexploded Ordnance Bin

The Unexploded Ordnance Bin
Rebecca Foust
Swan Scythe Press 2019

Reviewed by Bob Wake

Rebecca Foust’s The Unexploded Ordnance Bin is a ferocious work of poetry. The chapbook’s title and ominous cover design (by artist Lorna Stevens) connote urgency and dread. Its thirty poems, touching on a variety of charged topics and poetic forms, all share Foust’s fierce intelligence, sharpened wit, and an abiding reverence for the natural world and our place in it. The title poem begins like a Hitchcock movie about a family excursion that turns darkly comic with menace:

our son found the hollow shell
snub-nosed & finned
& looking like an Acme cartoon bomb
where we raked for clams
he wanted to keep it
& we wanted to let him

unexplodedAn author’s note chillingly informs us that U.S. coastal regions “harbor millions of pounds of dumped munitions” from military training exercises. The family in the poem visits the local police station to dispose of the shell. The mother is left discomforted. A chain-reaction of metaphors follows. She is haunted by her son’s autism and wonders “what it would look like / the bin for safe disposal of genes / that can ruin children.” These lines pack the kind of gut-punch that Rebecca Foust’s work never shies away from. She has addressed her son’s autism in poems over the years, at times with grace and understanding, and at other times with cosmic fury.

A triptych of poems, “spec house foundation cut into ridge,” “The Deer,” and “Vehicular” depict the effects of environmental and habitat destruction. Readers might be familiar with the experience of being behind the wheel of a car and striking a deer on a highway or rural road. “The Deer” slows down the moment of impact like a forensic examination of the Zapruder film:

It came mid-sentence, the blow so nearly not a blow, the light
shattered and flung into the fog, scattered shards
blooming chrysanthemum then dissolving away,
a Roman candle illuming the night

In the poem titled “after the dream act is revoked,” the refrain of “what can i do” begins a process of assessing our privilege and our community (“the people / I know are mostly decent / if catatonic with abundance & consumption & god / & their screens”). The prognosis is grim: “when will we admit the pogrom is here.” Some of the strongest work in The Unexploded Ordnance Bin focuses on the human cost of our immigration policies. “Requiem Mass for the Yuma Fourteen” memorializes the fourteen Mexicans who died of exposure in 2001 while trying to cross the Arizona desert into the United States. The poem is a villanelle, a classic form distinguished by its incantatory repetition of phrases. The rigor of the form combines with Foust’s unadorned language to create a biblical evocation of grief. The opening three stanzas:

Beyond the border they could smell the rain.
It smelled like freedom. Freedom and home.
The desert composes its requiem.

The oldest was sixty, his grandson thirteen.
One wore new jeans, one carried a comb.
Beyond the border they could smell the rain.

They got lost, then they lost their water. The sun
was a furnace blast. Dust. Thirst. Delirium,
the desert composing its requiem.

As Foust showed in her 2015 book-length sonnet sequence, Paradise Drive, she is skillful at linking poems thematically. The third, and final, section of The Unexploded Ordnance Bin returns to family with a series of deeply personal poems on gender and identity charting her now-adult daughter’s transgender journey. “Shall I mourn one, seeing the other?” she asks in “Moon.”

Two by Joan Frank

Where You’re All Going
Four Novellas
Joan Frank
Sarabande Books 2020

Try to Get Lost
Essays on Travel and Place
Joan Frank
University of New Mexico Press 2020

Reviewed by Bob Wake

The publication of two new books from writer Joan Frank offers readers a not-to-be-missed opportunity to experience the range of her literary gifts. The four novellas in Where You’re All Going demonstrate the author’s eye for observational and psychological detail. Frank’s characters, no matter their documented flaws or shortcomings, are often mesmerized and transported by music and art. A character swooning in revery describes jazz singer Johnny Hartman as having a “blackberry-syrup voice.” Viewing portraiture by the painters Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent is “like a form of time travel.” Observational and psychological detail are also the qualities that bring an immersive richness to her travel essays in Try to Get Lost. She spurs herself, and all of us, to follow “Henry James’s injunction—to be someone on whom nothing is lost.” While adding, with the flinty wisdom of a seasoned traveler, “Understand you will continue to fail spectacularly at this.” (“Resolve it anyway,” she advises.)

