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Moorefield House Publishing

Reviews

Reviews

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Jacob Hammer's Review of The One Inside

Posted on February 19, 2018 at 8:00 AM Comments comments (1471)

The One Inside by Sam Shepard

Reviewed by Jacob Hammer

I had only previously encountered Sam Shepard as a playwright in my literature survey courses,

so when I saw that he was releasing a novel I was excited to see his work in another medium. I

had been saving up spare cash to get it, but then my friend Santino loaned it to me with a hearty

recommendation and I set to it.

This was another novel that had a much looser plot structure. Shepard jumps between his

narrator’s childhood, near past, and what is likely the current timeline with frequent jumps into

dreams and dialogue. The book consists of chapters of only two or three pages, any of which can

move to any of these timelines. Despite this, the book is not awfully confusing to follow. One

way that Shepard achieves this is through chapter titles that hint at where the chapter will take

place in time. Other than that, he makes the timeline clear through his tone and other subtle

clues. He keeps from over-explaining, but also doesn’t let us lose our way.

Again, this novel does not lend itself to plot summary. The narrative we start out with follows

our narrator through a lucid dream state as he wanders through the desert surrounding his trailer

following the barking of his two dogs who are on the trail of something. Another timeline

follows his interactions with a much younger woman who is living with him in a relationship

whose boundaries are difficult for the narrator and her to understand. Piggy-backing on this

narrative is a series of dialogue pieces between the narrator and the girl over whether she can

publish their phone conversations as a book of some kind. They debate authorship, how people

will perceive their relationship (thus the actual nature of their relationship), and the merit of their

conversations as literature in this space. The narrator also leads us through his childhood,

specifically a time when his father was sleeping with a young woman and the turmoil that arose

from that both practically and for his own emotional states. These personal complications are

multiplied when the narrator and she sleep together at some point and made worse when the girl

(Felicity) commits suicide mysteriously. This leads to some other dialogue pieces titled under

“Interrogation” towards the end of the book. These main timelines are interspersed with general

reflections by the narrator on a variety of topics, dream sequences, and returns to the first

narrative, weaving it all together.

Shepard aligns all of these timelines well enough that we continue to follow the story virtually

seamlessly. As I was reading the book, I found that I really could only get through a couple

chapters a day. This was certainly not because they were difficult to read, but instead, because it

was something that I wanted to allow to sink in day-by-day. I enjoyed spending time with a novel

that provided such a confused narrator struggling not only with his past, but incursions of his

past into his present like a fog. I also appreciated seeing another aspect of an artist whose work

as a playwright had such an effect on how I looked at literature as an undergraduate.

Jacob Hammer's Review of The One Inside

Posted on February 19, 2018 at 8:00 AM Comments comments (947)

The One Inside by Sam Shepard

Reviewed by Jacob Hammer

I had only previously encountered Sam Shepard as a playwright in my literature survey courses,

so when I saw that he was releasing a novel I was excited to see his work in another medium. I

had been saving up spare cash to get it, but then my friend Santino loaned it to me with a hearty

recommendation and I set to it.

This was another novel that had a much looser plot structure. Shepard jumps between his

narrator’s childhood, near past, and what is likely the current timeline with frequent jumps into

dreams and dialogue. The book consists of chapters of only two or three pages, any of which can

move to any of these timelines. Despite this, the book is not awfully confusing to follow. One

way that Shepard achieves this is through chapter titles that hint at where the chapter will take

place in time. Other than that, he makes the timeline clear through his tone and other subtle

clues. He keeps from over-explaining, but also doesn’t let us lose our way.

Again, this novel does not lend itself to plot summary. The narrative we start out with follows

our narrator through a lucid dream state as he wanders through the desert surrounding his trailer

following the barking of his two dogs who are on the trail of something. Another timeline

follows his interactions with a much younger woman who is living with him in a relationship

whose boundaries are difficult for the narrator and her to understand. Piggy-backing on this

narrative is a series of dialogue pieces between the narrator and the girl over whether she can

publish their phone conversations as a book of some kind. They debate authorship, how people

will perceive their relationship (thus the actual nature of their relationship), and the merit of their

conversations as literature in this space. The narrator also leads us through his childhood,

specifically a time when his father was sleeping with a young woman and the turmoil that arose

from that both practically and for his own emotional states. These personal complications are

multiplied when the narrator and she sleep together at some point and made worse when the girl

(Felicity) commits suicide mysteriously. This leads to some other dialogue pieces titled under

“Interrogation” towards the end of the book. These main timelines are interspersed with general

reflections by the narrator on a variety of topics, dream sequences, and returns to the first

narrative, weaving it all together.

