Category: Book Review

Read More
A stylized portrait of a smiling Shirley Hazzard, author of the novel "The Transit of Venus", in 3 different colors.

Bolt of the Average: On Shirley Hazzard’s “The Transit of Venus”

In historical study, certain individuals and/or classes are made distinct from the passive mass by the degree of their protagonism; charting their prominence through an era, it becomes clear that such activity is as much a testament of the human will to signify one’s own existence as any well-articulated primary account. For the self, however, protagonism is simply its indigenous function, motivating one’s behavior from the get-go. Already so distinct, so distinguished, to ourselves, how could we ever be of that vague crowd whose actions are mostly homogenous, and whose culmination for some historian of the far-flung future amounts to nothing more than sheer statistical data?

About three-quarters of the way through Shirley Hazzard’s 1980 novel The Transit of Venus, a character of up-till-then secondary (tertiary, even) significance finds himself protagonized, and here is how Hazzard illustrates the beginning of his centrality—or the delusion of such […]

Read More
The cover for Moira J. Saucer's poetry collection, "Wiregrass", which features a hand-made cover with a physically decorated yellow flower.

Beautiful Books: On Moira J. Saucer’s “Wiregrass” (Ethel Zine)

Big box bookstores rarely carry small press books, and although some independent bookstores might shelve small press publications, they do not usually offer handmade books. There are also artist-made books, most often a single volume that can be a stunning example of what a book can be: a sublime experience of combined fibers. Books as an art form have been a genre most often seen in either craft shows or esteemed special collections, and can vary from exquisite blank journals to fragile historical treasures. It is not often enough that the ordinary bibliophile will curate handmade books into their collection, even if that personal library includes small press volumes.

Yet in Ethel, we have a small press that has consistently produced an impressive catalogue of handmade books. In addition to side sewn bindings that speak to a serious home sewing machine, each cover features collage and sewn elements—obvious work by hand yet done in the sequence of an edition. A recent release from Ethel is Wiregrass by Moira J. Saucer, which is an apparition in yellow, a textual and tactile experience that begins with holding the yet unopened book. The cover image itself has hand painted elements—a leaf, a flower (done is a yellow that is akin enough to the cover’s yellow to give the impression of depth of perception)—and then outlined with some lines sewn onto the cover. Our consideration of the artist-editor painting, then sewing a sequence of covers must pause at this achievement alone; of the hundreds of small presses whose editors consider a manuscript by the effort and reward model of production, Ethel’s commitment to the manuscript includes this level of commitment: handcraft is hours upon hours upon hours. […]

Read More
A stylized still image of James Baldwin (author of Giovanni's Room) being interviewed late in his life.

Blown Back On Me: Analyzing James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room”

The discovery of my own body might best be characterized as a long string of small traumas that, in some significant ways, runs on even well into my twenties, where, as a full-fledged man (ostensibly, legally, deludedly, etc.), it can be difficult to account for what was not properly understood as a boy.

Cloistered square in the middle of a flock of five children, sequestered by a Third World Evangelicalism pent-up with ideas of physical impurity and its largely punitive opposite in divine nature, it didn’t take long for me to build an antagonistic, even harried, relationship with the mirror and its contents. What the reflection contained was both myself and an Other, an un-asked-for future that kept slipping into my arms and legs and chest in prickly hair and heaps where they hadn’t been before. I was always a chubby child, and I became accustomed to maintaining the weight. I despised exercise and over-ate. I lazed about and constantly read or watched TV and avoided anything that might wrest my body from relaxation towards events that could attract scrutiny to its obvious weaknesses. […]

Read More
A stylized shot of Werner Herzog, filmmaker of "Aguirre: Wrath of God", "Fitzcarraldo", "My Best Fiend", and author of Of "Walking in Ice" (1978) and "The Twilight World" (2022).

Dream’s Fever: On Werner Herzog’s “Of Walking In Ice” (1978) and “The Twilight World” (2022)

Two men are alone. One walks through ice and the other through jungle heat. Despite the presence of others, they are singular in their company, and are compelled by a sense of immense duty that further extricates them from those present.

One man is Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese military officer (in)famous for his continued service to the Empire decades after its formal surrender in World War II, inhabiting his island post in the Philippines with stolid zeal – or, at least, the Onoda conjured up by Bavarian filmmaker Werner Herzog, who in the preface to his novel The Twilight World remarks how he (to the shock of his Japanese hosts) gave up an opportunity to meet the Emperor so that he could meet and speak with Onoda, instead. […]

Read More
A stylized photo of Bruce Ario wearing a hat, wearing a jacket, and smiling into the camera on a Minneapolis street in winter.

Plainly Great: The Poetry of Bruce Ario

Being one to enjoy writers of a more ornate bent, who can create wide colours and sounds with words, I am, at least in personal taste, less drawn to plainness. There is a pleasure in having the full spectrum of expression before one’s eyes, albeit a superficial one, akin to the indulgence of exorbitant fashions. Still, every now and then, a voice comes along that shakes such excesses out of me. Returns me to a yearning for the absolute simplicity of the simplest words. And, as of late, it is a selection of poems from Bruce Ario (1955 – 2022) that has shaken.

