Gently Read Literature, Spring 2014

The new issue of Gently Read Literature is now available. If you’d like to order a copy, send $4.00 via PayPal ( to the email address or mail a check payable to “Daniel Casey” with “Gently Read Literature” in the memo line to

Daniel Casey
816 Indiana St.
Lawrence, KS 66044



Spring 2014 Issue

3—The Hidden Ordinary: Glenda Burgess on Two Poets

7—True Stories from a Mexican Prison: Deborah Clearman on Blackbirds in the Pomegranate Tree by Mary Ellen Sanger

10—Gazing Upon Broken Mirrors: Wes Bishop on Lee Upton’s The Tao of Humiliation

14—Notions of Beauty and Materiality: Sally Deskins on Yona Harvey’s Hemming the Water

17—Tragic Histories: Ed Davis on Michael Harris’s Romantic History

22—Terse Lyricism: Daniela Gioseffi on Alfredo de Palchi’s Paradigm: New and Selected Poems 1947-2009

25—A Transcaucasian Mind: Mike Walker on Arslan Khasavov’s Sense

34—The Anti-Mayberry: Rebecca Stoebe on Earplugs by Bram Riddlebarger

37—The Delicate and Precarious: Catherine Bailey Kyle on Glenn Shaheen’s Unchecked Savagery

40—Dogs Don’t Fall in Love: Eileen Austen on Jane Vandenburgh’s The Wrong Dog Dream

44—Tangibly Intangible: Kelly Lydick on Brian Mihok’s The Quantum Manual of Style

49—Loss of Distinction: Jordan Wheatley on Sandy Florian’s Boxing the Compass

55—Ambiences: Bonnie ZoBell on Doug Holder’s Eating Grief at 3 AM

59—Thomas Pynchon’s Escape to the Bleeding Edge by Jesse Lambertson

66—The Culmination of a Life’s Close Attention: Karen Craigo on Sydney Lea’s I Was Thinking of Beauty

69—Burnette Saxifrage: Bonnie ZoBell on Jen Michalski’s The Tide King

74—Assembling a Diverse Literary Society: Kayla Rodney on the Anthology Dismantle

79—Nature’s Lens: Karen Craigo on Paula Bohince’s The Children

82—Intimacy and Exposure: C.P. DeSimone on Sean Thomas Dougherty’s All You Ask For Is Longing

Literary Luminary: Pamela Erens


Pamela Erens‘s first novel The Understory (Ironweed Press, 2007) was a slim volume but a gem. Unfortunately, it only found a small audience of diehard fiction lovers, but anyone who read it immediately saw the brilliance of the work (Tin House will be reissuing it soon). When Tin House published her second novel, The Virgins, suddenly it seemed as though the entire literary world woke up. Quality and lengthy reviews and essays appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, Slate, Book Slut, The Independent, The Rumpus, and the Los Angeles Review of Books as well as in a slew of other places.


For being such a small endeavor, Gently Read Literature has been obscenely fortunate to have not only reviewed The Understory and The Virgins, but to have had Erens herself review for us. With AWP 2014 raging this week, I thought it a good idea to present to you a compendium of Gently Read Literature’s Erens commentary. 

thevirginBelow are two reviews of The Virgins, the first from Sophfronia Scott featured in the Fall 2013 issue and the second from Ed Davis that ran in the current Winter 2014 issue. Then there’s Zinta Aistars’s review of The Understory which was featured in November of 2009. Later on that year, Erens reviewed Pasha Malla’s The Witdrawal Method and then in2010 David Shields’s Reality Hunger.

Alongside Paul Harding and Alissa Nutting, Pamela Erens may be quietly becoming one of the most important writers in the country.


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The Critical Flame Commits to a Whole Year of ONLY Women Writers & Writers of Color

The Critical Flame is a small literary magazine and its editor Daniel Pritchard has decided to commit this magazine to doing one small thing to fight gender and racial disparity in literature. I admire Pritchard’s move, it’s the right one to make. Here at Gently Read Literature, I’ve made it a point to feature women reviewers and to review women. I’m hoping that soon, GRL will be able to mirror The Critical Flame.


In Which The Critical Flame Dedicates One Year to Women Writers and Writers of Color

Women writers and writers of color are underserved and undervalued by the contemporary literary community. The phenomenon has been well documented by critics such as Roxane Gay and Ruth Franklin, and by organizations like VIDA: Women in Literary Arts (n.b. I am a member of the VIDA board). This disparity deserves greater attention from academics and social scientists, who could at least bring some much-needed rigor (and funding) to bear. It is vital that we uncover the mechanisms that produce this disparity. You can’t fight what you cannot see, as the adage goes.