Shepard aligns all of these timelines well enough that we continue to follow the story virtually

seamlessly. As I was reading the book, I found that I really could only get through a couple

chapters a day. This was certainly not because they were difficult to read, but instead, because it

was something that I wanted to allow to sink in day-by-day. I enjoyed spending time with a novel

that provided such a confused narrator struggling not only with his past, but incursions of his

past into his present like a fog. I also appreciated seeing another aspect of an artist whose work

as a playwright had such an effect on how I looked at literature as an undergraduate.

Santino DallaVecchia's Review of Water Fragments

Posted on February 1, 2018 at 8:05 AM Comments comments (109)

Water Fragments. Catie Hannigan. Tammy, 2017.

Print. 40 pages. $13.00. Available at tammyjournal.com.

Review by Santino DallaVecchia.

Catie Hannigan’s second chapbook, Water Fragments, manages to be both sparse and dense,

brief and expansive, evocative and somber. It’s a book about water or, more specifically, about

who we are in relation to water. But who is the we? Is it just the speaker, a sort of omniscient

voice that seems like it could be the author, or is this a book meant to encompass us as a whole, a

species, or is it a communication yearning for its own kind, for those touched by water, by those

who rely on water not just for survival but for their sense of humanity? This isn’t a question

Hannigan poses or explicitly answers, but it’s one worth considering, inasmuch as Water

Fragments is equal parts transcendental and inscrutable. I felt drawn into the cadence of water;

I’m writing this now after having spent time in the woods, staring at a bog, and am immediately

drawn to this passage:

Not surprisingly, the trickling of water has led to other memory reservoirs. For

instance, W.B. Yeats, commenting on the inspiration of his poem “The Lake Isle

of Innisfree” (Part I, Islands), recalled that:

I heard a little tinkle of water and saw a fountain in a shop window which

balanced a little ball upon its jet, and began to remember lake water. From the

sudden remembrance came my poem “Innisfree,” my first lyric with anything in

its rhythm of my own music.

Water calls to water and even the memory of water leads us back to water. All I can see right

now is the green film over the still water and the impression it now has of both Innisfree and

Hannigan’s notion of water memories. So– this is a book especially for the water-haunted, and

perhaps it’ll make the most sense to any reader right after they’ve encountered water. Because

the collection of fragments– think maybe Maggie Nelson at her more academic or T.

Fleischmann at their most meditative– isn’t easy to read. It meanders and pauses and detaches

only to suddenly become wry and worldly only to shift again and become purely poetry. And–

like water– other things float along. The above passage is somewhat more straightforward than

most of the book, but it’s nonetheless representative of the interweaving of other poets into her

fragments. The net result is a full argument about the nature of human consciousness as it relates

to water, but one told over the great stretches and unities and divides between water’s different

forms and our differing relationships to these forms. Hannigan writes, “The crux of the work is

to use the source as the source. I wanted to see what would happen if I used my subject as my

only sources: water and poetry.” The work itself concurs– there’s little present that isn’t an

intimate mediation and meditation between water, its encounter with humans, and the poetry that

results.

Water Fragments leads us through many different kinds of water, many different bodies and

forms reservoirs of water take, and writes about them both boldly and humbly. Hannigan carries

on a careful balance: she omits our human inclination to anthropomorphize and ergo make

un-strange the massive and beautiful inhumanity that is water. But she concurrently refuses the

reverse inclination, that is, to think of the water clinically, as something outside the field of

human perception, which, for the purposes of any human discussion, is impossible. How do the

many faces of water look back at us, she asks, and how are those faces really us seeking

revelation through the water? In a final section, titled “Water Notes,” there’s a few pages of

almost unnoted endnotes; one reads,“Water is constantly receiving / it cannot give / and that is

why we feel we must take. We arrive as repenters, we leave as thieves.” The water isn’t feeling

here– it’s solely performing an action, the action endemic to its nature– where we, water’s

witnesses, are both supplicants and pilferers of its unknowing gifts. Exploring the ramifications

of this relationship is a central impulse throughout the chapbook. In one of the most moving

passages, Hannigan writes,

Although the sea is the one who waits, it also contains the immensity. It is wise.

Its wisdom reinforces its power, and this is why we seek it for guidance, why we

are brought to tears when we are face to face with the sea. This is also why we

can never be the sea, we are not built for such immensity. However, we possess

our own sense of the watershed. We have our own giving body, taking body, and

containing body, but we cannot be just one, or else there would be no flux, and if

there is no flux, then we are merely stagnant. Water is change.

