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ZYZZYVA Book Reviews.

The Voice That Moves You: ‘The Art of Perspective’ by Christopher Castellani

9781555977269When readers think of Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel Lolita, they’re arguably more likely to recall the silver-tongued wordplay of its narrator, Humbert Humbert, than they are of the machinations of the plot, the character’s verbal gymnastics intended to distract from the horrors of his crimes. As Humbert declares, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” One of William Faulkner’s most revered novels, Light in August, utilizes a complex, impressionistic style, even to the point of incorporating made up words like “sootbleakened” and “childtrebling,” to underscore the psychological complexity of its potentially unsympathetic lead, Joe Christmas. Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried is a Vietnam account that constantly casts doubt on its own veracity, its narrator interrogating just what it means to tell a “true” war story.

All of these works prove why who is telling a story is often just as crucial as the story itself, if not more so. As novelist Christopher Castellani states, “There is no more important decision the writer makes than who tells the story.” Castellani is the author of The Art of Perspective: Who Tells the Story (160 pages), the latest in a collection of books about the craft of writing published by Graywolf Press. While the series may be of most interest to writers, Castellani discusses fiction in such an accessible and engaging manner that the book should prove compelling to anyone who is curious about why some of their favorite novels work the way they do.

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Accept the Flaws to Get to Beauty: ‘Syllabus of Errors’ by Troy Jollimore

9780691167688_p0_v1_s192x300Whenever I open a new book of poems, I am torn by twin currents of hope and dread; hope that there may be something fresh, meaningful, transcendental inside, and dread that it will be more pretentious nouveau pointlessness. Is that too strong a characterization? Not if poetry is the cornerstone of your (with a nod to Forrest Gander) faithful existence.

As C.K. Williams said in “Whacked,” good poems should whack you and “bad poems can hurt you…you know you are, wasting time, if you’re not being whacked.” So it was with deep pleasure that I slowly read through Troy Jollimore’s new book, Syllabus of Errors (112 pages; Princeton University Press). I was thoroughly whacked by these poems, and as Jollimore studied with Williams in the hazy past, I think he’d be proud. From the first lyric, “On Birdsong,” one is captivated by Jollimore’s unapologetic embrace of complex thought, of humor, doubt and praise. Often, the poems move from logic through the fantastic to the affirmative. The poem “On the Origin of Things” starts:

Everyone knows that the moon started out
as a renegade fragment of the sun, a solar
flare that fled that hellish furnace
and congealed into a flat frozen pond suspended
between the planets. But did you know
that anger began as music, played
too often and too loudly by drunken musicians
at weddings and garden parties? Or that turtles
evolved from knuckles, ice from tears, and darkness
from misunderstanding?

After a few more elegant twirls, the poem becomes a love song:

…and that my longing
for you has never taken me far
from that original desire, to inscribe
a comet’s orbit around the walls
of our city, to gently stroke the surface of the stars.

Many poetic and philosophic references infuse these poems. Jollimore’s first book, Tom Thomson in Purgatory, which won the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award, was at least in part an homage to John Berryman. The series of forty-two linked sonnets shows us a sad, slightly comic everyman, an update to Berryman’s Henry. In his second book, At Lake Scugog (an unfortunate title for an excellent book), Jollimore’s Tom romped though part of the book, but Jollimore also played with other forms—pantuom, terza rima, and rhyme, in general.

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Queen of the Liminal: ‘Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine’ by Diane Williams

unnamedDiane Williams has remained on the edge of American experimental short fiction for the last twenty years. Known for her compact, oblique stories and her extraordinary use of non sequiturs, Williams has written seven books of stories and was an editor at StoryQuarterly before starting the NOON literary annual. She has been lauded by authors Jonathan Franzen, Sam Lipsyte, and Lydia Davis. And her latest book of remarkably potent short fiction, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine (136 pages; McSweeney’s), not only keeps her on the forefront of the form, but also redefines its parameters.

In an interview with HTMLGiant.com, Williams said: “The sentence cannot be overemphasized…neither can a fragment of a sentence or any syllable of a word. The writer either exploits the language for maximum effects or she does not.” For the forty stories in Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, this sentiment holds true: Williams renders every single word like a prism of implication, and she stretches the space between sentences as wide as chapter breaks, while the sentences themselves somehow read like stand-alone stories. The density of her writing warrants a closer reading than most fiction because it also reads like superb poetry, just casual and fluid and lilting between verse and improvised speech.