What we can see today are the outlines of a culture still dominated by white male figures, and by the presumption of their essential literary merit, everywhere from major publishing houses to small literary journals. As far as mainstream literary culture is concerned, white males are the default. They continue to personify the sublime human person, accessible to all readers, while other writers—women, African Americans, latinos, etc.—are presumed to relate an incomplete version of life, narrowed by their lack of access to this white male universality.

This is all disappointingly banal. Today’s patterns of exclusion echo the ones we find all throughout our society, with little change over the last three decades. Regardless of what some pundits might argue, we are not post-race or post-men; we are not post-anything today except, I sometimes fear, reasonable hope.

In his iconic address, “This Is Water,” David Foster Wallace speaks about the reflexive consciousness of our perceptions and values: the awareness of a choice between our culturally-mediated default interpretation of the world, and something else. When we are at our best, that something is full of empathy, humanity, and compassion. But, the ability to choose our own value-filter exists only when we are aware that there is already a default, and that there is a choice. If this is so, then it seems that either the literary community has not realized the choice yet, or has chosen not to change. I’m not sure which is more disheartening.

Silence on this literary disparity has not been the problem over the past few years. Inertia has. Many editors seem immobilized by their options: either admit their failings and allow a bruise to the ego, or brush off the critique with grand claims about quality and editorial judgment. In one iteration, an unappealing act of self-flagellation that may well harm their own publication by alienating certain cultural power centers. In the other, adherence to a relatively painless status quo. Duty in conflict with conscience creates a difficult choice, even for the most moral person.

However, as I’ve written before, nothing will change if people do not act morally within their sphere of control. So, while The Critical Flame may not be a powerhouse of the literary world, we have yet decided to embark on a project that will help our readers, at the very least, perceive and evaluate the literary landscape differently. If there is a cycle of criticism / reviews, book sales, and publishing trends that perpetuates the unjust inequalities we’re seeing today, then CF will act in some small measure to break it.

Beginning with the May 2014 issue, The Critical Flame will dedicate one year of its review coverage wholly to women writers and writers of color.

CF will continue to publish well-written, insightful, long-form critical essays and reviews, all of which will cover women writers and writers of color, just as we did (without any advance planning) in the current issue.

I see no conflict between duty and conscience. CF is small, independent, and all-volunteer: our livelihoods do not depend on its financial success, so we are freer than some others (capitalism, literature, and marginalization—consider that a call for papers, ye writers). Also the often-cited dichotomy between quality and equality is, to my mind, bullshit. There are more good books than could ever be covered by any single publication; every issue’s selection of titles is just as much a result of luck, networking, and taste as it is of quality. This project presents a great opportunity to publish in-depth essays about undervalued writers, books, and traditions—what could be more exciting for a literary editor?

But this project will not succeed without the help of our contributors; and no doubt some of our readers will have feedback, questions, and concerns as well. Please feel free to get in touch via email. We look forward to hearing from you.

Best regards,

Daniel Evans Pritchard

Daniel Pritchard

Daniel E. Pritchard is the editor and publisher of The Critical Flame. His poetry and criticism can also be found at Little Star, Fulcrum, Battersea Review, The Quarterly Conversation, Idiom, and elsewhere.

Gently Read Literature, Winter 2014

Gently Read Literature’s first issue of 2014 is out now.


The Winter 2014 issue includes fiction reviews of authors such as Peter Cherches, Kirby Gann, Pamela Erens, Bonnie ZoBell, George Guida, Valerie Fioravanti, Adam Berlin, Luanne Rice, Bruce Holbert, Linda Lappin, and Juliet Marillier.

As well as poetry reviews of collections by Caryl Pagel, Emma Bolden, Elizabeth Robinson, Joshua Marie Wilkinson, Bill Yarrow, Frances Hatfield, John Gosslee, Marjorie Maddox, Gerald Fleming, Kristina Marie Darling, Mary Biddinger, Terry Blackhawk, francine j. harris, Jamie Sharpe, Alex Dimitrov, Petrosino, Carrie Olivia Adams, Jeffery Pethybridge, Julie Marie Wade, and Olivia Stiffler.