Frank.GoingFrank’s well-received 2017 novel, All the News I Need, introduced us to one of the most memorable characters in recent literature. Splenetic, yet fulsomely life-affirming, Frances “Frannie” Ferguson. Frannie reappears in Where You’re All Going, in the novella “Open Says Me.” Retired and unmoored in Northern California since the death of her husband, Frannie marks time, literally, singing and performing with a local choral group. Music sustains her. Buoys her. (“Melodies like currents, pushing away everything that is not them.”) Deliriously profane. “Christ on a cracker,” is a milder locution. An imbiber of whatever’s on hand, such as diet ginger ale laced with “long quantities of Cuervo Gold.” Frannie’s attraction to a thirty-something D.J. is fueled less by alcohol and poor judgment than enthrallment to their shared deep-cut knowledge of American pop music. She invites the D.J. to a choral concert and an after-show meet-up. Humiliation and self-loathing ensue. A children’s park train is involved. The story’s final image is grotesque, wistful, and wildly hilarious all at once.

Writer Richard Ford, in his introduction to The Granta Book of the American Long Story, tells us that novellas (typically running between sixty and a hundred and twenty pages in length) are “nicely suited to stories of character disintegration.” Frank deploys this trajectory with skill. As well as its opposite: characters circuitously winding their way toward wisdom and insight. In Frank’s novella “Biting the Moon,” the narrator shares memories of her romance years ago with a celebrity composer. The story grows increasingly fraught as she recalls drunken and abusive behavior from him. Her memories shift and mature as she confronts and interrogates them. Joan Frank’s novellas crystalize the passage of time in profound ways. The final two stories in Where You’re All Going, “Cavatina for Passenger X” and the title novella, channel Chekhov in their microcosmic portraits of community, friendship, marriage. (“Every marriage contained the seeds of its own end, happy and unhappy in almost equal measure until, by whim or accretion, the balance tipped.”)

Frank.LostImpersonal travel essays are nowhere to be found in Frank’s deeply personal collection of travel essays, Try to Get Lost. She is blessedly blunt about this turbulent era “of perhaps the most frightening protofascist ever to assume office in American history.” Her essay “Red State, Blue State” is a Baedeker for bad times. Survival strategies include everything from exercise to charity work to “you drink.” Pulling up stakes is an option, not a panacea. “Travel beats us up,” she admits in “Shake Me Up, Judy.” “Sleep’s elusive. Stress is amped.” Her sketches of European cities benefit enormously from shoe leather reporting (and the accompanying shin splints). The verisimilitude is breathtaking. Shop windows in Italy (“In Case of Firenze”) inspire a cinematic cascade of history and culture:

Itemize what you see: dusty, crumbling books, violins and mandolins, vases and dishes, forged bells, paintings from centuries-old flea markets, maps, inscrutable scientific instruments, decrepit birdcages, flags, buttons, globes, chess sets, rusting anchors, pulp paperbacks in multiple languages, bed-frames, empty bottles, belts, sconces, trays, mirrors, cracked pages from old botanical texts of hand-tinted prints torn out and framed. Etchings and woodcuts. Bad art. Bad furniture. Exquisite art. Exquisite furniture, draped with insanely expensive tapestries. Chandelier crystals. Kitchen appliances. Living room sets. Faience. Crates of tarnished, unmatched jewelry. Gilt sculpture. Murano glass. Religious icons. Life-sized statuary. Broken toys, cheesecake photos, unclassifiable objets from the 1950s. Wooden clocks painted in garish designs, pendulums ticking away.

“Place becomes, finally, the only subject,” she writes in “The Where of It.” “Place is identity, style, faith, cosmology.” Joan Frank’s own story is threaded throughout Try to Get Lost. “Cave of the Iron Door” is a searing essay about hard family memories evoked on returning after many years to her childhood home in Arizona. “Here was the original world,” she writes. “Your big bang.” Sadnesses endure. They travel with us. A lost museum ticket on a trip to Germany in “Little Traffic Light Men” triggers a welling up of grief for her recently deceased sister. (“Here’s a fact I can offer with authority: it is very hard to find places in a museum’s rooms where you can cry in privacy. Corners seem to work best, if you face into them.”) Try to Get Lost is superb travel literature. It might also be one of the best memoirs you’ll read this year.