Above all, this collection expresses a viciously recursive self-awareness through its narrators and characters (including Williams herself, who shows up by name in at least four of these stories) who attempt to fulfill the stories they tell themselves.

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Legendary Frontier Days Told for These Times: ‘Paul Bunyan’ by Larry Beckett

51MF2m8+EVL._SX341_BO1,204,203,200_Poet and songwriter Larry Beckett has been embarked on a quixotic project, retelling the legend of the famed, semi-fictional logger Paul Bunyan (not to mention his “blue-eyed ox,’’ Babe) in ways that capture the barbaric yawp of olden times in a voice that speaks to our current culture, and implicitly, paralysis of spirit.

Bypassing empty debates about the pros and cons of “American exceptionalism,” Beckett flat out launches into the introduction of this hero of a thousand faces:

Out of the wild North woods, in the thick of the timber
And through the twirling of the winter of the blue snow,
Within an inch of sunup, with the dream shift ending,
A man mountain, all hustle, all muscle and bull bones,
An easy winner, full of swagger, a walking earthquake,
A skyscraper, looking over the tallest American tree,
A smart apple, a wonder inventor, the sun’s historian,
A cock-a-doodle hero, a hobo, loud, shrewd, brawling,
Rowdy, brash as the earth, stomping, big-hearted, raw,
Paul Bunyan lumbered and belly-laughed at the stars.

Admirers of, say, John Ashbery, may stop here, but the rest of us can stick around for the ride of Beckett’s Paul Bunyan (96 pages; Smokestack Press), a roiling picaresque, described by the publisher as a “modern epic in ‘longwinded’ blank verse.”

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A ‘Dirty Old Man’s’ Defiant Stories: ‘The Bell Tolls for No One’ by Charles Bukowski

The Bell Tolls for No OneEarly on in the Charles Bukowski compilation The Bell Tolls For No One, a narrator named Bukowski pulls his car over to the side of the road to stop and marvel at a hideous-looking farm animal. “When one ugly admires another,” he muses, “there is a transgression of sorts, a touching and exchanging of souls, if you will.” It could be said that much of Charles Bukowski’s writing is devoted to this moment when two imperfect forces collide – whether it’s drunken lovers helping each other endure a cold night or a downtrodden man recognizing a kindred spirit in the gnarled face of a hog. Bukowski’s work recognizes humanity’s myriad imperfections. (“Human relationships don’t work,” one of his protagonists flat-out states in a story titled “An Affair of Little Importance.”) And yet in his broken-down characters’ heartbreaking attempts to find solace in a world “half…run on hatred, the other half on fear,” there is a sly triumph, if only in their refusal to give up and drop dead.

Since 2008, City Lights Books has been compiling the uncollected and unpublished works of Charles Bukowski in a series of volumes. The latest is The Bell Tolls For No One and draws the vast majority of its material from a series of short pieces Bukowski wrote, called “Notes of a Dirty Old Man,” which were serialized in publications such as NOLA Express and the L.A. Free Press from 1967 to 1976. Unsurprisingly, the collection is something of a grab bag; the stories are eclectic, with several pieces that read almost like speculative fiction. As always, Bukowski remains incendiary: one of the stand-out stories is a post-apocalyptic fever dream that details what might have happened if the notoriously pro-segregationist candidate George Wallace had become president (policies include a curfew for African-Americans and slating 85 percent of library books for destruction).

In more than one piece, Bukowski’s hardboiled detective-style narration reveals his love of vintage noir writers such as Mickey Spillane: “Jane was a natural, and she had delicious legs…and a face of powdered pain. And she knew me. She taught me more than the philosophy books of the ages.” Elsewhere, Bukowski spins a violent Western yarn in which he subverts the classic trope of the stranger who drifts into town, complete with poker-faced one-liners that wouldn’t be out of place in a Clint Eastwood movie: “If God created you, He was sure as hell in need of better instruction.”