We’d love for you’ to subscribe to GRL to receive this as well as the Spring issue (released in May) and the Fall issue (released in September). A year subscription is only $10 and will be delivered to your email as a PDF.

You can subscribe via PayPal ( ) by sending to the email address

or mail a check payable to Daniel Casey at

Daniel Casey

816 Indiana St.

Lawrence, KS 66044

Gently Read Literature
Reviews of Contemporary Poetry & Literary Fiction
Winter 2014


4—Colleen Abel on Caryl Pagel’s Experiments I Should Like Tried At My Own Death

6—Christina M. Rau on Emma Bolden’s poetry collection Maleficae

10—Amy Pence on reading On Ghosts by Elizabeth Robinson

12—Michael Kasper reviews the novel Lift Your Right Arm by Peter Cherches

15—Making Music from the Badlands of Horror Vacui: Virginia Konchan reviews Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s Swamp Isthmus

18—Parth Vasa reviews Kirby Gann’s novel Ghosting

21—David Appelbaum on Bill Yarrow’s Pointed Sentences

24—Ed Davis reviews the novel The Virgins by Pamela Erens

27—Robin Martin reviews Bonnie ZoBell’s short stories in The Whack Job Girls

30—Fred Misurella reviews George Guida’s short fictions in The Pope Stories

32—Bonnie ZoBell reviews Valerie Fioravanti’s short story collection Garbage Night at the Opera

35—Grace Curtis reviews Frances Hatfield’s poetry collection Rudiments of Flight

37—Robin Martin reviews Adam Berlin’s novel The Number of Missing

40—Christina M. Rau reviews John Gosslee’s Blitzkrieg

43—David Berridge reviews the anthology Homage to Etal Adnan

51—Brief Alphabet of Grief: Carolyn Perry Reviews Local News from Someplace Else by Marjorie Maddox

56—Deborah Bogen reviews Gerald Fleming’s prose poetry collection The Choreographer

59—Sally Deskins on Kristina Marie Darling’s VOW

61—An Insurgency of Language: Stacia M. Fleegal’s review of Mary Biddinger’s poetry collection O Holy Insurgency

63—Suzanne Hard on Luanne Rice’s novel The Lemon Orchard

65—Margaret Rozga reviews Terry Blackhawk’s poetry collection The Light Between

68—Jonterri Gadson reviews allegiance by francine j. harris

71—Emilie Esther-Ann Schnabel reviews Animal Husbandry Today by Jamie Sharpe

73—Samantha Duncan reviews Alex Dimitrov’s poetry collection Begging for It

75—Sing a Song of Darkness: Katherine Yets on Hymn for the Black Terrific by Kiki Petrosino

78—Help Me Solve a Mystery, Who is Who and Where are We?: Katherine Yets on Carrie Olivia Adams’ Forty-One Jane Doe’s

82—The Poem is a Ritual that Conceals: C. Kubasta reviews Jeffrey Pethybridge’s Striven, the Bright Treatise

85—Acceptance Inside an Envelope: Katherine Yets reviews of Julie Marie Wade’s poetry collection Postage Due

88—Olivia Stiffler’s poetry collection Otherwise, We Are Safe reviewed by Margaret Rozga

92—Twenty Poets Talking: Robert Archambeau reviews the anthology Password Primeval

95—Channeling the Prose Poem’s Ancestry: Steven Wingate reviews the anthology Family Portrait: American Prose Poetry

98—James Wharton reviews Bruce Holbert’s novel Lonesome Animals

101—Shaina Mugan reviews Linda Lappin’s Signatures in Stone

103—Things Redefined: Ayesha Ali Reviews Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier

Gently Read Literature, Fall 2013



The Fall 2013 issue of Gently Read Literature is available now. Take a look at the contents listed below and if this sounds like a good line up to you, you should probably subscribe.

A year-long subscription to Gently Read Literature (3 issues) is $10 & will be delivered to you as a PDF.

You can subscribe via PayPal ( ) to the email address

or mail a check payable to Daniel Casey to

Daniel Casey

816 Indiana St.

Lawrence, KS 66044


(Critic, Author, Work)

4—Caroline Crew: On Male Privilege, The Exorcist, & Women Writers Who Won’t Step Down

7—Sophfronia Scott: The Making of a Classic, Review of Pamela Erens The Virgins

14—Alyssa Jocson: Forever Quirky and Fantastically Flawed and Ridiculous, Review of Madeline McDonnell Penny, n.

