A Review of Piotr Gwiazda’s Aspects of Strangers

Aspects of Strangers coverBy Abby Dockter

I am on another plane trip. Patchwork farms, webs of highways, wide rivers and furry green mountains, all pierced by the wing of the plane as we glide into a new port. That’s the outside—inside the plane are a middle-aged couple speaking soft Turkish and eating chocolate bars, a young man holding his suit jacket, and a woman next to him sleeping with her brightly-colored scarf wadded up as a pillow. I am taking Piotr Gwiazda’s injunction to “Look at this city—”, “Look at these people” as I go, and it’s remarkable how the traveling experience parallels Gwiazda’s Aspects of Strangers, a book that opens with an observer’s entrance to a new place. Alienation is on the table immediately:

You see their other faces.
You hear their other voices.

You pass them in the airport
or the subway station

or any street and plaza…
Are you a part of them?

Your face gives you away.
Your voice denies you.

I could object to the blunt instrument of dichotomous Yous and Thems, but I’m too busy agreeing with the poet. I am already self-conscious that people abroad know where I come from as soon as I open my mouth, if not sooner. Okay, definitely sooner. But hiking pants that zip off at the knees were still a good American idea, dammit.

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A Review of Rachel Moritz’s Borrowed Wave

Review by Sonora Review poetry reading board member, Peyton Prater Stark.

borrowed waveIn her first full-length book, Borrowed Wave, Rachel Moritz embodies so many of the dualities that poetry is somehow, at its best, able to embody. Recently out from Kore Press in Tucson, this book is at once confident and questioning, isolated and intimate. Through bare and beautiful language, Moritz celebrates language while questioning its very structure.

I was first drawn to Moritz’s poems by the simplicity of image, the concision of line. She begins: “Branches of the pine trees sway in this other season.” With pared down imagery and close attention to rhythm, Moritz brings me to a meditative landscape, where “emotion hovers – her own soloist.” Yet this landscape is unstable. Once I am there, lulled by beautiful image and sound, I learn to question my footing. I begin to reconsider the materials of memory and the poem: object, image, language.

In the first section of her book, Moritz describes ways that people come to understand the world. In the title poem, she writes, “tea + cup (a deft granddaughter forms a thing in her mind).” As I enter the book, I see a self attaching to objects – galoshes, monkey cup plants – as points of connection. Each object containing an unspoken but felt significance: “outside a steel mobile glinted at night in the carport.” Moritz builds an intimate physical and emotional landscape from these objects, while maintaining their simplicity. She trusts the reader with leap from object to emotion. She writes, “She opens the car door slowly, as if / connecting dots.” When I read these poems, I feel as though I am connecting dots. Uncanny, intimate, lovely dots.

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Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor

Typically, I don’t like “dark” stories about suicide, drug addiction, or cancer because those themes are emotionally loaded. The work is already done for the writer. There’s also this false assumption that a lot of writers fall into, which is that dark things—suicide, drug addiction, cancer—are serious, and all serious things are profound. Having said that, Kyle Minor’s new short story collection Praying Drunk, Stories, Questions is, well, dark. The characters in Praying Drunk struggle with love, suicide, religious institutions, abuse, and drug addiction. Every conflict comes from, or leads to, the frantically sublime. But somehow, all this “dark” heavy stuff plays well with me—even when he starts one of his stories with eye-rolling seriousness, like the first line of “The Sweet Life” which reads, “The boy in the casket was my wife’s nephew.” The drama is recursive in a weird way too. For instance, Minor repurposes the same suicide in numerous stories, and a pastor uses the same crude biscuit analogy to describe death at every funeral. It becomes clear after the third or fourth story that Minor writes from his life and thereby breaks the logic of the false assumption. All this “darkness” is his experience, and as it happens, that is profound.

