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The Bottom

Betsy Andrews. 42 Miles (SPD, dist.), $15 (60p) ISBN 978-0-9830747-5-5

Andrews (New Jersey) offers an extended meditation on humanity's ecological impact and destruction of life beneath the sea in her second collection, winner of the 2013 42 Miles Press Poetry Award. In long lines reminiscent of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, and with the diction of Galway Kinnell's Book of Nightmares, Andrews's sailor-song rhymes spill over line breaks, conjuring a broken, exploited nautical world that she links to myths, atrocities, and blindness: "a jellyfish hitches a ride on a gallon jug called Tide/ finds itself in an unfamiliar ocean... a 17,000-gallon fouled sip to fatten the goose of the/ Chem-Fish, Fish Nox, Noxfire." While her word play and rhyme can veer into the cloying, the moral force and empathy upon which each section riffs and breathes is astounding. Andrews takes our familiar conceptions of the planet and its nautical history and reintroduces them with renewed urgency: "morning is a half-baked bird, a water-poet's nonsense, a newscast hulled like coconuts... and the sea?/ it's in the margins here—its teeny-tiny winglike fins folded in." Andrews's greatest success is connecting the plight of the sea with those at its root: "the starving bass ain't biting/ now that there's nothing to bite; their breakfast was plucked/ and trucked through the night... to feed bass who live behind bars." (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Writers

Antoine Volodine, trans. from the French by Katina Rogers. . Dalkey Archive, $14.95 trade paper (120p) ISBN 978-1-62897-040-1

Volodine's (Minor Angels) collection captures, in seven linked stories, the essence of tormented fictional European writers who challenge the preconceived notions of the profession. Standouts include "Mathias Olbane," which details the suicide contemplation of a skin-diseased ex-con who hasn't published so much as composed obsessive lists during his time in prison. Set in the near future, "The Strategy of Silence in the Work of Bogdan Tarassiev" traces the career of a reclusive crime writer whose notable stylistic tic is a "lack of variety in the names given to characters." The humorous "Acknowledgments" functions as a mockery of modern authors' smarmy tendency to express gratuity by challenging what is and isn't appropriate to the form. Those unfamiliar with the author's previous projects, written under several pseudonyms, will get little help from the interview opening the volume, in which, without providing sufficient context, Volodine refers to an ongoing literary movement he calls "post-exoticism." And though he places some of the fictional writers into the camp, nowhere in the collection does he provide a precise idea of its objectives or aims. Despite the murkiness of Volodine's literary mission, his textured portraits are convincing and well-rendered, and he has written the type of open-ended work that will capture the attention of lovers of lit crit as fiction. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Ride Away Home

William Wells. Permanent, $28 (168p) ISBN 978-1-57962-359-3

This briskly paced debut crime novel from Wells begins with an odd premise: Jack Tanner, a 52-year-old, out-of-work tax attorney from the Minneapolis suburb of Edina decides to get a large Harley-Davidson and a learner's motorcycle permit. He embarks on a 2,300-mile road trip to Florida where he plans to confront Slater Babcock, the student boyfriend of his missing daughter, Hope. Jack is certain that Slater, once considered (but released) by the investigating police as a "person of interest," knows more than he has let on about Hope's disappearance from school more than a year ago. Slater has left the University of Wisconsin, and his father has set him up as a bar owner in Key West. En route, Jack stops by to visit his grieving, depressed wife Jenna, who has been an in-patient at an upscale psychiatric facility called The Sanctuary in MacLean, Va. On the road again, he meets a series of colorful and sometimes unsavory characters, beginning with Hannah, the nubile redheaded hitchhiker he picks up with disastrous results. Later, a motorcycle gang of white-collar members calling themselves the Devil's Disciples invites Jack to ride along with them to Florida. Upon reaching his destination, Jack again has to depend on a resourceful stranger's help, this time an Ernest Hemingway lookalike named Edward Hollingsworth, to close out Wells's offbeat but entertaining debut novel. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Privacy Policy: The Anthology of Surveillance Poetics

Edited by Andrew Ridker. Black Ocean (SPD, dist.), $16.95 trade paper (200p) ISBN 978-1-939568-07-6

