Category Archives: A&L Reviews
The Greensboro Review, Number 98, Fall 2015
UNC-Greensboro’s Greensboro Review, I like the looks of it. Cover is nice, unfussy; a tough, no-nonsense cardboard render with contributors stenciled on the front. Reminds me of a pamphlet the Works Progress Administration might have produced. I champion the austerity of the thing. Fall 2015, Number 98 is forest green. Some good writing in here, too. The journal publishes fiction and poetry. Let’s look inside.
“Fragile Hearts on the Bay” by Tyler Sage is as good as any short story I have read all year and this is coming from someone who’s read both Best American Short Stories 2015 and The O. Henry Prize winners cover to cover (okay so I may have glossed over the fabulist entries).
Sage’s story is set in Hollywood, or rather at a bayside mansion outside of town patronized by that insane breed of the famous and the otherworldly privileged, and told from the point-of-view of a writer, a rebel, whose casual attitude suggests his best work is behind him. Still, there was that one book! —The Big River, it’s called. It’s not unusual for the narrator to encounter beautiful bookish bombshells coming up to him to inform him how his book touched them, how it cut through the bullshit, and that is what happens here. What a cast of characters. He’s there with a fabulous actress, a successful TV star, who’s dating the host: a Gatsby-esque international lawyer, who “seems to encourage a reading of himself as someone who is not quite human the way you and I are, but has instead overcome the routine tasks and difficulties of hygiene, emotion and upbringing.” The narrator uses this vacuous landscape to confront “the facade of (his) own life and false fronts” — and despite how shabby that might all sound, it’s rather affecting. A delicious conflict emerges between the writer, the actress, the lawyer, and an arms dealer, and the whole thing concludes with a tastefully rendered menage a trois and a struggle between men in the bay. It might be bold to go so far as to call it the best short story about Hollywood since Richard Yates’ “Saying Goodbye to Sally” –but there I just said it.
Other standouts are Linda Taylor, Glenn Shaheen and Alan Sincic. The speaker in Taylor’s poem, “To a Poet in Ohio: Not Tending a Fire in Oregon” sees the northwest, considers the scorched trees, and laments the birds that once inhabited them. I was particularly enamored of the rhyme scheme in the penultimate stanza: “I am not hungry for birds (ones/ in your poem), larks, black/cap and crow — that come, winter/cold, from a place I don’t know.”
In Glenn Shaheen’s “Darlin, Darlin,” an interracial fling is said to suggest “a great leap in the post-racial America,” until the white Houstonian friend of the speaker admits that the Off-Broadway star she slept with wasn’t black after all, prompting the speaker to recall how often he is mistaken for being Chinese, and the poem unfolds with feverish talk about confused identities and how complicated race is, unpunctuated and headlong and off…seemingly to infinity…superb.
Sincic’s “Sand” is a strange one, perhaps the most experimental offering, full of non sequiturs and a perverse energy. It starts with a grieving husband drying his socks in a toaster oven and only gets weirder from there. It reminded of some of Barry Hannah’s wilder moments, always welcome.
All in all, it’s a fine issue from a journal that’s been old school since 1965. To get a bead on the kind of talent the MFA program at UNC-Greensboro produces, check out an interview over at The Millions featuring two former editors, Kelly Link and Keith Joe Morris, discussing their craft and their latest books.
If Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road met television’s The Walking Dead, you’d have Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven—minus the grisly cannibalism and zombies. With the recent popularity of post-apocalyptic writing in books and on the screen, it would be hard to write that world with originality, but Mandel does so by focusing on the lives of the survivors by unravelling their connections before the disaster.
It is Year 20 after a pandemic has wiped out all but a few pockets of the human population, and we follow a troupe of traveling musicians and actors who perform Shakespeare for the various survivor settlements throughout the devastated United States. Mandel deftly guides us through time Before and After, and this reader was particularly enthralled by the author’s exploration of what survives: if the world would end tomorrow, does that book, that painting, that building that you’re working on really matter? That answer is, you never know, but isn’t it amazing to think that it could contribute to someone’s survival?
Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (2014 National Book Award Finalist)
Southern Poetry Review, Volume 52, Issue 1
One of the oldest literary journals in the country, Southern Poetry Review has been publishing since 1958. There is much to be excited about in their latest issue, Volume 52, Issue 1 (2014). The 44 pages are packed with familiar poets, including Linda Pastan, R.T. Smith, Elton Glaser, and Robert Morgan. This issue is dedicated to longtime SPR contributor Starkey Flythe, Jr., who lived in Augusta, GA, not far from the journal’s home base of Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah.
The poems filling this issue of Southern Poetry Review are accessible and affecting. They talk about our lives: the passing of time, graffiti on a bridge, the dog days of summer, losing a favorite Italian jacket. They remember advice given in between plays in a baseball game, like Jeff Worley’s “Watching the Cubs on WGN with My Father”: “You go with what they give you, Dad said, popping / open another Schlitz. Put everything you have / behind it, take it as far as you can.” They imagine a night at an ancient castle, like “At the Castle,” by WIlliam Virgil Davis: “…The sentries are asleep. Beneath / the walls, through a secret sluice, a dark / boat drifts toward the ancient keep.” And they talk about the way life gets the best of us sometimes, like Mary-Sherman Willis’s poem “Self Spending”: “She’s let herself go, they’re saying / as if her self were a balloon / loosed over the street, its string fraying / or like milk in a hot room / turned to curd.”
Pushcart Prize XXXVIII
Writers are encouraged to read the literary journals and magazines, both to keep abreast of the contemporary literary scene and to find venues for submitting their work. There are so many publications that it’s hard to know where to begin. The Pushcart collection offers a starting point, not a comprehensive list, but an impressive sample of work from established magazines.
The thick tome looks a bit intimidating at first glance, but the 534 pages of fiction, essays and poetry contained within are well worth exploring, as are the lists of past winners, special mentions, and contributing presses. It’s sort of a crash course on reputable journals and the contemporary scene, with work from both familiar names and fresh voices. While most of the prose is fairly traditional in terms of structure, the characters, subjects and plots offer plenty of surprises.
Tina Louise Blevins’s story “God of Ducks,” nominated by The Gettysburg Review tells the story of an overweight, middle-aged cook who forms a friendship with a young “punk” he meets at his restaurant job. “Teen Culture,” nominated by American Short Fiction, is a first person narrative of a single mother who finds companionship with her fourteen-year-old daughter’s friends.
If there is a common thread through the fiction in this widely varied collection it is deep empathy for difficult characters. The nonfiction pieces stare down contentious issues ranging from modern technology to suicide. Charles Baxter’s “What Happens in Hell,” nominated by Ploughshares, is about both a near-death experience and the author’s own unwillingness to forgive the man who nearly killed him. Eric Fair’s “Consequence” (also from Ploughshares) tells of the outrage resulting from an article he published about his experience working as private contractor during the Gulf War, exploring both the ugliness of his actions and the cruel response they elicit with unflinching honesty.
There are even a few moments of humor, like Andrew Zolot’s “The Piece Need Not Be Built,” which originally appeared in American Circus: a cynical, satirical argument for why the coat check at the Museum of Modern Art is its best exhibit.
The poetry is both beautiful and accessible. Like Natalie Diaz’s “Cranes, Mafiosos and a Polaroid Camera,” from Spillway, which transforms a paranoid late night phone call into a meditation on nature, death, and the machine-like workings of the human body. “Just tell me what to do. You know what to do, he pleaded./ I should have known how to help my brother by now . . . Instead I told him about the sandhill cranes, the way they dance–/moving into and giving way to one another, bowing down . . .”