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The ‘Swamp-Rat Rimbaud’: ‘What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford’

What About ThisWhat About This, the title of the massive new edition of the Collected Poems of Frank Stanford (747 pages, Copperhead Press) announces, a cover picture of the late poet (dubbed the “swamp-rat Rimbaud’’ by Lorenzo Thomas) glaring at you.

Well, what about it?

First things first: If the romantic ideal of the poet is to live fast, love hard, and leave a good-looking corpse, Stanford did all of the above, and then some.

It’s impossible to ignore the biography. Born August 1, 1948, in Richton, Mississippi, Stanford shot himself, after reportedly being confronted about multiple infidelities by his wife, Ginny, and his girlfriend, C.D. Wright, who were both in his Fayetteville, Arkansas, house at the time—June 3, 1978, a couple of months shy of his 30th birthday.

That’s about the only thing you could say was shy about Stanford.

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The lush lives of vandals and debauchers: ‘Four-Legged Girl’ by Diane Seuss

Four-Legged GirlThe dedication page of Diane Seuss’s Four-Legged Girl (88 pages; Graywolf Press) reads: “For my people: the living and the dead.” But in this hypnagogic third collection, the margin between the living and the dead is “glory holed,” penetrated, and ultimately renounced. Seuss’s singular eye sees bodies everywhere, and her psychedelic syntax animates them. Spirea is “the color of entrails;” poppies sport a “testicular fur;” a blouse on the clothesline makes the speaker feel “as if [she]’d been skinned alive.” In these elegies, insensate matter becomes living human flesh.

But the humans with whom Seuss is concerned are always already marginal: punks and addicts, convalescents and outsider artists. The first of the book’s five, vaguely chronological sections deals with the death of the speaker’s father, though his disembodied tumors haunt these pages long after his funeral in “As a child I ate and mourned.” Other recurrent characters include an ex-partner who dies of an overdose—referred to only as “my junkie”—and a two-headed, taxidermied lamb in a museum in the speaker’s hometown: “the precious freak who lives at the heart of me / still.” The book’s final poem is an ode to Myrtle Corbin, the eponymous four-legged girl, born in the late nineteenth century with two pairs of legs, two pelvises, and two sets of working reproductive organs. Seuss’s speaker, who frequently ponders her own body’s difference, with its “titanium leg and…wide caesarian scar,” makes idols of this motley cast of characters.

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Offspring of the Thought, Flesh of Its Flesh: ‘For the Lost Cathedral’ by Bruce Bond

12331A feature of Bruce Bond’s immense talent is his poetic economy. What he is able to articulate or suggest in a few lines requires paragraphs of exposition, a feature he shares with other truly great poets. At a recent reading, Bond briefly discussed his training as a musician, and thus a partial explanation for the elusiveness of his poetry was provided. They have a rhythm and musical sonority that propels many of them, investing their already laden words with a further force.

In his latest collection, For the Lost Cathedral (84 pages; LSU Press), the poems run a gamut of subject matters, from the Bone Church of Sedlic to Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, from the seemingly small and personal, to the broad and historical. The poems are exceptional, because they raise grand metaphysical, religious, and psychological questions and expound upon possible answers, yet leave them aptly unresolved, knowing that only partial elucidations will have to suffice. The book’s first poem, “The Gate,” begins this questioning as the speaker states: “When I first learned of heaven, / it was something we lost, or was / loss simply the word we gave it.” Here Bond makes the point that much of what may seem to be a religious conceptualization of existence has an analogue in our private psyche, and thus originates there and not from some external divinity. The story of a lost paradise pervades much of Western theology, and therefore must be rooted in a distinctly human, psycho-linguistic understanding of our place within the world. We construct and perpetuate grand myths such as Eden in order to make sense of our place. “Loss” is the word given but does not necessarily have to be the reality experienced.