Sprinkled with instances of “meta writing,” the collection reveals a narrator who is confounded by his own morbidity. In the appropriately named opener, “The Question of Where We Begin,” the narrator launches into a philosophical meditation of causality and the elements of a good story after his uncle’s suicide. Minor writes, “Perhaps he wouldn’t have killed himself if his children had more demonstrably loved him.” This “what if” rhetoric leads to a wildly electric paragraph in which the narrator tries to find the root of his uncle’s trouble, from his breakfast decisions the day he killed himself, all the way back to the pre-humans and everything in between. In his mania, the narrator asserts that God lacked agency after the fall. Eventually, the hysteria drains the narrator and prompts the reflection, “…what does it say about me, the god of this telling, that I have to take it to these dark places?” All in all, a roundabout way of avoiding self-criticism. The narrator plays the messenger, and the message is, “life sucks.”

The collection’s primary concerns are tethered to religion. Minor, an admitted ex-evangelical Christian, writes about the struggle of adjusting to a secular lifestyle. He grapples with the debt he owes the people and culture that inspire his stories, the desire to make them real people instead of political reductions of Middle America, and his own indignation at having the burden of the soul/debt relationship to God placed on his impressionable shoulders. In “You Shall Go Out With Joy And Be Led Forth With Peace,” the narrator (also named Kyle) is an ex-pastor recently divorced from his faith. He gets a call from Tony, an old disciple from his congregation, saying he has terminal leukemia. As he visits Tony in a Florida hospice, Kyle has trouble finding words for comfort in a new vocabulary. “…I didn’t tell him what I had learned,” he says, “what life had taught me, which is there’s no such thing as miracles. God probably doesn’t answer our prayers.”

Most of the characters in Praying Drunk are or were evangelical Christians. At times, the writing borders on religious exploitation, the mining of evangelical beliefs for shock value. In “You Shall Go…” the narrator mentions something disquieting about Christian private schools after describing complex Old Testament geopolitics involving Isaiah and the Assyrians. He writes, “Twelve years old, and I know all these things. They teach us these things at my school.” A similar moment occurs in “Glossolalia” where a character explains to her atheist boyfriend what it’s like to speak in tongues. This is a tricky political minefield. Fortunately, Minor focuses his criticism primarily on the institutions and not on the characters. The characters are portrayed with genuine respect and tenderness, despite their radical beliefs and values.

The most impressive story of the collection, “In a Distant Country,” features some of the more exploitative features of the book, but also the most developed characters. Set in a Haitian mission during the 80s, the piece talks about the dangers of religious certainty through the form of correspondence letters. “…What I was hearing—clear as day—was the word from the Lord: This young woman, this Shelia Broken, is the one I’ve been keeping for you.” This is a letter from a middle-aged missionary named Sam, talking about an 18-year-old student who went to Haiti on her senior mission trip. If the story ended there, with Sam’s inappropriate interest in a girl much younger than himself, with only Sam’s voice telling the story, then it would be a pretty standard case of character-used-as-political-device-makes-blanket-statement-about-culture. However, the piece is complicated with many voices and contrasting opinions. It turns into a series of critiques of morality inside a standardized system of morality. Minor evaluates the situations on his characters’ terms, without dismissing the vocabulary outright, despite his new religious consciousness, and I find this to be one of the most generous gestures of the collection.

There is also a “Q&A” in the book, an interview Minor conducts with himself, another one of those meta-fiction moves I mentioned earlier. “Q: On the cover of this book, it says ‘Fiction.’ A: That’s what people write when they want to get away with telling the truth.” I can’t tell you how annoying it is for me to read this, to hear an author who uses so many dramatic “dark” clichés interview himself and call his work the “truth.” What a God-like ego. And what’s even more annoying, I think he might be right.

Kyle Minor is the winner of the 2012 Iowa Review Prize and the Tara M. Kroger Prize for Short Fiction.

Praying Drunk, Stories, Questions was published by Sarabande Books in 2014.