16—Jaime Boler: Think Twice Before Opening Boxes, Review of Norah Labiner Let the Dark Flower Blossom

20—Suzanne Hard: Persistent Empathy, Review of Anne Leigh Parrish All the Roads that Lead from Home

22—Suzanne Hard: Ill-equipped, Perhaps, Deserving of Compassion, Laura Kasischke If A Stranger Approaches You

25—Eileen Austen: In Search of Narrative, Review of Alicia Kozameh Ostrich Legs

31—Kelly Lydick: Unconsciously Conscious, Review of Bernadette Mayer Ethics of Sleep

35—Glenda Burgess: Art of the Discarded and Reclaimed, Review of Dana Johnson Elsewhere, California

37—Christine Cody: A Missive from the Deities, Review of Anne Germanacos In the Time of Girls

40—Matthew Mahaney: A Lyrical Choose-Your-Own Adventure, Review of Loren Erdrich & Sierra Nelson I Take Back the Sponge Cake

44—Allan B. Rubin: An Edifying Compendium, Review of Daniela Gioseffi Pioneering Italian American Culture

47—Maria Espinosa: Of Craving, Of Touch, Review of Susan Sherman The Light That Puts an End to Dreams

50—Pamela Klein: Uncomfortably Dangerous Poetry, Review of Rauan Klassnik The Moon’s Jaw

53—Bill Pruitt: Questionable Insight, Review of Hugh Martin The Stick Soldiers

57—Bill Pruitt: Xenotransplantation, Review of Bruce Beasley Theophobia

60—Holly Helscher: The Complexity of Choices, Review of Gila Green King of the Class

63—Glenn Halak: Poetic Persona vs Poetry, Review of Helene Cardona Dreaming My Animal Selves

68—Glenn Halak: The Invisible Man, Review of William Pitt Root’s translation of Pablo Neruda

78—Cory Johnston: Forms of Detachment in Holocaust Literature

Gently Read Literature, 2013 Winter Issue

Well, it’s here in time for the new year–the first subscription-based issue of Gently Read Literature. GRL’s 2013 Winter Issue is packed with quality, in-depth reviews and essays.

 Subscribe & get your copy today! A year-long subscription to Gently Read Literature (3 issues) is $10 & will be delivered to you as a PDF. Via PayPal ( ) to the email address rr mail a check payble to Daniel Casey to

Daniel Casey

816 Indiana St

Lawrence, KS 66044

Table of Contents

Sigh Eternally: CL Bledsoe on Adam Clay’s poetry collection “A Hotel Lobby at the Edge of the World”

A Beginning For an Author Who Obviously Isn’t a Beginner: David Atkinson on Molly Ringwald’s novel “When It Happens To You”

Cycles of Time, Notes to a Tune: Kelly Lydick on Sandy Florian’s poetry collection “Prelude to Air from Water”

The Horse Doesn’t Always Flow: Nicole Contreras on Leslie Scalapino’s hybrid work “Floats Horse-Floats or Horse-Flows”

Muddled & Luscious Residue: Todd McCarty on Ryan Teitman’s poetry collection “Litany for the City”

Ne’er-Do-Wells Who Plunder: CL Bledsoe on Dan Boehl’s poetry collection “Kings of the Fucking Sea”

Wild Prospecting: CL Bledsoe on Daniel Pyne’s novel “A Hole in the Ground Owned by a Liar”

More Language, More Linkages, More Minds, More Memes: Paula Koneazny on Laura Solomon’s poetry collection “The Hermit”

Kurt Brown’s The Pictorial Impulse: The Poem as Camera and Brush

Tom Bradley’s Foreword to the New Edition of My Hands Were Clean

The Friendly Highbrow: Heather Lang on Matthew Zapruder’s poetry collection “Come On All You Ghosts”

The Lyric Mode: Christopher Schaeffer on Dorothy Lasky’s poetry collection “Thunderbird”

Don’t Doubt Language: Jennifer Jean on Elain Equi’s poetry collection “Click & Clone”

The Transvaluated Body: Gary Sloboda on Christian Hawkey poetry collection “Citizen Of”

The Perfect and The Imperfect: Glenda Burgess on Gretchen Henderson’s novel “The House Enters the Street”

Smashing the Masks: Michelle Ovalle on Amal al-Jabouri’s “Hagar Before the Occupation/Hagar After the Occupation”

