Posts

the princess saves herself in this one by Amanda Lovelace

by Lindsay Gacad

No matter how outdated or clichéd you think fairy tales have become, their appeal remains undeniable today. The whimsy and call for the suspension of belief, as applied to the mundane of our everyday, grasps at our hearts, evoking a sense of nostalgia and hope.

When I asked the employee at Phoenix Books in Burlington if he had any new poetry collection recommendations, he took me straight to Rupi Kaur. While I am familiar with Kaur’s work and love her poems, I knew I wanted something less popularized. princess was his second choice for me, asking if I already knew Lovelace. I lied and said I did. After seeing the directness of its title, the book’s cover gripped me: striking, black matte with pure white lowercase print, left-justified. As I began to quickly flip through its thick and creamy pages, I was thrust into an emotionally charged adventure that was impossible to turn away from. This is the first poem I landed on when I opened its wondrous pages: “maybe I find it so hard to believe in heaven, because I don’t know if there will be poetry there.”

I didn’t know who Amanda Lovelace was, didn’t know her book the princess saves herself in this one was the 2016 winner of the Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Poetry. I didn’t know about her former acclaim or that she’s found grassroots success through her Twitter (@ladybookmad). As a fellow writer and aspiring poet, this is a unique place to write a book review from, a place of minimal previous knowledge of the author, a place of instant admiration and wonder.

In a most modern and innovative way, Amanda Lovelace has used her poetry to take the reigns of one of my most favorite fairy tropes: the princess being saved from her demons. This collection is broken into four parts and presented to us as “the princess, the damsel, the queen, and you”. The first three chapters beautifully weave together the author’s story, exploring her relationships with men, family, friends, society, her body, her writing and herself. We as readers, as women, as humans, can relate to nearly all of the elements of her story.

In “the queen” Lovelace’s words conjure the hazy ups and down of romance and heart-break with poems like, “before he left, he wrapped my heart in layers of barbed wire to make sure that no one else could ever get in, but you were more than willing to bloody your hands for me.”

For her final chapter “you”, Lovelace addresses the reader directly in a poetic love letter, promising that our work in progress (our work, our writing, our selves) is “pending: your own happy ending. – you’ll get there.” It addresses themes of love, family, mourning and empowerment, while keeping the reader both engaged and included. It provides an uplifting template for the stages in our lives, and our faith in each other.

If you’re feeling bombarded by today’s news headlines and the angst of the world’s political unrest, my prescription as an untrained and unlicensed therapist is this poetic journey alongside Amanda Lovelace.

Believe in the fairy tale, her writing style begs of us; her syntax is revelatory, honest and endearing, her collection is a safe place. For the harder and more dreary days, Lovelace’s poetry will deliver on its promise, and remind me that the princess can always undoubtedly save herself.

On her website, Lovelace describes herself as growing up a word-devourer & avid fairy tale lover. She has her B.A. in English Literature with a minor in Sociology. the princess saves herself in this one is her debut poetry collection & the first book in the women are some kind of magic series. A lifelong poetess & storyteller, Lovelace currently lives in New Jersey with her husband, their moody cat.

The second book in the series, the witch doesn’t burn in this one, will be published in 2018.

Lovelace’s poems and their inventive forms make this collection a heartfelt exploration of love for oneself and others.

 

Andrews McNeel Publishing, 2017.

ISBN: 978-1-4494-8641-9, 199 pages,

$14.99

 

Review: Vacationland by John Hodgman

by Christa Guild

John Hodgman has made his living off of telling tales and giving people orders. His first three books, satirical almanacs, cover topics ranging from fake historical anecdotes to the validity of the upcoming Mayan apocalypse. I first came across Hodgman through his podcast, Judge John Hodgman, where he mediates everyday conflicts with a self-righteous demeanor and certain unfailing rules, like that everyone should learn to drive a car with a manual transmission and living together before marriage is not sinful but is a major financial liability.

John Hodgman presides, and so I wasn’t surprised when a chapter of his collection of essays, Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches, began with a declaration: “I don’t like riding on city buses. Those things can go anywhere. There are no tracks, and their routes and stops are a collective fiction. What if something goes wrong?” (To be clear, I agree completely with Hodgman’s distaste for the bus. I once got on a bus thinking I’d end up at work and instead found myself being stared down by security inside a U.S. Naval Warfare Center). I expected that eccentric tone when I picked up Vacationland, knowing full well that Hodgman is a self-proclaimed narcissist. What I wasn’t anticipating was that the book would also be moving and filled with not just self-deprecation but intimate self-reflection.