In the Land of Men

In the Land of Men
Adrienne Miller
HarperCollins 2020

Reviewed by Bob Wake

AdrienneMillerAn instant classic. Adrienne Miller was the fiction editor at Esquire magazine in the late-90s when she was still in her twenties. Crossed paths with Mailer, Updike, Bret Easton Ellis, Dave Eggers, and, the real subject of her book, David Foster Wallace, whom she edited (some of his best short stories appeared in Esquire, including “Adult World (I),” “Adult World (II),” and “Incarnations of Burned Children”), and with whom she shared a romance, off and on, for several years. It’s something of a lurid tell-all (one review is titled “Infinite Jerk”), but offers lots more about the era, its literature, its sexism, and the rise and fall of glossy magazine publishing at a time when the Internet was just taking hold. Miller chose not to talk with D.T. Max for his biography of Wallace, so the material presented here is largely uncharted and eye-opening. Her respect for Wallace as a writer is worshipful. The mind games she endured during their wildly complicated relationship are jaw-dropping. The richest, fullest portrait of David Foster Wallace that has so far appeared in print. Highly recommended.

Flights

Flights
Olga Tokarczuk
Translated by Jennifer Croft
Riverhead Books 2018

Reviewed by Bob Wake

The risk reward ratio can be perilous for both reader and writer when embarking on something nebulously described as a “fragmentary novel.” Flights is a win-win. Olga Tokarczuk builds her novel thematically. “Constellation, not sequencing, carries truth,” she writes. Disparate narrative pieces cohere around the theme, or constellation, of travel and dislocation. One strand tells a mystery that unfolds like an Antonioni film. A husband grows frantic when his wife and son fail to return from a morning walk during a family vacation on the Croatian island of Vis. The story line itself disappears for pages at a time while other narrative threads emerge. Later, the mystery returns with the husband searching photographic evidence for signs and clues.

flightsThere are deadpan sections of Flights outlining in utterly plausible detail an academic pursuit referred to as travel psychology, whose practitioners meet in airports for their conferences and workshops. “Practical travel psychology investigates the metaphorical meaning of places,” we’re told. Another recurring element of Flights investigates the human body itself as a landscape of infinite inward exploration. The history of phantom pain and the embalming of bodies for medical study are discussed at length. The encyclopedic flurry of anatomical and geographical info must have presented a challenge for Jennifer Croft, who translated the novel with evident eloquence from Olga Tokarczuk’s Polish. No surprise that Croft shared with Tokarczuk the 2018 Man Booker International Prize for Flights. A masterful literary work that feels like a contemporary classic in the making.

Mudstone

Thrilled and honored that my short story “Mudstone” won First Place in this year’s Wisconsin People & Ideas fiction contest. The story will appear online and in print next month in their summer issue. [Update 7/18/17: “Mudstone” can be read online here.]

2017_contest_webslide

Rosebud 62

Issue62Rosebud 62 has arrived! There’s much to celebrate, beginning with Tai Taeoalii, the American/Samoan artist and filmmaker whose pop art surrealism graces the front and back cover as well as appearing generously throughout the issue. “These are deep waters, in which thought and feeling morph in mysterious ways,” writes Rosebud editor Rod Clark in his interview with the artist, whose work is both fanciful and nightmarish. Just like the five winning short stories in the magazine’s sixth biennial Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Award for Imaginative Fiction. Taking first place and $1,000 is Patricia Lundy’s gothic horror tale, “Nova’s Burial Club.” Lundy will disturb your sleep with sentences like this: “I found her face down at the table, her hair dipping into the meat sauces.”

Readers of Rosebud 62 are also treated to the first two chapters from a new novel, James Joyce 1906-1907: The Ambiguity of Epiphanies, by Giuseppe Cafiero, and translated from the Italian by Simon Knight. A kind of noirish psychological study of Joyce and his work, the excerpt is narrated by a private detective hired by a publisher to shadow the modernist writer whose “incorrigible arrogance and effrontery” have given birth to stories that “dwell on matters not acceptable in polite society, possibly unlawful and certainly deserving of disapproval.”

Further rounding out issue 62: poems from Lyn Lifshin (“Remembering Later it’s the Anniversary of When My Mother and Father Eloped”), Lester Graves Lennon (“Uncle Scott”), and George Eastburn (“More than Ferlinghetti or Ginsberg”); writer and cartoonist P. S. Mueller’s apocalyptic meetup with God in “The Big Shiny” (“When God spoke, he really did sound like Orson Welles bellowing into a highly amplified public address system centered in a tiled men’s room the size of an airplane hangar”); and Mike Baron’s “Trail of the Loathsome Swine,” a scabrous Southern Gothic short story uniquely tailored for the Age of Trump (“Only time I ever had any truck with ’em animal rights people was in the sixth grade, they got permission to come to our school and try to frighten the bejesus out of us with pictures of slaughterhouses and chickens in cages and such”). Oh, there’s more. So much more.

