Review: S., by Doug Dorst and JJ Abrams

Originally posted on The Stake:

You’ve never read a book like this before.

I’m going to repeat that, with a bit more emphasis, because that phrase is so misused and overused that it’s become nearly meaningless, and I’d normally avoid it for that reason, except that in the case of S., a book conceived by JJ Abrams and authored by Doug Dorst, it’s actually true:


Consider, for a moment, the physical form of S.: it comes packaged in a sleek black slipcase, the book’s title glossily emblazoned on the front. Inside is a hardcover book, but not the book, perhaps, you were expecting—this is what appears to be a beaten-up library book called Ship of Theseus by someone you’ve never heard of named V.M. Straka. Puzzled, you open the book and page through, only to discover that it has already been thoroughly worked-over by…

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The VIDA Count 2013 | VIDA

The VIDA Count 2013 | VIDA.


The break down of nearly 40 literary magazines and reviews–the big names that dominate publishing and the literary world–showing the amount of women featured versus the number of men featured. Here’s the opening of the article linked above:

A couple of giants in the original VIDA Count have begun to move. While we can’t call it a trend or cause for partying just yet, it is certainly noteworthy that The Paris Review’s andNew York Times Book Review’s pies have significantly baked up tastier for 2013.

The Paris Review’s numbers, previously among the worst in our VIDA Count, have metamorphosed from deep, male-dominated lopsidedness into a picture more closely resembling gender parity. While such progress is remarkable in one year, we are likewise pleased to note that we haven’t heard anyone bemoan a drop in quality in The Paris Review’s pages. Turnarounds like the Paris Review’s make it clear that with the right editorial effort, putting more sustainable gender practices into action isn’t too difficult for these magazines at the top of the major market heap. Pamela Paul, editor of theNew York Times Book Review, also demonstrates what good can come when top tier literary outlets recognize the importance of presenting a balanced mix of voices by significantly increasing the number of female reviewers in the NYTBR in 2013.


I’ve been tracking Gently Read Literature’s count in a move to show solidarity with the VIDA project. In 2011, GRL published 115 reviews, the percentage of women reviewers we 46%, and the percentage of women reviews was 51%. It wasn’t bad but I wanted to do better. 2012 turned out to only be slightly better–112 reviews, 63% women reviews and 50% women reviewed.

Over 2013 it looks as though things have regressed a bit. Gently Read Literature published 67 reviews, of those reviews 56% were from women reviewers and 58% were women reviewed.

From what I’ve seen of the literary landscape since 2003 when I finished my MFA, women writers and critics are more erudite, relevant, transgressive, adept, and pleasurable to read than men writers. I wish GRL’s count was more 60/40 in favor of women critics and writers. It comes down to me, as the male editor of the magazine, to work harder and more conscientiously.

On Translating ‘A’ishah al-Ba’uniyyah, Perhaps Arabic’s Most Prolific Premodern Woman Writer

Originally posted on Arabic Literature (in English):

Th. Emil Homerin, author of the recently-published   The Principles of Sufism ,   has long been interested in the work of ‘A’ishah al-Ba’uniyyah, who is perhaps the most prolific and prominent woman who wrote in Arabic prior to the modern period. Homerin, a professor of religion and former chair of the Department of Religion & Classics at the University of Rochester, previously translated a collection of al-Ba’uniyyah’s poems as  Emanations of Grace , and likens her work to that of the famous Persian poet, Jalal al-Din Rumi.

Emil-Homerin-PhotoS Th. Emil Homerin

In a Skype interview originally published on the Library of Arabic Literature, Homerin talked about how he found al-Ba’uniyyah’s manuscripts—which was like finding “a needle in a haystack”—and what changes when you can read Sufi poetry alongside the author’s own spiritual guidebook.

ArabLit: Before translating The Principles of Sufism, you worked on translating a collection of ‘A’ishah’s poetry, 

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The Great 2014 Indie Press Preview | The Outlet: the Blog of Electric Literature

A utterly brilliant list of new and upcoming books by some of the smartest writers and critics working right now, so check it out: The Great 2014 Indie Press Preview | The Outlet: the Blog of Electric Literature.

GRL will accept reviews of any and all of the books on this list

Elizabeth Robinson’s On Ghosts is a Finalist for the LA Times 2013 Book Prize

The LA Times announced its book prize finalists for 2013. Among those listed for poetry was Elizabeth Robinson’s On Ghosts. On Ghosts is a brilliant collection and the strongest work among the LA Times finalists.

Amy Pence reviewed On Ghosts for Gently Read Literature’s Winter 2014 issue, below is her review.  If you’d like to read more reviews of contemporary poetry and literary fiction, please consider subscribing to Gently Read Literature.