Hodgman enters the page center stage with a promise: “I will be honest with you: there are no fun fake facts in this book. While I may evade particular details and change some names in order to protect the privacy of those who did not ask to know me, the rest is all the awful truth about my dumb thoughts and feelings. I am sorry for this. It is all I have left.” And indeed, Vacationland feels like a direct rebuke of the current political climate. No fake facts, no alternative truths, just the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth–it’s appropriate for a judge, even one of the internet variety.

Among the most powerful essays in Vacationland is “Rocks on Top of Other Rocks” where Hodgman and his best friend go swimming in a swimming hole that is semi-legal by the laws of the United States government and build cairns, which Hodgman fears is even less legal according to the cairn police. He battles his own reservations and confronts his instinctive desire to be a genius in everything—even if that thing is as simple as piling rocks on top of other rocks. And because Hodgman has promised to be truthful, he finally admits what we the audience have suspected: he and his friend have been high the whole time. This delayed glimpse of honesty is exactly what keeps us readers on our toes, certain that Hodgman won’t lie to us but also wary of what tricks he might pull on the next page. The essay is hilarious, sharp, and ultimately an indication of all the ways in which the book is successful: even through the littlest experiences, Hodgman is able to capture powerful insights.

But that’s how Vacationland functions—through a series of laughably innocuous moments like taking trash to the dump or visiting Perry’s Nut House, a little shop in Maine without a bathroom. Hodgman ruminates on the big questions and exposes his insecurities in the funniest way he can. Hodgman is one of those rare people that can make a truly smart joke out of basically anything, one of those people that all the rest of us want to sit and listen to for hours at a time, and in Vacationland he invites us in for tea – or for a scotch maybe.

Hodgman is first and foremost a comedian, and this book is first and foremost comedic; nevertheless, he is able to reflect on his past while also being forthright about his ridiculous privilege; the impetus for the book, he admits, is that he owns two summer homes and doesn’t know what to do about it. He takes the time to speak directly to the issues weighing on him – on all of us – without feeling the need to tackle it with humor. He states, “Yes, I shoplifted some off-brand beers and snuck into the London Zoo when I was in my twenties; but only now do I realize that I did so with full, if unconscious, confidence that I would not be executed in the street for doing these things.” These moments of solemnity are startling and powerful and likely give away a little more of John Hodgman than he would typically let us see.

John Hodgman’s Vacationland is a perfect example of the way white male voices can and should respond to modern day tumult, socially, politically, and personally. I very rarely put down a book and think, more boys should read this, but that is my hope for John Hodgman and his book about owning two summer homes. He writes about growing up, finding his place in the world, raising children, and losing family with a poignant voice and a large helping of clever comedy; the book doesn’t feel like an instruction manual on how you are meant to act, but something about Hodgman makes you want to follow in his footsteps. John Hodgman isn’t the voice of a generation, but he’s a beautiful example of how to take a step back and listen to those who are.

 

Vacationland (True Stories from painful beaches)

by John Hodgman

Penguin Random House, NY 2017

272 pages

 

My Darling Detective by Howard Norman

by Sarah Leamy

The novel opens with Jacob Rigolet, a young man who’s employed by a wealthy art collector, sitting at an auction in Halifax. The photograph by Robert Capa’s Death on a Leipzig Balcony is placed up for bidding, but before anyone can say anything, his mother, Nora, walks up the aisle and throws a bottle of ink across the famous image. Jacob had thought his mother, Nora, was “safely tucked away” at the Nova Scotia Rest Home. Jacob’s fiancé, Martha, is the lead investigator, the “interlocutrix,” and she discovers that Jacob’s father is not who he’d thought.

Norman plays lightly with classic film noir with a mix of romance and an old-fashioned crime story with snappy dialogue and a certain melancholy that we expect from him. The noir genre is suspense driven, and in My Darling Detective there is a subtle yet mounting sense of impending threat. The language remains simple as we’d expect from the film noir but is less lyrical than usual for Norman.