There’s a sense that all these fluxes are contained indivisibly within the sea’s vastness, where in

the human body, our “sense of watershed” occurs in varying states, in our very human

changeability. We see in the ocean ourselves perfected, but recognize this unattainability, and

steal away with a sense of both possibility and loss. This is the hinge on which the whole text

rests: the moving stasis of water in all its forms as a constant, with humans and our seeking of

water as a variable. Catie Hannigan immerses us in this meditation insistently and tenderly. “To

reject the water’s darkness,” she writes, “is to live in fear.” To help us not live in fear, she offers

a meandering story about water, and people, and poetry. She reveals the scope of our

interrelationship, and the depth of our spiritual need for water’s presence in her minimal yet

capacious little guidebook, Water Fragments..

Jacob Hammer's Review of The Resurrection of Joan Ashby

Posted on January 14, 2018 at 12:45 AM Comments comments (962)

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas

Reviewed by Jacob Hammer

Someone described this book briefly months ago and made it seem so intriguing that I picked up

a copy as soon as I could. Then it sat on the shelf for a while and I forgot what the person had

said about the book besides their enthusiasm and my own at what they said. When I finally got

back to it for this month’s review, I saw that this enthusiasm was not unfounded. The

Resurrection of Joan Ashby is a book of incredible complexity and insight.

The book opens with a spotlight piece from Literature Magazine on Joan Ashby who is an

acclaimed short story writer with two outrageously successful short story collections. It includes

some excerpts from the stories and concludes that she has yet to produce a novel even though

years have passed since her last collection was released. From here the narrative takes off. Joan

has just discovered she is pregnant despite being up front about her desire to keep children out of

the lives of she and her new husband, Martin. She decides to keep the child and do her best to

love it. During the pregnancy she finishes the draft of her first novel, but when she looks back on

it, decides to get toss it and begins writing a series of short stories after the first boy, Daniel, is

born. They hire a nanny, and Joan is still able to spend a fair amount of time working on her

writing, though she does not publish anything. She is a perfectionist of sorts and what she writes

during this time does not reach her standards. Things are covered over in a feeling of foreboding.

After a few years, another boy is born, but Joan struggles more to feel attachment to Eric than

she did Daniel. Soon enough, Daniel begins to start writing stories of his own. Joan encourages

him, but keeps her own literary career from him. The years go by. More and more of Joan’s time

is taken up by her motherhood. She carves out a few hours most days, over the course of nearly a

decade, and finally completes another novel that she wants to publish, but puts off publishing

because of increasing demands from Eric for supervision as he proves himself to be a genius of

programing and starts a wildly successful business from his parents’ home.

This point is where the novel takes a turn. Joan discovers accidentally that the novel she had

hidden away has been published by someone else and split into two books. The thief only

bothered to change the gender of one of the characters before publishing it to wide acclaim. Joan

is thrown into fury of emotions and discovers through the pseudonym that Daniel is the one who

committed the theft, the son who she had always gotten along with better and who seemed to be

more on his feet than Eric in many ways. Joan immediately leaves for India on a trip she had

been wanting to go on for decades and notifies her agent of the theft. The book shifts from this to

transcriptions of an audio recording that Daniel creates to explain his theft and more importantly

explain how he has felt in a family of geniuses. As a punishment to himself for stealing the novel

his mother had carefully tucked away, he makes himself read the two short story collections that

won her early fame. This gives us even more looks at her work as Daniel reads passages of the

stories that he finds especially striking. After a while of this and Daniel’s decision to transcribe

his mother’s novel with minimal changes, we move back to Joan as she flies to India. She arrives

in Dharamshala shortly after for what she believes will be a three week trip. The trip ends up

being much longer than that. While there she meets people who help her along her way and even

eventually meets a very much changed Eric who has been there for some months already. She

begins to heal. With this healing comes her writing again. Eventually Martin sends a package

with the recording that Daniel made. After listening to the recording, Joan has more clarity about

her relationship with Daniel and though she is still hurt, she moves past it and decides to remake

her life in Dharamshala, divorce Martin, and continue to pursue her writing. The book ends with

a note from Literature Magazine saying that a two novels are set to be released by Joan that very

year.

What makes this book unique is how, through the use of Ashby’s writing, we get not only insight

into how she is processing what is going on around her, but also many more stories wrapped up

within the narrative. To add to this already complex view, we also have Daniel’s audio recording

that provides a whole additional perspective of everything that has happened so far in the novel.