Writers take note: Also included in Rosebud 62 are the guidelines for the ninth biennial X. J. Kennedy Award for Creative Nonfiction. Deadline for submissions is August 15, 2017. I’m pleased to say I’ll be co-judging this year’s contest entries with editor Rod Clark.

All the News I Need

All the News I Need
Joan Frank
University of Massachusetts Press 2017

Reviewed by Bob Wake

allthenewsJoan Frank’s fourth novel, All the News I Need, winner of the 2016 Juniper Prize for Fiction from the University of Massachusetts Press, is a deep dive into the heart of friendship, of memory and regret, of aging and loss. Frances Ferguson, former newspaper columnist and book reviewer, is widowed after sixteen years of marriage. She’s fifty-eight and living alone in the novel’s lushly depicted wine region of Northern California. Oliver Gaffney, retired San Francisco preschool teacher, is gay and single at sixty-two. He’s prone to fatalism and panic attacks.

Human beings getting on one another’s nerves. Joan Frank has long been a master at showing how the best among us can entertain on occasion the worst of thoughts. All the News I Need is told through vivid third-person intimate narration that toggles between Frances and Oliver. Fran and Ollie. Ollie was close friends with Fran’s late husband, Kirk. The friendship between Fran and Ollie, minus Kirk, is iffy. By Ollie’s estimation:

Fran practices survivor manners, which is to say, none. She plunks her shod feet on the dining table, laughs with a honk, swears graphically, drinks wine chased by beer from the bottle—lifted high with each swig, as if she were taking aim with a spyglass.

The centerpiece of the novel is a life-shifting excursion to Paris undertaken by Fran and Ollie at Fran’s instigation. They will visit sights she remembers from previous trips with her late husband. There will be mishaps. (“Travel beats the living shit out of you,” Fran at one point muses in italicized exhaustion.) Fran and Ollie will each have opportunities to bless one another with kindness, even share moments of transcendence, while still wondering privately what the hell is wrong with the other person. (“Ollie’s insane, but that was never exactly a revelation,” Fran tells herself.) At unexpected moments the city erupts with a kind of quotidian sensuality and grace:

They march to the Place des Vosges, through the shadowy arched entry into the pale sunlight of the square: a time-travel portal. Once through, they stop and stare. Sounds issue at them: splashing water from the fountain, echoes from the cool arcades surrounding the lawn, the demure trees: chatter, music, scents of coffee and roasting meats and fresh bread and perfume, laughter. Couples strewn on the grass, entwined, twirling strands of each other’s hair; mothers and nannies trail young charges who lurch around shrieking, arms in the air, just as they do at the park at home.

At an outdoor Paris cafe, Ollie recalls the AIDS epidemic that took so many of his friends, years during which “he kept two funeral suits in his closet.” Fran talks openly about “the targeted feeling” of sexual harrassment that “never stopped, in one form or another, until, oh, my forties.” Scenes like this give All the News I Need an unvarnished sense of what human dignity under assault looks like and feels like. The relevance is unmistakable. This is not fake news.

“Nobody gives a fuck what we saw or what we ate,” says Fran in morose anticipation of their return home. There will be redemptive and wholly satisfying surprises to come. Joan Frank has gifted us with two unforgettable characters in a novel filled to bursting with hard truths and shimmering beauty.

Rosebud 60

issue60Rosebud 60 (Fall/Winter 2015) is a beauty. There’s the joyous cover art by featured artist Toni Pawlowsky. Inside, for starters, you’ll find all five winning essays in Rosebud’s eighth biennial X. J. Kennedy Award for Nonfiction (which I had the pleasure of co-judging with editor Rod Clark): Grand Prize winner Chris Ellery (“A Boy of Bethany”), and runners-up Jennifer Arin (“Adrián de Sevilla”), Katherine Baker (“No Gas, No Soap in Cuba”), Joan Frank (“The Where of It”), and Brett Alan Sanders (“Attractions of Barbarity, or Dreaming a Complete Argentina”). The winning essays this year are international in scope with timely and thought-provoking visits to Jerusalem, Paris, Havana, and Buenos Aires.