A cold case of two unsolved murders dating back to 1945 is lead by Detective Tides and Hogdon, archetypal and clichéd bad cop and good cop. Their working relationship and dialogue is another nod to the 1940s, with a back and forth of one liners, creating a lighter tone than we usually expect from Norman, but it was one that didn’t always work, The two detectives were too much of a stereotype for the novel’s realism yet they grew on me, and the image of one of the detectives singing and dancing during a tense interrogation sticks with me. These supposedly hard-boiled and cynical detectives ended up playing well in contrast to the gentle innocence of Jacob, a bookish and somewhat lost narrator: “Look Jake, sorry if my sense of irony might not be as refined as yours,” Detective Hogdon said.

Howard Norman brings his usual preoccupations of Nova Scotia, WWII, photographs and libraries but with a lighter touch this time, yet the overlying atmosphere is again melancholic. Whimsical and bizarre events such as two children born in the library are held in check with the emotionally raw and realistic letters from the trenches in 1945 Germany, from Nora’s husband, the man in Capa’s photograph, Bernard Rigolet.

Norman’s works are often rich with historical details that give a depth and weight to the narratives. They are rooted in reality such as here when we learn that the “Region of Delay” was “a term that applies to journeys, not always perilous ones, but journeys at seas.” Bernard Rigolet writes letters to his wife from the 1940s, describing the journey from Canada to Europe to fight in the WWII. One of the other soldiers, a Greek and philosophical man, warned them that they “have to have some perspective, some philosophy about what we’re entering into or else it’s all going to seem useless.” Yet war is hard to understand or rationalise and through Rigolet’s letters we witness his slow decline into violence and the inevitability of terror during combat.

Norman is a master of atmosphere and despite the levity of the parallel detective stories, My Darling Detective has these touches of such realism that we, the readers, leave with a stronger sense of the anti-Semitism of the era, the threat of violence, and the trauma of war on a personal level.

Norman’s signature setting of Nova Scotia is less well-described in this novel, without enough of the physical context; it’s as if Norman trusts us to have read his other novels and that we remember and can imagine Halifax fully. There are less sensory details than needed to bring the town and community alive.

Consistently, Norman brings to his novels the importance of books and art, of photographs, letters and libraries, and as usual he evokes those well. These themes offer a hope for humanity, implying that the arts are a sanctuary, an idea that resonates with me.

Jacob, the narrator, turns to the library as it’s familiar; he was born there, grew up there, and after his mother’s breakdown, he decides to become a librarian for mixed reasons. The Halifax Free library is his safe space during the investigations into who his biological father might be and the search into the murders of the cold case from all those years ago. Norman keeps us turning pages as we try to make sense of the various threads.

One of the images that linger with me is when Norman wrote that how feeling disjointed and unprepared can be “like when an orchestra is warming up. All those disparate sounds – oboe, violin, bassoon, French horn, tympani – you can’t imagine how it will all turn into something beautiful.”

My Darling Detective is very much the same for me: The layered plot, the clichéd touches of the ‘homage to noir’ and characters didn’t immediately grab me, persuade me to keep reading, yet I’m glad I did. The lasting impression is one of a cohesive novel, and the lives and deaths of the characters touched me. Jacob and Martha are such an odd detective and librarian couple in a world and culture unfamiliar to me except through Norman’s novels.

Where Norman will takes us next? Is this the start of a lighter body of work within the darker themes he often deals with?

Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017 243 pages. $26.

 

Portrait of the Alcoholic by Kaveh Akbar

by Genevieve N. Williams

Portrait of the Alcoholic – Kaveh Akbar

Sibling Rivalry Press

2017


Kaveh Akbar in Portrait of the Alcoholic writes with such spiritual risk and honesty that we as readers are brought into the liminal spaces of language, addiction, and displacement. Sobriety is maintained through community, and empathy is written into every poem of this collection. These poems explore relationships between addict and drink, between people, cultures, and languages. From the opening poem, “Some Boys Aren’t Born They Bubble,” we are pulled in by Akbar’s wild metaphors and similes: “sometimes one will disappear into himself / like a ram charging a mirror when this happens / they all feel it.” When I ordered my copy of Portrait of the Alcoholic, I’d recently been released from probation for a DUI, was working fewer and fewer hours at the bar where I’d worked for nine years, and was easing into the realization that I had an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. At weekly, court-mandated AA meetings, I listened to people’s stories and contributed my own. We felt collective pride when someone maintained sobriety and collective worry when another relapsed. This sense of community and shared recovery comes through Akbar’s opening poem and is maintained throughout this gorgeous collection.