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‘The Most Thrilling Terms’: ‘Nabokov in America’ by Robert Roper

Nabokov in AmericaSpeaking about what he refused to characterize as his personal fame, Nabokov once told an interviewer, “Lolita is famous, not I. I am an obscure, doubly obscure, novelist with an unpronounceable name.” However, in the face of what the author and his family called “Hurricane Lolita,” Nabokov remained personally obscure only because he was intent on doing so. Yet all the while the near mythical dimension of his persona grew around his unwillingness to appear in public, and because of his pithy, self-orchestrated, and tightly managed interviews, which tantalized but revealed little. Appearing in a candid television interview once (and refusing to do so thereafter), demanding that all interview questions be submitted to him beforehand, the intensely private Nabokov was able to keep a close hold on what an exceedingly curious public was able to know about him personally. He only commented elusively on his own work and made strong proclamations about the works of others. Thus it has been the job of biographers such as Brian Boyd—and now Robert Roper, with his Nabokov in America: On the Road to Lolita (354 pages; Bloomsbury)—to give Nabokov’s readership something closer to an honest, human portrait of the man behind works of genius such as Pale Fire and Lolita.

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Outside and Inside the Revolution All at Once: ‘Mrs. Engels’ by Gavin McCrea

Mrs. EngelsIn his first novel, Gavin McCrea accesses the intricacies of Marx and Engel’s Communist revolution through the ordinary magic of fiction. Mrs. Engels (Catapult; 368 pages) explores the subtleties of a historic movement through the vantage of Lizzie Burns, Frederick Engels’ longtime companion and eventual wife. Lizzie, an illiterate Irish woman, is both an outsider and part of Frederick’s inner circle in London—at once the closest to the proletariat and the furthest from Marx and Engels’ ideals. Her position allows the story’s perspective to refreshingly shift from observing Engels and Marx’s work life and ideals to registering the domestic decorum and politics that have shaped Lizzie’s life. As Frederick imagines what could be, resenting the illusory social norms that dictate what is, Lizzie, to survive, must occupy herself with the very reality he and his peers frequently abhor or ignore.

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Upending What We Understand So as to Get to Wonder: ‘Erratic Facts’ by Kay Ryan

Erratic Facts“The things we know / cannot be applied,” begins a poem in Kay Ryan’s new poetry collection, Erratic Facts (Grove Press, 64 pages), the first release since her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Best of It: New and Selected Poems. The former U.S. poet laureate returns with her signature narrow, rhyming poems to awaken and astonish us, to tilt us toward the underbelly of everyday observations.

In the epilogue of Erratic Facts, Ryan notes:

erratic: (n) Geol.  A boulder or the like
carried by glacial ice and deposited
some distance form its place of origin

This idea of displacement—a separation of boulder from its place of origin, of object from meaning—crops up again and again in her book, repeatedly overthrowing our expectations of conclusion and poetic movement. A poem titled “Shoot the Moon” ends with the shattering “bagged now and / heavy as a head,” and in “Erasure” she leaves us with the startlingly blunt statement: “this / whole area / may have been / a defactory.” The unabashed awkwardness of Ryan’s syntax also mimics the unstable nature of the erratic, as it seizes us from turn to turn: “Walls of shelves of / jars of dots equal / one dot”; “Even how / the crow / walks is / criss crosses.”

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The ‘Choice’ Between Freedom & Security: ‘The Heart Goes Last’ by Margaret Atwood

The Heart Goes LastMargaret Atwood knows a thing or two million about the dystopian novel. Atwood’s latest, The Heart Goes Last (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday; 320 pages), begins familiarly: in the midst of a dire economic and social depression, a young couple chooses between freedom and chaos or comfort and constraint. As The Heart Goes Last develops, though, the form evolves from sociological study to fable. People and places turn out to not be what they seem, offering complexity but also dream-like distortions. Stan and Charmaine, the couple at the center, discover that the pressure for them to choose between good and bad, right and wrong, has little to do with embracing either notion. They begin to wonder if they are choosing anything at all. What starts as a traditional dystopian take on human mores becomes a surreal look at the breakdown of free will.

After losing their jobs and homes in a massive fiscal downturn, Stan and Charmaine are living in their car, fleeing from roaming vandals and looters, and surviving off of Charmaine’s meager tips at a sleazy dive and off the spongy fried chicken wings she gets from the shop next door. Theirs is a contemporary situation taken to a logical extreme. When Charmaine sees an advertisement for a program offering families and individuals a return to the comfortable and quaint middle class existence they had before, she can’t resist. “Remember what your life used to be like?” the man in the ad asks. Neither she nor Stan fully realize the repercussions of their signing up for the Consilience/Positron twin cities project.

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