The first half of the novel has an eerie feeling to it. Wolas expertly foreshadows Daniel’s betrayal

but leads us to believe that it will not come from him at all which makes the twist of it all the

better. This book rewards its readers for their labor with deep insight into the mental processes of

both narrators and a vast array of smaller narratives via the fiction of Ashby.

Review of Patient Zero by Tomas Q. Morin, Reviewed by Santino DallaVecchia

Posted on November 23, 2017 at 12:25 AM Comments comments (713)

Patient Zero. Tomás Q. Morín. Copper Canyon Press, April 2017.

ISBN: 978-1556594939. Print. 96 pages. $16.00.

Review by Santino DallaVecchia.

“I used to walk like a sloth,” writes Tomás Q. Morín, “eyes on the slow ground, memorizing

every pair of shoes in the seventh grade.” That this poem, from his sophomore collection Patient

Zero, is called ‘Stargazing’ may begin to give you a sense of how this book values gradual

revelation over any shock or gimmick or surprise. Morín’s poems are patient; they don’t rush to

make a point and they don’t grab your attention by image alone. Instead, they luxuriate in the

words they’re made of– you can hear as you read the gentle insistence of sounds and cadences.

And they draw connections through space and time that become dramatic not through absurd

logical gaps but through a recognized connection. In this, Patient Zero gives us a world brought

down a notch from the often hectic pace of contemporary poetry. The collection’s contents by

and large match this tone– the voice here is gentle and insistent, more likely to suggest a train of

thought that subtly realigns your worldview than to directly command you to change.

In one early poem, ‘At the Supermarket,’ Morín writes,

Salt for blood—A fresh loaf

for sleep. Outside, Sunday morning

has expired. The line is long

for this hour. When the doors open

the squawks of gulls blown too far inland

announce nothing is impossible. The cashier

vanishes again for the cigarette key

and the moment slows the way moments do

when the eye is fixed for too long—:

This poem, as many in the collection do, reveals where the lived instant transforms into the

reflected on moment. The lines break where a new action occurs, leading us to notice the minute

gaps between events and their consequences. ‘Sunday morning / has expired,’ and ‘The line is

long / for this hour,’ and ‘When the doors open / the squawks of gulls blown too far inland /

announce nothing is impossible,’ in all these observations, the result of the thing observed carries

forward, rather than remaining with its catalyst. Everything gently pulls apart in this observation,

‘when the eye is fixed for too long,' and in doing so, prompts us to question how the world we

inhabit fits together. Crucially, Morín doesn’t pretend to know the answer. The poem opens with

the ambiguous but evocative ‘Salt for blood—A fresh loaf / for sleep,’ and who can say precisely

what this means? But in context of the poem, it casts into relief the indeterminacy of both the

lives we lead and of the moments and objects that make them up.

As suggested by the evocative start of ‘At the Supermarket,’ the restraint throughout

Patient Zero doesn’t inhibit its lyricism or imaginative leaps– instead, it enhances both, in

allowing them the space to breathe. Within a poem, each line isn’t specifically vying for your

attention; they’re all working in tandem to craft an impression. If one line stands out, it makes a

strong rather than distracting impression, and if a poem goes further out on an imaginative limb,

we’re inclined to trust, not skepticism. So, when ‘The Food Critic’ reveals itself as a dystopia

poem, we accept it without the resistance that often accompanies poetry readers when we suspect

a genre piece might be sneaking into our literary diet. And when we encounter ‘Sing Sing,’ we’re

ready to be moved by whatever it is that Morín– gracious, patient, and tender throughout– is so

moved and intrigued by that he dedicates seventeen pages to it. I hesitate to give any of this

poem away, but it’s a sort of rumination and narrative on the idea of the Muse, and it’s at the

collection’s heart because the rest of the collection seems to emanate from it– what came before

we reconsider in light of it, and what follows is read in the light of its shadow. But these few

lines are an excellent measure of both its and the book’s quiet, patient brilliance:

What struck her

always about that night


 

 

was how far from the boat

the black crest of beech


and maples joined the

dark flat of the river


to make a green yawn

each second made


yawn even wider.

 

She could never forget


this coupling of solid

and liquid darks so


unbroken and total except

where the buildings sat


locked arm in arm

along the shore.



 

In a year of brilliant debuts and sophomore collections, Tomás Q. Morín’s Patient Zero

distinguishes itself through its graceful, tender, and evocative unfolding. He teaches us, in its

pages, how to let ourselves see the world, and gives us his vision of the world, in all its patience

and depth.