Framing the gathered poems in what Ridker calls "The Age of Surveillance"—of Chelsea Manning, Trayvon Martin, Google Glass, drones, and camera phones—this anthology becomes as much a surveillance of a certain type of contemporary poetry as it is contemporary poetry about surveillance. The selected poets, most of whom contribute only a single piece, belong to various schools and styles. They include the heights of critical success, poets with recent debut collections, and the full range between. Some poems read like essays; some like short stories. Several writers head unflinchingly into the political, while others approach surveillance as a private concern (albeit one that almost always reaches the political), even using their work to survey the self, or the poem. Yet despite how much it accomplishes, this survey of poetry doesn't see as widely as it might like—most obviously, to fill an anthology with such a dominant amount of white writers while invoking Trayvon Martin and surveillance politics in the introduction evidences both an oversight and a significant narrowing of scope, experience, and aesthetics. On the strength of the individual poems, however, and the necessity of using language to investigate our often distressing political and technological moment, the anthology earns its spot on the shelf. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Lisette's List

Susan Vreeland. Random, $27 (432p) ISBN 978-1-4000-6817-3

Vreeland follows Clara and Mr. Tiffany with a lyrical paean to Provence, painting, and the timeless cycle of death and rebirth. In 1937, 20-year-old Lisette Roux must leave her beloved Paris to live with her husband André in the south of France, where they will care for his grandfather, Pascal, in tiny Roussillon. Provincial life is challenging in all but one respect. Lisette has always wanted to work with art, and Pascal, a former artists' pigment salesman, has collected seven extraordinary paintings as well as many tales of artists, which he is eager to share before he dies. His insistence on doing what is most important before it's too late inspires Lisette to create her own list of essential "hungers and vows." Soon after his passing, Germany occupies France. Before leaving to fight, André hides the paintings—Pissaros, Cezannes, and a possible Picasso—in a location he doesn't disclose in fear for Lisette's safety. The years that follow bring small privations, huge losses, the search for the scattered paintings, and the slow resurgence of hope. Early on, Vreeland's narrative lacks compelling suspense or drive, but it picks up once the war begins and the paintings are lost. The novel's heart is its patient interweaving of sensuous, meticulously observed details with themes of forgiveness, female strength, and survival. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Logan Notebooks

Rebecca Lindenberg. Colorado State Univ./Center for Literary Publishing, $16.95 trade paper (72p) ISBN 978-1-885635-37-2

"Cloud shaped book, opening," writes Lindenberg (Love, an Index) to open this stunning collection of narrative lyric poems. Lists, aphorisms, and poems to mark various occasions accumulate into evidence of the speaker's life in Logan, Utah, while natural landmarks and ordinary objects of the Western U.S., including canyons, billboards, big rigs, mechanical bulls, and mountains provide insight into her (and, by extension, the American) psyche. A few poems take inspiration from The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, while even more owe a debt to traditional Japanese poetic forms, such as the haiku, due to their surprising juxtaposition of images. Despite their beauty, Lindenberg's poems do not shy away from humor or pain, as shown through her students, friends, and lovers. A constant is her fascination with sound and the meaning(s) of words: "Poetry is nobody's/ native language. Or the only one." Lindenberg has a supreme grasp of language, yet still understands its limitations and acknowledges that reality. Often, books that are this linguistically alluring can be found lacking in emotion, but that is not the case here. Lindenberg has crafted a collection that is immediately striking, yet thought-provoking beyond its pages—a recipe to rouse even the most callous reader. (June)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Book of Joshua

Zachary Schomburg. Black Ocean (SPD, dist.), $19.95 (128p) ISBN 978-1-939568-06-9

With wit, humor, tenderness, and his characteristic, logic-bending surrealism, Schomburg (Fjords, vol. I) probes into the subjects of futurity, personal history, and mythmaking. Short, dated prose poems (titled "1977" through "2044") comprise the book's first two sections, "Earth" and "Mars," and propel a narrative of discovery and self-making just beyond the borders of a recognizable world. In this dreamscape, the missing presence of "Joshua" haunts every turn: a figure in "a white boat floating on blood"; a name carved on the side of a spaceship; a name uttered by friends and family. This interlocutor, a vessel and keeper of dreams, acts as the big "Other" driving our protagonist's hopes and doubts. "I didn't feel like living in a thing not shaped like me anymore," Schomburg writes. "I woke up dangling from an umbilical cord... And there you were, Joshua, on the blood in a white boat, rocking." In the final section, "Blood," Schomburg reinserts the images developed earlier in lineated, page-wandering poems, once again addressing Joshua. But here, the narrative explodes: "white boat rocking// swans/ rocking// a cradle on a// dirty/ loop... // where were you I was calling." And the language only grows increasingly volatile from there: "do we even know enough to die// who are you what/ year is new." (July)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Tweaky Village