On Reading On Ghosts: Amy Pence Reviews Elizabeth Robinson

On Ghosts
Elizabeth Robinson
Solid Objects, 2013

1)       That I  am reading Elizabeth Robinson’s On Ghosts on Halloween could be pure accident.  Or is it?   Could occasion be one of those “conditions” that Robinson writes in her “Explanatory Note” that “calibrate individuals or places, make them vulnerable to the heightened perception, which is hauntedness”? (p. 3)

Robinson’s hybrid book—a blend of poetry, essay passages, personal narrative, quotations from writers manifesting the ghostly and a descriptive cataloging of murky photographs— proceeds—as she tells us—circuitously—and meditates less on what ghosts are, than how they “infest” (Robinson’s word) us metaphorically.  An image of a building’s support beams once infested with termites—then painted over—initiates the book:  how are we like these “porous” beams, and so, vulnerable to being haunted?  How are we broken?

2)       That I listen to Schubert, that poverty-stricken musician—the Romantic hero who went to an early grave—was it typhoid or was it syphilis?—as I read On Ghosts might be another condition of my hauntedness.

After Robinson discloses a personal narrative involving her self-effacing grandmother (now deceased), she vividly shows us how the “ghostly” presences in us.  In the passage “Aftermath,” she writes, “That to be alive is in so many ways is to be haunted anyway, to be coursed through with hesitations”(p. 24).

Hesitations define the book.  Robinson’s prose style: the insistence on the declarative combined with her technique of stopping and starting, her tendency to erase what came before, or to merely adumbrate a thought or an image gives the book its peculiar power.  In “Incident One,” a particularly tragic and beautiful prose poem, she writes:  “Over and over the loop of his life rubs on its seam until the stitches rough up his skin and the garment comes apart.  Dual ravel” (p. 13).

3)       That I am beginning to regret my ticket to ride the “Terror Train” later this evening while reading On Ghosts also heightens my perception.

Most admirable are Robinson’s statements that ring like flashpoints:  her narrative style may seem random, plain even.  However, as the prose piece “The Nature of Association” unwinds, for instance, we may think we are left with a sketchy description of the narrator’s preoccupation with a pore on her shoulder.  The piece concludes:  “I hope you understand this and its relation to haunting. Embodiment always troubles us, but here you have no clearer example of its effect” (p. 48).

4)       That the gloom crawls in and around the leaves of all the trees as far as I can see out my window, so that leaf and tone become indistinct while reading On Ghosts further “infests” my reading.

We begin to expect, in addition to an accumulation of  “Incidents”— narratives in which the speaker reveals her own specific haunting—the attendant accumulation of word photographs; some are related to what she has encountered, others not.  Not coincidentally, these are practically non-descriptions in that they trace what isn’t there.

…it is hard to see anything of significance in this photo.  Note however the

ghost’s baby tooth crumbling in a dish on the kitchen counter

(foreground) and further back in the room, the boom box that

went on at random times, always when there was a Harry Potter

story tape in it. (From “Photograph #1,” p. 15)

By resisting description, we are left not-seeing the little we may have seen.

The nature of ghosts, their incessancy, the way they activate…

5)       That the screen freezes and the cursor will not move when I type the words above, so that I hastily handwrite what I’ve already written,  then CTRL-ALT-DEL and recover my document with all but this last half-thought while writing about On Ghosts seriously spooks me.

Nonetheless, or perhaps moretheless, On Ghosts, once read, redirects the reader to attend to presences of all kinds.  Once haunted, Robinson warns us at the outset:  “There’s now a little alleyway, between the self and the not-self…The new not-selfness is exquisitely sensitive to presence but its own absence has been thrown into the realm of the nonlinguistic” (“Explanatory Note,” p. 5).  Hence, the not-I has been moved to a wondrous silence.

How Zora Neale Hurston Changed African-American Culture

Originally posted on 101 Books:

“How does it feel to be a problem?”

That’s what W.E.B. Du Bois asked of black people in his 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk. It was the beginning of a philosophical change for African-Americans, whose role in American society to that point had been relegated to “the Negro problem.”

Du Bois was one of the forerunners of the racial uplift idealogy. Middle and upper class African-Americans were sick of being portrayed in negative stereotypes, so these community leaders attempted to change those perceptions.

According to our dear friends at Wikipedia:

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Lebanese Poet Ounsi al-Hage, 76

Originally posted on Arabic Literature (in English):

Lebanese poet Ounsi al-Hage died on Tuesday after a long illness. He was 76.*

OUNSYAl-Hage was born in 1937 in southern Lebanon, the son of Marie Akl and journalist and translator Louis al-Hage. The younger al-Hage began to publish his own short stories, essays, and poems in the mid-1950s, when he was still a high school student. After graduation, he worked as a journalist and contributed, with Youssef Khal and Adonis, to the establishment of the genre-changing poetry magazine Shi’r.

According to the author’s website, he published six collections of poetry and a book of essays, in addition to translating plays by Shakespeare, Ionesco, Camus, and Brecht into Arabic.

His poetry has been translated into a number of languages, and collections have come out in French and German. His work has also been translated to music.

From the poet’s website, an excerpt trans. Issa Boullatta:

Nothing has…

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