The Swimmer Reviewed by Jacob Hammer

Posted on November 17, 2017 at 10:50 AM Comments comments (1939)

The Swimmer by Zsuzsa Banks (translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo)

Reviewed by Jacob Hammer

I picked up this book not entirely knowing what to expect. I was straightening the used

books in the store I work at when I saw the title of the book. I decided to take a look. The dust

jacket can only tell you so much though. I took a chance anyway. Bánks did not disappoint. What

I found was a remarkably well constructed narrative of a childhood in disorder and of the

connections that can be formed in the midst of that change.

The book takes place in Hungary in the 1950s. Within the first pages we learn that Kata,

Isti, and their father Kálmán have been abandoned by their mother, Katalin. This leads the

remaining family through a series of relatives’ and friends’ houses, staying sometimes for only a

couple months, and sometimes for years. Kata and Isti grow up this way. Eventually they stop

asking about their mother or hoping that she will come back. Kálmán is distant. Sometimes he

spends hours at a time unreachable staring at the ceiling or a picture of their mother. Kata calls

this “diving.” Since the novel is written from Kata’s childhood perspective, Kálmán's reasons for

moving them from place to place seem even more confusing, but displacement is a confusing

thing no matter the age. In each place that Kata, Isti, and Kálmán live in, they form bonds with

those they are with only to have those bonds stretched or broken when they leave again. This

lends the book as a whole a sense of slow moving tragedy heightened by the helplessness of the

narrator to control surrounding circumstances.

As we begin to connect a chronological narrative from the loosely chronological one that

Banks provides through the narrator, we notice that Isti develops odd behaviors as time goes by.

At first, it would be easy enough to say that these behaviors were just a child pretending or

something equally harmless. As time passes, he seems more and more convinced of the auditory

hallucinations and more stubborn in his behavior generally. He becomes convinced that he can

hear people’s hair screaming as it is being cut and other things impossible to hear. He also spends

hours in a daze similar to Kálmán's “diving.” All of this makes Kata anxious.

For a long time they live at a lake and it is here that they learn to swim. This is one of the

times that Kálmán gives them the most attention, to teach them to swim as he does. Isti becomes

obsessed with swimming and gets in the water as often as possible. This is, overall, one of the

happiest times for the family. They grow close with the people they are living with and the lake

gives them comfort. Eventually, they have to leave. Isti is extremely upset by this move and Kata

provides this insight into the family dynamic and especially to Kálmán:

I had the feeling that Isti and I were just two add-ons, stuck to him, to his life, that he

could never get rid of. We were part of him; in some vague way that’s how it was, and he

put up with us the way he put up with everything, no matter what it was—with

indifference…He broke off relationships so easily, leaving no trail for anybody to follow,

wiping out any trace of us…(pg 223).

Isti worsens somewhat after that move. Eventually they are staying near a river during winter. He

is told to stay away from the thinning ice, but does not listen. He falls through but gets back out.

Neighbors bring him back home and they are able to get him warm again, but he comes down

with a fever and eventually dies. This tragedy brings together many of the people that they had

stayed with in the last few years and leads to Kálmán and Kata returning to the lake soon

afterward and staying.

While this narrative is carrying onward, we also learn the reason why Kata and Isti’s

mother flees in the first place. She was running to the West and we learn that she is doing fairly

well there. Her letters and presents are often lost in the mail or intercepted by the government

which led to her total absence in the life of the family she left behind. By the time Kata and Isti

learn this, they have already given up seeing her again for the most part. We also learn of Kálmán

and Katalin’s love story meeting and early marriage before happiness left them. These jumps into

the distant past and separated present add to the tragic feeling of the novel as a whole. They also

allow us to gain some understanding of the seemingly unavoidable and unalterable circumstances

that pull Kata and Isti around so cruelly.

This was an engrossing book. Often it seemed stark in circumstances, but this was

balanced out by careful attention to the smallest gestures, kindnesses, and details of human

interactions that illustrate an incredible understanding of the understated actions that make up

human lives. The book’s slightly disjointed timeline and narrative, as well as its structuring

around frequent breaks– which could indicate a short jump in time or a launch into an extended

flashback or even a far jump forward in time– all lend themselves to an almost simultaneous

experience of the whole novel. It feels like your own memory because of this. This is a book that

I would whole-heartedly recommend.