Kevin Killian. Wonder (SPD, dist.), $15.95 trade paper (108p) ISBN 978-0-9895985-2-1

This mix of lyric poems, dialogues, epistolary pieces, and prose from poet and novelist Killian (Spreadeagle) would probably feel scatterbrained if it weren't so entertaining; instead, it works as a carnival of layered and thoughtful experimentation with image and colloquial language. For instance, in "Skull with Jewels on It," Killian sets a scene: "Kylie comes down to the stage riding an elevated skull, huge skull confronting the audience with its own death, a skull glittering with thousands of light bulbs." Informed by music—both musical luminaries, like Leonard Cohen and David Bowie, and the musical implication of language—Killian is not only honest about his influences, but honors those who have affected him, from the found language of the cityscape ideas to the reaches of ancient myth to the tabloids of pop culture: "Heath seemed like a wild name, Dionysian,/ the boy of the moors, all mad fire,// while ‘Ledger' was Apollonian, like St. Peter/ counting up your sins." This is the tradition established with the Beats and The New York School brought to contemporary fruition, as refreshing to read as it is deeply affecting. Killian writes of striving, "To become obscure/ among human beings,// but clearer/ in all relations," and yet with this work he will succeed only in the latter. (May)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Three Emperors: An Ethan Gage Adventure

William Dietrich. Harper, $25.99 (400p) ISBN 978-0-06-219410-7

Dietrich's seventh Ethan Gage adventure (after 2013's The Barbed Crown) delivers more of the usual action-packed, at times implausible, intrigue with little character development. In November 1805, Gage, who describes himself as the "American sharpshooter, savant of electricity, treasure hunter, spy, diplomat, and mercenary," is believed dead after the Battle of Trafalgar. In fact, he's in Venice, posing as Hieronymus Franklin, a "distant cousin of Benjamin." Almost a year after last seeing his wife, Astiza, and their four-year-old son, Horus, Gage is understandably preoccupied with finding them, especially after learning that Astiza may be burned as a witch. The narrative switches perspectives between husband and wife; Astiza's sections detail her struggle to stay alive and to locate a "mechanical man, or ‘android,'" built by 13th-century scholar Albertus Magnus and able to predict the future, which she could use as a bargaining chip. Gage's flippancy makes it hard to invest in the battle scenes, and the prose is sometimes labored (e.g., "As with all grand and venerable castles, the agglomeration of architecture at Ceský Krumov is haunted"). Agent: Andrew Stuart, Stuart Agency. (May)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Change Machine

Bruce Covey. Noemi (SPD, dist.), $15 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-1-934819-34-0

Covey (Reveal: All Shapes & Sizes) offers a Sargasso Sea of postmodern phraseologies, a post-hipster stack of repurposed self-consciousness, a sometimes sarcastic and defiantly ample take on the way we live right at this moment, and—at its best—a glorious mess. "Quoting me exactly might be better, or at least/ Waiting until the white-haired man walks forward," he muses, "I just don't know/ Which two-way window will be." Covey is editor-in-chief of Coconut Books and its eponymous online journal, and his poems bear the sophisticated marks of life online: "Rows of wires convey electricity from circuit to station./ Having as much to do with a poem as a postage stamp." The collection's early lines ("I know what it's like to be covered in frantic X's and O's") recall the explorations of New York School poets such as Ted Berrigan and the up-to-date lyricism of Dobby Gibson. As the collection progresses, such wryness gives way to broader concerns of pastiche and satire, expressed in lists as well as in lengthy stanzas and curt prose blocks. Such works may get old fast, and they seem to know it. For now, though, these satirical pages could easily make Covey into a social media darling; they may well make this his breakthrough comedic book. (May)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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