True, Bruce Ario is not, to me, a new voice. He’s had poems published on the net and has written novels. From glimpses alone, one can estimate the substance of a writer’s craft, yet the magnitude of it escapes until one perceives the whole. And what a majestic whole this is! Several hundred poems – a voice condensed. That voice: plainspoken, democratic, the most accessible poet to exist thus far without attendant compromises on quality. Think of all the failed attempts at such in recent years: whatever Rupi Kaur or other ‘Insta-poets’ have loosened upon the masses. Most of Bruce’s poetry could fit an Instagram post, share Instapoetry’s superficial appeal – save a difference: a depth worth the dig. […]

Read More
An imagined landscape of the Rio Grande from Jessica Schneider's novel, "Human Stuff".

For A Lonely While: On Jessica Schneider’s “Human Stuff”

Art opens within a necessary season.

Indeed, it did in me, for my season primarily wanted succour. Adolescence, unstable time, grew the need to grow against a reality taken in. And, I admit – it was The Catcher in the Rye that placated that need, sent me towards the altar of Art. Holden’s woes seemed mine, drew me, and I turned pages to find my mirror. It was only later I learned Art could be much more, for a mirror need shatter that tells much truth; when behind – infinite lies.

So angsty works will always be in demand: the need will long exist. Yet, a certain arbitrariness resides in therapy when woe wants little but its own identification. The works in which I found my peace were, in hindsight, of variable quality: anime such as Neon Genesis Evangelion, the stories of David Foster Wallace, the novels of Herman Hesse. Some, I would realize, said deeper things, used angst as interrogation rather than end. As many a mature reader of Salinger would note, even Holden has an unreliability that implies a reality beyond him. He is, after all, recounting his tale from a sanitorium, broken, not a voice of authority. But such a work has limits. Nowadays, particularly in YA Lit, there are too many Holdens: clone Holdens, zombie Holdens. In the end, succour is lucrative. […]

Read More
A stylized picture of snowy Minneapolis, the setting of Bruce Ario's novel "Cityboy".

A Cityboy Finds Meaning: On “Cityboy” by Bruce Ario

Whenever reviewing any writer, objectivity is important. But what when you have known that writer personally? What then? This is my third time reading Bruce Ario’s novel, Cityboy*. The first was in 2000, when he introduced it. At the time, I’d become familiar with his poems via the Uptown Poetry Group, albeit I knew not what to expect from his prose. Hell, at that time, I hadn’t even begun my trip into prose, and so what did I know? The second time I read it was in 2009, for creative purposes. I was working on my own novel and I needed to revisit the masculine perspective. And now, my third read occurred after his death, in 2022. Each read brought about a visceral reaction, with each experience growing in intensity. All I can say is wow—did Bruce hit a home run with this one.

Firstly, within Cityboy there is the notion of the city as every bit a character as that of John Argent Jr. The city never changes—it is the one lone, solid, dependable thing. It never changes, but John’s perception of it does. When he is young, the city lives as its own entity—a breathing, living being that holds endless possibility. But as John ages, the city grows more menacing. It strangles him, much like a vine within the wilderness. It overwhelms, and it sucks the life from him. Yet John is both attracted and repelled by its expectations. The city—it is this lone love, this mysterious, cosmopolitan, wonderful thing. […]

Read More
A stylized portrait of Steven Pinker, author of "The Sense of Style" from 2014

How Steven Pinker Fails The Arts In “The Sense Of Style” (2014)

Now, to be sure, I have never had much use for style guides. Yes, there was all the studying for the writing portion of the SAT, years ago, which required lots of rule-learning and — even worse — the application of said rules to poorly-written ‘answers’ that were anything but right. Yes, I’d been assigned the oft-banal Strunk & White’s Elements Of Style in college courses, and have, out of curiosity, perused a number of similar guides not only across form and genre (prose, poetry, non-fiction, sci-fi, grammar) but multiple languages, as well, just to see how the rest of the world, well, merely hypothesizes the sorts of things that are in fact real to me. For instance, I still recall reading Orson Scott Card’s How To Write Science Fiction And Fantasy, and finding — even as a 10 year old with a desire to impart stories — the thing too restrictive for anyone but the worst writers, to whom issues of mechanics and advice re: ‘world-building’ might narrowly apply.

Thus, I was both intrigued and a little alarmed when I read the title of Steven Pinker’s new book. Now, don’t get me wrong. While admittedly a very good writer with MANY interesting ideas across the board, Steven Pinker is a thinking academic (as opposed an academic thinker!), first, and has not, in his occasional comments on the topic, shown any deeper understanding of the arts. Yes, he’s constructed some great arguments, and pointedly done away with scientific fraud within the clarion of a mere sentence or two, but that does not really lend itself to art criticism. This is because the wisdom (not ‘knowledge’) immanent to recognizing a great poem, or the odd assortment of skills and luck that goes into differentiating a good from bad metaphor is nigh-indefinable. In short, while true creativity might be easy to quantify, if one merely KNOWS how to evaluate the works, themselves, its source in most cases isn’t. This means that no intellect, personal background, type, or force of character guarantees success in this endeavor, and Pinker’s book, to its credit, does not pretend otherwise. […]