Review of Fantasy as a Means of Revelation and Justice: Eve L. Ewing’s Electric Arches

Posted on November 13, 2017 at 8:10 PM Comments comments (9321)

Fantasy as a Means of Revelation and Justice: Eve L. Ewing’s Electric Arches

Reviewed by Santino DallaVecchia

I’ve come across a few calls for submissions recently that go out of their way to specify how

much they don’t want genre pieces– fantasy, science fiction, horror, and just generally

speculative fiction. And while this makes sense– few lit journals are interested in work that’s not

realism or at least realism-adjacent– it’s also somewhat disheartening to see such huge swaths of

writing discarded out of hand, especially inasmuch as many notable works in the past decade do

dance around the edges of genre work. Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! is a potent example, as is

the increased critical attention paid to Stephen King’s work. Man Booker Prize winner Marlon

James is currently writing a fantasy trilogy.

And this is to say nothing of poetry. Many poets are increasingly comfortable incorporating

elements of genre work into their poems. I think, since poetry is itself so symbolic, it’s a pretty

short intuitive leap to playing with imaginary things to represent a deeper truth, an escape from

the everyday into the desires and realities beneath it. This doesn’t detract from poetry; it

enhances it, offers it the opportunity to grow past its ostensible limits. It’s this willingness to

explore and ignore strictures about genre that makes Eve L. Ewing’s debut collection, Electric

Arches, so remarkable. Though it’s composed of words, it’s got the visual variety and depth of a

graphic novel, not just because it incorporates images, but because she embraces the exploratory

possibilities of poetry in representing her own memories. In a brief introduction, she writes,

“Anyway, as I rode my bike I would narrate, in my head, all of my adventures…. In this way, my

block became the backdrop of infinite possibility. The space in my head was as real to me as the

dirt beneath my feet.” Throughout the collection, she vividly re-creates this feeling, this sense of

the imagined real as being as deserving of space as the transcribed real. In many poems, she

splits between typed and handwritten text:


In each of these [a re-telling] poems, Ewing begins with a stark transcription of a memory in type

before finishing the story in her handwriting. Here, she takes the racist cruelty of a neighbor and

responds by using her bike to dizzy the old woman, and captures her in a giant net, hurling her

into a lake. This fantasy isn’t an escape from reality, as is often the charge against the fantastical,

but is instead a re-aligning of reality to better match the justice deserved when a white person

uses a racial slur.

Using fantasy as a means of both emotional release and retroactive justice is a central facet of

Electric Arches. In a long prose segment, titled “The Device,” she writes the story of a machine

built by a collaboration of a “hive mind of Black nerds, obsessive types, scientists and inventors

but also historians and archeologists and the odd astrologer here and there,” to allow people in

the present to communicate with those in the past, all so that a fifth grade girl can ask this

poignant question: “What words can you offer us to help us be free as black people in a world

that does not love us?” The fantasy offers no out; instead, it gives us back reality, revealed for

what it is. Electric Arches is an essential work for our time, a genre bending book that uses

comic book exuberance and freewheeling concept building to unflinchingly explore the injustice

of racism and the complexity of human interactions. Eve L. Ewing heroically recasts the world to

reveal, right, and write through wrongs.

Electric Arches. Eve L. Ewing. Haymarket Books, September 2017.

ISBN: 9781608468560. Print. 94 pages. $16.00.

The Minor Outsider Review

Posted on September 29, 2017 at 11:40 AM Comments comments (7263)

The Minor Outsider by Ted McDermott

Reviewed by Jacob Hammer

Todd McDermott's debut novel, The Minor Outsider, is an engaging downward spiral. He

gives us a narrator who is often aware of his faults and the turn they are making in his life, yet he

makes little effort to change his behavior. Simultaneously, McDermott allows us to find

ourselves blindsided often enough to keep interest. This is by no means a predictable book.

When we are first introduced to our narrator, Ed, he is enjoying the summer after his first

year at a graduate program in Montana. He seems basically aimless, but not self-destructive.

Taylor is a new student that he accidentally meets while wandering the surrounding bike paths.

Almost immediately, he feels the terrible pull of love in him. Taylor has a boyfriend, but Ed still

seeks her out constantly, trying to play it cool. She stays fairly distant, but friendly, until she

breaks up with her boyfriend. The same day they start dating. Things go fairly well between

them for a while until Taylor feels the lump in Ed’s arm that is apparently a tumor. Ed has known

about it for some time, but has not had it checked on or told Taylor about it. She insists that he

should get it tested. Ed resists, but eventually does get it looked at. At first, he is told that he

likely has a less serious condition that produces benign tumors in the body, but that he also could

have a condition that will result in unremovable brain tumors. As if this was not complicated

enough, Taylor becomes pregnant. They remain optimistic though, or at least Taylor does. Ed

begins to retreat into himself and as he does so, he also begins to experience hearing loss. He

tries to ignore it, as it would mean that he has the more serious condition (that could be passed to