Fluid Ease: Ann E. Michael on Elaine Terranova’s poetry collection “Dames Rocket”

What is Polish Poetry Like Today?: Mike Walker on Jacek Gutorow’s poetry collection “The Folding Star”

Deep Family in the High North: Kirsten Sworts on Melinda Moustakis’s short story collection “Bear Down Bear North”

Longing: Sara Habein on Kirsten Scott’s novel “Motherlunge”

Rural Gothic Literature: Casey Pycior on Jon Boilard’s novel “A River Closely Watched”

Flouting the Rules: Garry Craig Powell on Tom Williams’s novella “The Mimic’s Own Voice”

A Reckoning on the River:  Sophfronia Scott on Robert Vivian’s “Water and Abandon”

An Unremarkable Man: Shaun Randol on John Williams’s Stoner

Stoner, John Williams, NYRB, 2006 (1965)

John Williams’ Stoner is the story of the academic’s worst nightmare. One should suspect as much, though, for on the very first page the author sketches the life of one William Stoner, a professor of literature at the University of Missouri in the first half of the twentieth century. Despite 38 years of teaching, Stoner never rose above the rank of assistant professor. He was, apparently, an unremarkable man—few students could recall him, even after they had just taken his class.
Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their career.
Not exactly the way an academic wants to be remembered. While I am no professor, I do fancy myself a bit of a thinker, and occasionally fantasize about the life of a college instructor. Stoner had all the trappings of a wet dream: a poor, Missouri farmer finds his true calling and a love of literature at the university, is offered a professorship and tenure shortly after graduation, and marries a smart, beautiful woman with whom he has a smart, precocious daughter. A life of research, teaching, mentoring, and publishing lived alternatively in an ivory tower or behind a white picket fence stretches before him. Ah, the life! Add to the mix the allure of a young, sexy, sharp-as-a-tack student—naturally—and you have the makings of every thinking man’s fantasy.
Yet life was not so rosy for Stoner. One can argue that, all things considered, Stoner did alright for himself. In fact, as far as the destinies of destitute, Dust Bowl-era farmers are concerned, he did exceedingly well. Nevertheless, Stoner ends up living a life of intellectual stagnation, marital ineptitude, bitter loneliness, and professorial obscurity, never to rise above the level of mediocrity in all realms of life. Oh, the horror!

Stoner may be a melancholic read, but it is not dull. This elegant novel is a fine, intimate portrait of a man with terrific—but never realized—potential. His life at the university begins with much promise, but that time, unfortunately, is nearly the peak of the intellect’s career. His marriage to a woman who never truly loved him quickly dissolves into an emotional prison-state, and nearly almost spirals into a War of the Roses-type battle for psychological supremacy. More disheartening are the machinations of the Chair of the literary department in which Stoner resides who conspires to keep Stoner at the level of a lowly, associate professor, even while younger professors slowly climb the ranks. Stoner takes all of his lumps with a resigned dignity, but he closes in on himself until he becomes the sole constituent of his world:

Stoner had to admit that he had become, in the regard of the young instructors and the older students, who seemed to come and go before he could firmly attach names to their faces, an almost mythic figure, however shifting and various the function of that figure was.

And as the years pass by, his classroom behavior becomes more eccentric, more erratic, more absent, and, in front of his students, more intense,

He began his lectures and discussions fumblingly and awkwardly, yet very quickly became so immersed in his subject that he seemed unaware of anything or anyone around him.

We know from the very beginning that the end of the novel brings death to the protagonist—a somber pall drapes every page. It is Williams’ ability to paint such precise, brutally honest portraits of the characters, however, that keeps one reading. The characters are so real they seem to come alive on the page. We know that things cannot end well, but the appeal remains in finding out how the individuals, namely Stoner, cope with the sad circumstances of their lives. Every character is a sad sack, incapable of overcoming their stifling mediocrity. Stoner’s life and death is emblematic of the academic’s worst nightmare: great potential never realized.


Shaun Randol is the founder and editor in chief of The Mantle , an Associate Fellow at World Policy Institute, and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

A New South: Diane Simmons on Valerie Nieman’s Blood Clay

Blood Clay, Valerie Nieman, Press 53

In her new novel, Blood Clay, set rural North, Carolina, Valerie Nieman is interested in the tangled social lines of the new South, the struggle of newcomers to belong, and of natives to keep their balance in changing times. Beneath the fascination with change runs a deep love for the changeless, the way the deep roots of a place can hold and comfort, despite the complications of both past and present.

