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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.

The Exchange & Other Stories

The Exchange & Other Stories
Yuri Trifonov
Translators: Ellendea Proffer, Helen P. Burlingame,
Jim Somers, and Byron Lindsey 
Northwestern University Press 2002

Reviewed by Bob Wake

Yuri Trifonov (1925-1981) was a mainstream Soviet writer whose work grew increasingly subversive during the 1960s and 70s. Remarkably, a celebrated novella like “The Exchange” walked a surgically fine line that kept him from being banned or censored as a dissident. Trifonov seems to have accomplished this by focusing on the moral dilemmas and frustrations of his characters, whose limitations make them appear less victims of an oppressive state than flawed and sometimes foolish careerists oblivious to the political compromises that define their lives. 

Call it a brilliant authorial head-fake. To understand the insanely deft mechanics of Trifonov’s fiction—and his clever use of third-person intimate narration—is to appreciate why he was a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature. “The Exchange” (1969) is a stark depiction of a quarrelsome Moscow family scheming to game the rigid Soviet bureaucracy controlling the housing shortage. (There are as many sinister acronyms in “The Exchange”—OZHK is the General Housing Commission—as a David Foster Wallace story.) A dying relative is used as a pawn to barter for a larger living space, with the idea that the relative will soon die leaving an additional empty room for the downsized family to occupy.

John Updike was particularly fond of Trifonov’s novella “The Long Goodbye” (1971), also included here. The story charts an unconventional marriage between an up and coming Moscow actress and her struggling writer husband. Less overtly political than “The Exchange” (although the residency permits required for government housing reappear as a bureaucratic headache), it nevertheless was met with criticism for its harsh naturalism suggestive of a generational post-revolutionary moral rot in place of idealized socialist realism. Updike admired the story’s complex Chekhovian characters, surprising psychological depth, and Trifonov’s trademark urban melancholy. “Indeed,” writes Updike in his 1978 review of “The Long Goodbye,” “under the iron skies of their governments the Russians have nowhere to look for amusement and mercy but toward one another.” (Updike’s review can be found in his 1983 collection of essays and criticism, Hugging the Shore.)

Rounding out the volume are two brief autobiographical sketches. “Games at Dusk”(1968) recalls Trifonov’s Moscow youth as an eleven-year-old tennis fan obsessed with the players at a public tennis court (shades, once again, of David Foster Wallace). “A Short Stay in the Torture Chamber” (1986) is especially powerful in dealing with the author’s tragic familial history: Trifonov’s father was executed during the Stalinist purges of 1938. Although his father’s reputation was rehabilitated in the 1950s, a former schoolmate of Trifonov’s tried to sabotage the author’s budding literary career by charging he’d lied about his father’s past. The “torture chamber” of the story’s title is actually a tourist site in a Medieval Austrian castle where Trifonov confronts his slanderous ex-friend when they were both visiting the region as sports journalists.

Interior States

My review of Meghan O’Gieblyn’s debut collection of essays, Interior States, appears in the Winter 2019 issue of Wisconsin People & Ideas.


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.]


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.

The Mysterious Location of Kyrgyzstan

The Mysterious Location of Kyrgyzstan
David Allan Cates
Satellite Press 2016

Reviewed by Bob Wake

CatesPoemsDavid Allan Cates, the author of five novels (most recently the award-winning Tom Connor’s Gift), has not until now published a collection of his poetry. The assured voice that emerges from the nineteen poems in The Mysterious Location of Kyrgyzstan shares a sensibility that admirers of his fiction will recognize: politically engaged, erotically charged, and remarkably fluid in shifting between closely observed naturalism (especially of Central America, where Cates does medical aid work) and dreamlike surrealism.

If a lovesick Claude Monet were inspired to peel off his paint smock and dive naked into his beloved water lilies, he might sound something like the besotted narrator of Cates’s poem, “You Could Have Had Me”: “Just so you know, I’ve taken to floating on the fish pond at night / My cock a lily // Chest an empty / Turtle shell without you.” The playfulness of “You Could Have Had Me” comes at a price. There is regret that stings (“The echoing howl of everything I did and everything / I didn’t do”) and an immeasurable sadness (“Then I close my eyes and smell precious / Failure, / Feel on my skin the electric rain / Of bewilderment”).

Love in a Cates poem can be life and death. In “The Purpose of Kissing,” sensuality has the explosive charge of a suicide-bomb trigger:

Think of it like this: lovers
hold tiny detonation devices
on their tongues, hot invisible
wires attached to distant charges
strategically placed.

Real-world violence is often right around the corner in Cates’s work. In the poem “San Pedro Sula,” for instance, “Nothing says good morning / like gunshots at dawn, and she, her feet in snow, / steps past pine and hemlock toward a cold car / she hopes will start.” To situate love honestly in the historical moment is to recognize both our fragile impermanence and our connectedness to landscapes alive with ghosts: “Some / were important and others weren’t / and were slaughtered / because they lived on the other side of the river / or down in the valley … Sometimes / they loved— / did I mention that?—like we do” (“You and Me and the Dead”).

It is David Allan Cates’s novelistic eye for detail and the sinister anecdote that breathes so much life into the opening two stanzas of a poem like “What with Light We Might Imagine”:

Before dawn, you greet hotel maids
chatting music, step around dog shit
on the clean cobbled sidewalk past garbage
trucks and taxis in the cold. After
a long night of righteous missiles
over the holy land, the echo of ¡puta
madre! has dissolved down the block
and the fairy glow of streetlights guides
you toward a paling sky, Cinco de Mayo
and coffee.

Still squinting from the Santa Martha
bus, you walk into the shade past armed
guards on broken chairs and the same
one who blocked your way to leave that first
afternoon, said it’s too late, you’ll have to stay
the night inside. Remember the dark
in your throat, the sudden glint in his eye,
a prison joke. Ha-ha.

The Mysterious Location of Kyrgyzstan is an ambitious all-digital project (available in Kindle, Nook, Kobo, iBooks, and Smashwords editions) from Satellite Press. Filmmakers were commissioned by the Satellite Collective to create videos using audio of Cates reading. Two online videos have appeared so far, the title poem (by filmmakers Tim van der Meer and Sietske van der Veen) and the poem “Good Luck” (by filmmaker Kate MacDonald).

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.

Thurston Moore in Madison

Thurston Moore in
Madison 9/11/15 at the High Noon Saloon. Photo: Bob Wake.

We stood ridiculously close to Thurston Moore at his High Noon Saloon show (his band included former Sonic Youth bandmate and drummer Steve Shelley, My Bloody Valentine bassist Debbie Googe, and guitarist James Sedwards). No Sonic Youth material. Played a large portion of his recent album The Best Day and tunes from an upcoming album titled Rock ’n’ Roll Consciousness. For a 57-year-old punk/noise band innovator from the distant 80s, he nearly convinced me when he declared at one point, “I’ve been waiting forever to grow old” and “old is the new young.” Music ran the gamut from classic-sounding Neil Young rockers to trippy Fripp/Eno guitar instrumentals to blistering noise, sometimes all within the same song.

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.”


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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