his unborn child) and retreats still further into himself. He finally goes to get an MRI so that he

can know for sure. He does not tell Taylor he is going even though she is extremely concerned

about his health. When he finds out that he has tumors in his brain, he drives for hours and ends

up in another small town and sleeps with a girl he meets there. As morning arrives, he is filled

with regret and hurries home.He decides that they should get engaged instead of telling Taylor

what happened. Ed is full to the brim with guilt. He finishes his writing program, but is unable to

find a job in the field. He ends up working as a baker for a cafe in town. Taylor continues to

work away at her writing while Ed’s falters. He hears less and less. At a hockey game, they run

into the girl that Ed slept with the night before he proposed and Taylor learns what happened.

She locks him out of their apartment and he tries to get in. They wrestle on the floor and the

police come when the neighbors call. Ed is arrested and kept in jail over a holiday weekend then

told he is not allowed to contact Taylor for ten days. He returns to obsessing over her. While

working on a freelance journalism piece, he steals a gun from a self-defense class. He thinks

about killing himself for a bit, but the gun is not loaded. Instead he decides to talk to Taylor. She

tells him to leave. He agrees. He goes to his car and writes a check for all the money that he has

to his name and drives away with the empty gun.

Throughout the book, we are constantly aware of the small mistakes that the narrator is

making. From the start, his interest in Taylor is rooted in their difference from each other. He is

brooding and in denial about his tumors. Taylor is optimistic and more perceptive. Ed seems to

hope that she will fix him without any effort on his part. He becomes complacent and Taylor

repeatedly points out how he doesn’t listen to what she wants; he just runs with what he thinks

she wants. This deafness to her needs eventually becomes literal as the tumors blossom in Ed’s

brain and confirm his doom. Ed continually refuses to reach out and admits repeatedly to

becoming stuck in his own head and his own thoughts when he should be reaching out, but he

does nothing. He is motivated by guilt to a fault. His first guilt is over money that he inherited

from his grandmother and then invested well. He never tells anyone about it and Taylor does not

find out about it until he writes that farewell check. Ed performs poverty with his friends in the

program and feigns worry over the costs for testing his tumors all the while letting this financial

guilt grow in him not unlike those same tumors. On to this he adds his guilt for cheating on

Taylor and the desperate attempt to hold things together that is his proposal to her. Again, he

props up his perception of what Taylor would want instead of asking and listening to her. This

deafness results in their final separation and his departure down the unknown road.

Maybe this departure and his final gift to her are the one time his guilt motivates him to

do something good for Taylor and their child. In any case, here we have an intriguing character.

The stripped down descriptions and dialogue move the book along quickly and work to convey

the awkward interactions between uncertain adults as they try to navigate the realities of

adulthood and their performed identities to each other. Definitely worth the read and something I

struggled to put down.

Review of Our Lady of the Ruins

Posted on September 8, 2017 at 4:05 PM Comments comments (151)

Poems of the Vague Apocalypse: Traci Brimhall’s Our Lady of the Ruins

In her sophomore collection, Our Lady of the Ruins, Traci Brimhall crafts a fractured set of

legends for our time, a collection of story-poems that look at us from our near future, all presided

over by the subliminal presence of the titular icon. It’s a rare feat. While post-apocalyptic or

dystopian poetry certainly exists, collections that sustain this theme and mood as their central

concept aren’t common, and that’s got a lot to do with how hard this mode is to sustain. Poetry

often works as a space of conceptual solace– even if its content is distressing or challenging, it’s

nonetheless a place we retreat to, and return from refreshed. A speculative work about our near

future imagined as a grim collapse of what we know, though, isn’t so much refreshing as it is

cautionary. These works tend to feel like odd, spectral warning signs, missives from artists who

see what could be. So, to create a poetry in a genre of warning signs and to craft small fragments

of beauty in the midst of horror isn’t easy, but it’s necessary. Through poetry, we’re afforded the

chance to witness dozens of different narratives, and to witness the individual revelations and

sufferings that take place in any time of strife.

In “Prelude to a Revolution,” Brimhall offers an evocative portrait of this future world, writing,

We go to prison windows and pass cigarettes, tangerines

and iodine through the bars. Anything we think

could heal a man. Assassins kiss our fingers.

Mercenaries sing us songs about unbroken light

as we mend their shirts. The bilingual murderers recite

lamentations in one tongue, and in another, young myths.