Nieman’s heroine, Tracy Gaines, has left a failed marriage and bad weather up north, and journeyed down to the red dirt tobacco country of Saul County, North Carolina. Here she falls in love with a “slouchy” old farm house, “whiter in the moonlight than in the day, half hidden by the cedars that reached the second story porch.” The house, she believes, will, with a lot of hard work, allow her to earn belonging: “Resurrected board by board, the scraping and painting. . .would settle her in that place, make her a part of its history.” Her efforts at the house are overseen by a pack of feral cats; they will take her food but won’t come close. They—like Tracy herself—are not entirely sure she’ll make it.

While the house has all the charm of a Southern romance, Tracy’s job is another story, a tough haul, usually thankless, sometimes dangerous, in an “alternative” school for teenagers who are “behaviorally impaired,” “emotionally damaged,” or simply learning disabled with no place else to be sent. Also teaching at the school is Dave, an old-family, native of the place, who tried to leave Saul County for the big city of Baltimore. After a brutal encounter there, he has returned, a cripple in more ways than one: “I’m afraid I’ve turned into a racist,” he says, “as well as a coward.” Though born and raised here, he is, and in some ways is as much an outsider as Tracy.

She has also gotten acquainted with Artis, the divorced father of one of her troubled students, and a tobacco farmer whose land is adjacent to hers. But her neighbor’s wide smile is misleading. When Tracy invites him over to drink a glass of tea and inspect her work on the old house, his smile fades. “Oh honey. Let’s just stay neighbors,” he says before turning and walking off to his truck. “You got too much cat in you for a hound like me.”

Still new to the challenges of the house, the job, and local society, Tracy, driving alone on a dark country road, is witness to a terrible accident involving a child. In the days afterward, rumors and charges swirl. Some claim that the new teacher from up North caused the horrible accident. Some say she has sought to cast blame unfairly on Artis. At the very least, others say, she had not acted honorably, but stood by in shameful cowardice; a true person of the place would have taken action to save the child. This last view is one that Tracy is not sure but what she shares herself. The accident and its aftermath embroil her in a police inquest, and bring her head-to-head with both Artis and the child’s mother. Tracy is still “new,” but the accident tugs her painfully but deeply into the life of the hamlet.

Though the story is tautly suspenseful, it has its beauties too, especially in the close, sensual exploration of the old house and the woods surrounding it. In a “midden” pile that she finds in the wood, for example, Tracey excavates evidence of the past, an old belt buckle, a little stoneware bowl from the 1930s, an ancient jar of cobalt blue. As she digs in the heavy red clay, she is rewarded by the scent of the deep and on-going life of the place, the “yeasty smell of the opened ground,” as good as “bread baking in the kitchen.”


Diane Simmons’ short fiction collection, Little America, winner of the 2010 Ohio State University prize for fiction, will be published by the Ohio State University Press in June. Her short story, “Yukon River,” was a runner-up for the 2010 Missouri Review Editor’s Prize. Other short fiction has appeared in numerous journals such as Beloit Fiction Review, Blood Orange Review, and Northwest Review.

Hidden In Scenic Vistas: Amy Henry on Kris Farmen’s The Devil’s Share

The Devil’s Share, Kris Farmen, McRoy & Blackburn Publishers, 2010

“Jack, she scolded, you take that old-time stuff way too seriously. Those days are long gone.”

So laments Jack’s mother after he’s ditched school, yet again, to explore the woods outside his family’s home in a small Alaskan town. Jack seems genetically disposed to adventure as his parents had homesteaded in the Wrangell Mountains before his birth. Now they were living in town, working regular jobs, because the Federal government and the Parks Service had moved residents out of the hills to create protected wild lands. Now, with college pending, Jack’s eager to hold off and spend a year back in those same mountains as a guide for a family friend who caters to the scientists and tourists who fly in to study the native plants or hunt.

Thus begins his quest, one that introduces him to an entirely different world that is hidden in the scenic vistas of snow-capped mountains and icy streams. His new boss flies him into the interior of the Yukon to his lodge, and Jack easily adapts to difficult work with the camp horses and maintaining the cabins. He learns to guide, track, and especially to get by on very few material comforts. To say he’s found his niche is an understatement. But it doesn’t last long, and a very different set of circumstances overtake him. Miles away from any communication or assistance, he has to navigate nature’s dangers as well as the surprising criminal element that hides within the park system.