There’s much more goodness to unpack in Rosebud 60, from poetry by Thomas Merton, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Thich Nhat Hanh, to the “medical science fiction” of Dr. Tatsuaki Ishiguro (“The Hope Shore Sea Squirt”). Even a graphic short story (“What Is” by Mort Castle) illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre. And we’re still only scratching the surface. Regular features include top-of-their-game work from Rod Clark, P. S. Mueller, and Rick Geary. Guest art director Kathy Sherwood (filling in for Parnell Nelson, sidelined with health concerns, but returning for Rosebud 61) has given the magazine a sleek presentation.

Paradise Drive

Paradise Drive
Rebecca Foust
Press 53 2015

Reviewed by Bob Wake

Paradise_Drive_by_Rebecca_FoustRebecca Foust’s Paradise Drive achieves considerable force by using the precision of a classical poetic form—the sonnet—to portray something that is, by contrast, messy and contemporary: Our post-9/11 American landscape of rapacious materialism and spiritual hunger. Foust’s sonnets give us a California antiheroine named Pilgrim (“Waist-deep in bright ruin, she labors to sing, / wondering if wanting is, after all, all / there is”). When attending posh Marin County cocktail parties, Pilgrim prefers to cloister herself with books in wealthy homeowners’ bathrooms. She is haunted by hardscrabble childhood memories (“Her father smelled like failure because / he could not pay the bills”), as well as more recent hurts such as the bullying of her autistic son (“Yes, Pilgrim was pissed, / her son razzed every day, maybe twice: / ‘Got Ritalin?’ And about what brick does, / on contact, to a child’s perfect face”).

Consumer products function like satirical pop-up ads throughout Paradise Drive: Botox, Jiffy Pop, Tupperware, Adidas, Real Housewives, Manolo stilettos, d-Con, Prius, Land Rover, Escalade. However, when Foust brings us face to face with what appears to be September 11th, 2001 in New York City, in the deeply moving poem “the fire is falling,” the poet’s world is suddenly shorn and diminished—fallen—in lowercase. Ground Zero becomes in Foust’s sonnet a kind of negative theology, leaving unnamed that which is incomprehensible:

a september wedding back at the cape—
three days without kids—then he’ll work
in new york while she flies back
to san francisco alone—a good plan
till she misses her plane—she’s en route
to boston when the fire is falling
and he’s in midtown—the circuits jammed
and she’s holding hands with a stranger
in the qwik-stop—then sitting on the curb
for a long time—for a long time dialing—
the fire still falling when he picks up—
the plume somewhere behind him—the fire
falling—as it always has—this close—
it has to be this close before she sees

At its most playful, Paradise Drive is reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard’s recent film, Goodbye to Language, which cedes several minutes of screen time to the ennobled perceptions of a dog. In Foust’s sonnet “We Dogs,” a pampered California canine’s heightened senses come alive: “Here, Mt. Tam / compounds and distills the exotic smells / of wildcat spoor steamed on noon trails, / and the creeks leap with salmon in spawn.” The dog’s owner, Pilgrim, will share the animal’s final moments with us in another poem, “Refractory”: “Agonal breath, / the vet said, before apnea and death.” And Pilgrim will be reminded of her own father’s mournful alcoholic demise, subsequently revealed to us in the elegiac “The Truth.”

Rich in literary allusions—many of which are deciphered in the author’s entertaining endnotes—Rebecca Foust’s sonnets work together seamlessly as a book-length narrative. Paradise Drive’s Pilgrim is a complex and flawed everyperson whose quest for “options” is timely and universal: “Maybe the chance / to do an angstrom of good, make beauty / or protest or laughter.”

The Humbling

HumblingPosterLate night streaming on Vudu: The Humbling is an adroit adaptation of Philip Roth’s novella. Co-scripted by Buck Henry, who adapted The Graduate and Catch-22 for Mike Nichols. Al Pacino as a morose suicidal actor. Greta Gerwig is his bisexual love interest. Zaniness ensues. Comparisons to Birdman are not misplaced: The Humbling employs fantasy sequences (in a departure from Roth’s novella) that dramatize Pacino’s scrambled state of mind, including a Birdman-like dream of Pacino locked out of a theater mid-performance. The movie substitutes a more ambiguous ending than the novella’s brutal finish, but it’s well worth a look. Directed by Barry Levinson of Rain Man and Wag the Dog.


Mudstone

Recall: A Short Story

Walden West and the Twilight of Transcendentalism

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Caffeine & Other Stories by Bob Wake

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Cloud Spew

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