We fold and unfold our shawls, and the men squint

into the sunlight, dumb with hope. Some days they confuse

the walls of their cage with their skin. Some days,

the sky. They see their deaths in the sweat darkening

our dresses. To sweeten the hours we share scandals

from the city, how curators removed an elephant's heart

from the museum because it began beating when anyone

in love looked at it, how the coroner found minnows

swimming in a drowned girl's lungs. They ask if it's true,

if slaves are chained together on ships to prevent suicide.

We say they'll never be free. They warn us one night soon

the judge will wake to find his bed alive with wasps,

while across town the night watchman will stare stunned

at the moths circling before he realizes he's on fire.

As this poem reveals, the collection isn’t so much a post-apocalyptic text as one set during an

apocalypse. It isn’t Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, where any hope for a meaningful

reconstruction of society is lost, but it’s conversely a world much further devastated than your

average dystopia. It balances delicately between ambiguous circumstance with very definite

consequence. Brimhall writes so eloquently about her motley assemblage that we don’t care

about the cause as much as the effect: it’s the fallout that matters, and the many portraits of

women in the aftermath. The poems reveal that while we may not know exactly how the world

will become one of ruins, we can guess the kind of harms that will be inflicted. What is a world

fallen apart, Brimhall asks, for women? There’s a poignant awareness surrounding her topic–

namely, that women are very often relegated to less than equal positions even in the most

progressive of places, even in what we until recently believed to be the most progressive of

times. The collection provides a portrait of the world in a future that seems eerily familiar, but

through the eyes of many individuals, whose unique experiences reveal the dangers and the

possibilities in a broken apart world. Our Lady of the Ruins is a somber, lyrical, sublime

reminder of what the world could be, and of the way our species could exist in that world.

Our Lady of the Ruins. Traci Brimhall. W.W. Norton & Company, April 2012.

ISBN 978-0393086430. Print. 96 pages. $15.95.

A Line Made by Walking Reviewed by Jacob Hammer

Posted on August 28, 2017 at 8:05 AM Comments comments (5176)

A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume

Reviewed by Jacob Hammer

Sara Baume presents in her second novel a book that gives its readers a personal look

deep into its narrator’s life. This, on its own, would not distinguish it from any number of

novels out there on the shelf. What Baume does that sets this novel apart is to give us this

perspective while weaving in multiple back stories seamlessly and providing us with a wealth

of art knowledge.

The novel begins with the narrator musing on her Grandmother’s death and the more

recent death of a robin. She has moved into her Grandmother’s cottage after a near

breakdown in her flat in Dublin and is full of all sorts of emotional turmoil and self-doubt.

The cottage provides shelter from some of those stresses. The dead robin is the first in an

emerging series of photographs that she is taking of dead things. Each one of these ten

animals that she finds in the countryside and garden surrounding the cottage is an opening

through which the narrator explores herself. Sometimes the animal will make her reflect on

her early childhood or on more recent events. Further paths down memory lane are cleared

via various items of her Grandmother’s that remain in the house after the rest of the family

has gone through to get the things they find precious or useful. From these we begin to create

an image of Frankie’s past and how she ended up at her Grandmother’s cottage cutting

herself off from the world and taking pictures of dead things by the side of the road. With her

we begin to see the fog of the recent past clearing and a way onward emerge.

One thing that made this book really striking was Frankie’s constant references to art.

She is an artist and studied art in university so as she ponders things over she tests herself on

works of art relating to whatever it is she is thinking about at that moment. These pop up

throughout the book. And allow for even more insight into how she is feeling or what she is

thinking based in her interpretation of the work and the works that she chooses to mention.

On top of that, the author includes a detailed list at the back of the book that lists every art

piece mentioned by chapter to encourage further investigation by the reader.

Another striking feature in the novel is its unconventional pacing. As one moves

along through the novel there are frequent pauses indicated by extra space. This indicated a

passage of time that can sometimes be very brief or sometimes signal that a memory

sequence is starting. The space created and the anticipation of a shift ahead help the reader to

reflect on what they have just read and hold it in their mind almost like the photographs that

Frankie takes or the works of art that she mentions. We hold each moment separate, but are

also reminded by those parts of the mind trying to align things linearly that there are multiple

stories all being told at once to create this whole.

I enjoyed this book because it made me think about the how we hold memories and

how they are cued by the things around us in a constant stream. I enjoyed it because of the

intriguing art references that enticed me to learn more. Most importantly, I enjoyed this book

because I wanted to know more about Frankie. I wanted to learn how she would emerge from

the funk that she was under and to know how she came to be an artist questioning her ability

living in her Grandmother’s former cottage and passing the days riding a bicycle through the

Irish countryside and taking photographs of dead animals. A great read and something I

would happily recommend.


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