In a place where a horse can fall into a glacier crevasse and a man has to keep track of how few bullets he has left for defense, anything can happen. And the fact that it wasn’t just the animals but savage humans he had to fear makes reading it tense and scary. And yet, Jack is no Boy Scout. The author, Kris Farmen, takes a risk by making his protagonist less than perfect. At times, he’s vicious and retaliatory. The risk pays off in a story that is far more believable than if Jack was a saint.

Clearly, this is a work of literary fiction, yet it has the elements of suspense that you’d find in a crime novel. I hit the second half of the book at about midnight, and there was no option for sleep after that. I could barely breathe as I stayed up and finished the book. The exhaustion the next day was worth it. For one thing, the survival story of endless cold and dinners of furry animals (if there was to be any dinner at all) locked me into the story. As a reader, I felt incredibly wimpy to imagine that a person could do all this to survive when I can barely go without coffee without terrible consequences. The character of Jack is complete: we know what he thinks, dreams about, hopes for, and regrets. We sense his loyalty and his morality even while we may be horrified at his actions. The details of the Alaskan regions are specific, as are the ways he kills, skins, and eats all sorts of prey.

My only real distraction in the novel has to do with the opinions of virtually every character against both the Federal government and the Canadian park service-at times I felt like there was too much commentary on the actions of both against private landowners in regard to public policy. Obviously, it’s a sensitive subject when a family home could be taken forcibly, then used for the ranger’s use or to rent for tourists or even left empty to decay. So the repetition of the acrimony towards the government was a little tiresome, yet in the denouement, Farmen ties it together in a way that actually makes sense. Again, he takes the risk of letting the reader decide the issue, after showing both sides, and I think this sort of resolution again makes the story that much more captivating.

Atoms of Life: Grady Harp on Meg Pokrass’s Damn Sure Right

Damn Sure Right, Meg Pokrass, Press 53, 2011

Damn Sure Right is a collection of quickies that are better designed moments of fiction than most writers spend pages and pages developing. Each of this at times single page stories, at times 2-3 page stories find a fascinating little detail to explore, a snatch of a story told with carved sentences that create atmosphere not unlike those little snow scenes you shake and watch your own story develop until the mechanical snow settles at the bottom.

A lot of the themes (if that is what label we can use to dot the i and cross the t as fast as Pokrass can) involve little encounters – ‘Brain Chemistry’ floats a scene between two girls whose attractions can be quickly altered by Jim Beam before the truths come out; ‘Freaky Forty’ tersely defines a man who bakes, stands naked on his head for yoga exercises, and uses Botox; ‘Foreign Accent Syndrome’ revisits two girls after a year’s absence; ‘Scraps’ gives in a few words an indescribably touching mother/daughter relationship. ‘Thirty-Nine’ throws at us the thoughts of a woman who seems to be taking up with an old flame – one who hasn’t lived up to expectations. ‘Irina’s Hair Shop’ is the crux for a newlywed couple, the wife obsessed with health foods, the husband gets a haircut and complains his hair is falling out due to his wife’s tofu lasagna: the strange little Russian stylist gets that last word.

Or Pokrass can make a story out of a ‘To Do List’:

1. Wake adolescent daughter with softest mom voice, tell her it’s time to get up and ready for school. She hates to be late, even 10 seconds, because she hates to be noticed.

2. Cereal and orange juice are ready, you say.

3. Cut puzzle pieces of parboiled meat for sick cat, microwave low, re-animate, sprinkle cat vitamins, serve on cat tree,

4. Measure out dog food, mix with pumpkin and green beans or dog diet.

5. Use kitty voice. Isolate other cat in bathroom with stars of kibble.

6. Prepare for drive to school by finding keys and sunglasses in purse despite the stain remover stick, planet stickers, half-eaten food bar, lavender hand sanitizer. Hiding like thieves, keys often play this game forever.

7. Talk to dog about losing things all the time.  He is the most well-adjusted creature in the house. Offer volume discount for this service itemized as “dog love” (note to self – always talk to dog).

8. Calm the surly adolescent who used to be your adoring child.

9. Put on function face, lip color, deflate hair with water – forgive it.

It just goes on and on. Pokrass is not only a genius for finding little atoms of life to poke but she does it with such dexterity that every now and then the reader has to look up form this terrific little book and simply say ‘Wow!’ More please.