Empathy is central to Portrait of the Alcoholic, as are moments of profound vulnerability. “When I wake, I ask God to slide into my head quickly before I do,” Akbar writes in the poem “Being in this World Makes Me Feel like a Time Traveler.” When the court mandated I attend AA meetings, I feared being inundated with religious dogma. That wasn’t my experience. Attending a small meditation group Saturday afternoons, I was grounded by our discussions and weekly repetition of the Serenity Prayer. We talked about spiritual fitness. We practiced mindfulness. The disease of alcoholism is tricky — Akbar beautifully articulates its complexities and the necessity of vulnerability in maintaining sobriety.

It’s not only alcoholism that these poems grapple with, it’s also immigration, language, memory, displacement, and the realities of a life lived in the margins and with resilience. These themes are woven together seamlessly in the poem “Do You Speak Persian?” Akbar writes,

I don’t remember how to say home

in my first language, or lonely, or light.

 

I remember only

delam barat tang shodeh, I miss you,

 

and shab bekheir, goodnight.

 

How is school going, Kaveh-joon?

Delam barat tang shodeh.

 

Are you still drinking?

Shab bekheir.

 

For so long every step I’ve taken

has been from one tongue to another.

From his childhood in Iran to his life in the United States, Akbar has carried not only memory but also the loss of memory, not only language but also the loss of language.

Language is also a means for resistance, for gaining control over craving. Step one of Alcoholics Anonymous is to admit we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable. By naming a thing, by admitting to the disease of alcoholism, there’s some power regained in an otherwise powerless situation. Akbar’s tone is tender even as it’s regretful. “I am less horrible than I could be,” he writes in the poem “Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Inpatient),”

I’ve never set a house on fire             never thrown a first-born off a bridge             still my whole life I answered every cry for help with a pour             with a turning away             I’ve given this coldness many names             thinking if it had a name it would have a solution             thinking if I called a wolf a wolf I might dull its fangs

Vulnerability is in this honest examination of self, an attempt to gain control of craving in its naming.

In the poem “Portrait of the Alcoholic with Craving,” Akbar writes in stanzas that zigzag across the page,

 

I’ve lost the unspendable coin I wore around

my neck that protected me from you, leaving it

bodyhot in the sheets of a tiny bed in Vermont. If you

could be anything in the world

 

you would. Just last week they found the glass eye

of a saint buried in a mountain. I don’t remember

which saint or what mountain, only

how they said the eye felt warm

 

in their palms. Do you like

your new home, tucked

away between brainfolds? To hold you

always seemed as unlikely

 

            as catching the wind in an envelope. Now

you are loudest before bed, humming like a child

    put in a corner. I don’t mind

much; I have never been a strong sleeper, and often

 

the tune is halfway lovely. Besides, if I ask you to leave

you won’t.

The poem continues this mindful attention to addiction, and is true to the experience of recovery. The addiction doesn’t go away. Here, Akbar addresses alcoholism as though it was a person, and this heightens the intimacy between alcoholic and alcoholism. We readers feel the persistence of craving, as we experience it through Akbar’s rich language and sensory detail.

As someone who has struggled in my own relationship with alcohol and alcoholics, I related to Akbar’s beautiful articulation of desperation and need, and of recovery. The willingness in these poems to express a raw vulnerability and to name an experience we often keep secret is as healing as it is artistically rewarding. Kaveh Akbar’s Portrait of the Alcoholic is a collection that sings of experience, that evokes vulnerability, and that implicitly asks us as readers to look honestly at our lives.


Kaveh Akbar’s poems appear recently or soon in The New Yorker, Poetry, Tin House, PloughsharesFIELD, Georgia Review, PBS NewsHour, Harvard Review, American Poetry Review, Narrative, The Poetry Review, AGNI, New England Review, A Public Space, Prairie Schooner, Virginia Quarterly Review, Poetry International, Best New Poets 2016, Guernica, Boston Review, and elsewhere. His debut full-length collection, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, is forthcoming with Alice James Books in Fall 2017, and his chapbook, Portrait of the Alcoholic, is out with Sibling Rivalry Press. The recipient of a 2016 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, Kaveh was born in Tehran, Iran, and currently lives and teaches in Florida. 

Kaveh founded and edits Divedapper, a home for dialogues with the most vital voices in contemporary poetry. Previously, he ran The Quirk, a for-charity print literary journal. He has also served as Poetry Editor for BOOTH and Book Reviews Editor for the Southeast Review. Along with Gabrielle Calvocoressi, francine j. harris, and Jonathan Farmer, he starred on All Up in Your Ears, a monthly poetry podcast.