Daniel Phelps—intern for Sonora Review Issue 66 (2014)—reviews Kyle Minor’s book Praying Drunk, Stories, Questions (Sarabande Books, 2014).

sineatercoverIn the vein of Aimee Bender, Kevin Brockmeier, and Amelia Gray, Elizabeth Frankie Rollin’s debut collection The Sin Eater & Other Stories (Queen’s Ferry Press 2013) tight-ropes the line between domesticity and apocalypse. A wife allows the plague to infect her household, an adulterer hires a Sin Eater to absolve his guilt, a photographer captures Death in a buttoned coat and Want lifting handfuls of snow to his mouth… a collection of ghosts, of the uncanny, of the familiar defamiliarized, The Sin Eater & Other Stories makes everyday reality fascinating by—in the words of Robert Scholes—revealing the imaginary catastrophe that lies behind it.

Dear Elizabeth Frankie Rollins,

There are a few things I would like to say to you directly—without the artifice of being an objective book reviewer, which I’m not. I love words and art too much to ever feign objectivity.

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Review of In Praise of Nothing by Eric LeMay

The first choice to be made about Eric LeMay’s new book, In Praise of Nothing: Essays, Memoir, and Experiments (Emergency Press, 2014), is how to read it. This is perhaps a self-evident enough process but also something we could pay more attention to. LeMay knows this and calls attention to it; he trains his sense of play upon how or why an individual reads, the back and forth tension that’s created by the choices and navigations a mind must take when it meets a text. Visit the collection’s companion site for example and you will find not a description and overview of the book, with the requisite blurbs and stars and literary comparisons, but a questionnaire asking you what description and overview you are looking for, what literary comparisons you invite, and how many stars you’re interested in reading. After this, the site generates a response and thus a meta-version of the book based on your stated preferences. All in all, it makes me feel a little silly for having a Goodreads account. Which is all part of the joke. It’s in praise of nothing, of course, but it’s also in praise of in praise of nothing, which is also all part of the joke.

Within this joke (as within all good jokes) is contained an argument: writing, in particular writing the essay, is various and varied and ever-changing, and an essay’s forms depend on a good degree of whimsy and the structural capacity and restraints of the medium they’re delivered through. Before reading this collection, I was familiar primarily with LeMay’s work online and so was eager to see how his essays written for a digital format—written dependent on a digital form, in several cases in the forms of games—would translate to print. I was eager to see what choices would be made. And, naturally, when expecting a definite choice from an author, I was faced with having to make a choice myself.

LeMay’s collection of essays comes as both e-book and bound, printed book and while these both house the same essays, the shape and form and reading experience of those essays vary significantly between the two books. The titular essay, also the collection’s opener, can be read as an ebook, but also “read” or listened to via a video clip of the webcams the essay explores (with LeMay providing his own voiceover). And within the digital form, the essay includes links to the webcams which make up the subject of the essay and which tempt the reader to follow down the same perambulations and obsessions that the essay itself finds wanders.

And this maybe gets at one of the hearts (yes, plural, like a worm; shouldn’t smart writing always have more than one heart?) of LeMay’s prose: in the grand experiment of the essay, his work argues that there is no such thing as a control. These essays are as variegated and speckled with regards to one another (from webcams to Francis Bacon, from Gatean Degas to etymological viralization) as they are in their ability or interest in reinventing their various forms and iterations. Yet their segmentation also implies a connectivity, a concatenation (sometimes quite subtly—see how the notion of what constitutes a virus begins with Gatean Degas and then reoccurs three essays later in Viralization, an experiment of both the expansion and contraction of language; see as well how the idea of naming and anonymity reaches its climax with the aforementioned Degas but its ideas were first laid out several essays earlier in the excellent, standout Biography of the Nameless, a history of John and Jane Does).

A sense of humor and gentle self-deprecation runs throughout this collection as well. It’s paired with LeMay’s quick and humble intelligence, an intelligence that has no bones about being interested or making fun of its interest in the proverbial old and scholarly and dusty (see the Francis Bacon investigation and see Wynde, an essay written in Olde English, I believe). These investigations are couched in the argument that the old is constantly made new, that much of the experimentation or games or fun in terms of these essays’ content and form can be found in earlier, perhaps less sexy models. Much of this can be seen in condensed form in the collection’s final essay “The Lost Garden of Herman Haerlin,” which explores a now defunct insane asylum and garden built in Athens, Ohio in the 1870s by the German designer Herman Haerlin, a disciple of Frederick Law Olmsted. It’s a fascinating and intriguing if not fully realized essay—LeMay’s taken a series of photos of the present site of the now vanished asylum and spliced them in with black and white photographs of the institution so that there’s a patch of color in every black and white photograph and vice versa. It’s a copy and paste collage that embodies, concisely and cleverly, much of the work of the collection.

This collection of course also takes into consideration how we ourselves want to read. It is the first book, admittedly, I’ve ever read solely on a monitor. And there are, curmudgeon that I am, great and exclusive benefits to this digital format: perhaps most of all the opportunity to follow a mind’s mazes, its diversions and diversities, and still be able to surface for air. Consider LeMay’s piece entitled Resistible, a Comic Memoir about Comedy, a long yet also very contained and fragmented essay/memoir ten years in the making (LeMay acknowledges that he began it in 2002): each short segment of text (no more, I’d say than 300 words for many of them) features a video clip as a header that’s anywhere between a minute and 5 minutes in length. These clips, often old cartoons, ads, or excerpts from TV shows, are carefully researched and curated (in other words: dug up from God knows where, the beauty and mystery of research} and shade and highlight the concerns of the text. Yet as much as they parallel or deepen or approach the same subject matter overtly or tangentially, they never fully or directly correlate; they never exist on a 1:1 scale, which makes for a more associative and ultimately essayistic read.

What’s interesting about these pairings is that the text takes much less time to read than the video takes to watch. I’m left with this funny and unusual dichotomy: I can read faster than I watch, or rather the path through a text or essay is faster and more attention-grabbing if I only stick to the words. Perhaps not remarkable, but also not intuitive for me: the internet, the computer is where I go so often to watch the videos and clips that keep me from reading, that keep me procrastinating, and here I’m faced with just the opposite dilemma. The text engages and so now I find myself procrastinating by reading, in essence, what I would normally find myself too distracted to read. It’s an odd reversal. Yet it’s also a reversal that offers up options: we can of course “read” the essay without watching the videos or while having the videos on in the background as we devour the text. Similarly, I imagine we can “read” or watch the videos without reading the text and we’d have some sort of bizarrely correlative experience. We could do both, which to me the diligent reader, feels to be the true overlap of the Venn diagram and how the essay wants to be experienced (or essays really since the collection and dispersal of these video clips are their own sort of essay or variation or experimentation in their own right), although there’s nothing explicit anywhere telling us we have to do that. The rules here are subversions more so than strictures. Just as, for LeMay, the form of one’s self, the form of one’s shelf, are if not subversions, then at least up for debate. These essays are in praise of nothing as they are in praise of what many essays champion: the daily minutiae, the little moments, the bait and tackle that raise interest and complication upon reflection. But they also champion a different kind of nothing—one that’s an awareness of many many somethings, of the meanderings through an idea that eventually renders all those somethings, all those possibilities, into a new sort of nothing.

Eric LeMay is the winner of the Emergency Press International Book Contest. He is currently on the faculty of the writing program at Ohio University and serves as associate editor for New Ohio Review and web editor for Alimentum: The Literature of Food. He is the author of two other books, The One in The Many and Immortal Milk.

Tommy Mira y Lopez is the outgoing nonfiction editor of Sonora Review. New work of his can be found, or found soon, in CutBank, The Pinch, and Seneca Review.