Staff Picks 2012

The Sensualist

Alissa Rubin recommends

The Sensualist by Daniel Torday

From the first sentence of The Sensualist, Daniel Torday pulls you, the reader, into the fully completed world of his protagonist; you are dropped directly into the center of the mass of details-beginning your junior year at high school alongside Samuel Gerson-and remain there till the last page of the novella. The most striking aspect is Torday's mastery of language and subtext. Every sentence is loaded with important details but the writing never feels heavy, and despite the filling narration, so much remains unsaid. In retrospect, the narrative voice is obviously that of an older well-educated Gerson crafting his story as he looks back on his teenage experiences. But Torday's facility with language, his ability to completely immerse you, will make you believe you're reading the mental diary of a precocious and perceptive teenage Gerson as he thinks back over each interaction. Gerson is, in fact, precocious and perceptive, as well as loyal, emotional, and introspective. Yet he's also a teenager and makes a lot of mistakes, the worst of which might be taking his best friend and his family for granted. He doesn't tell you a lot about feelings though; he describes a situation and lets you reach your own conclusion. This ability of Torday's, to not waste a single line, and yet to leave so much up to his readers, is probably his greatest achievement in this novella. The bent, almost broken English of the Russian siblings, Dmitri and Yelizaveta, is filled with this same silence. Dmitri specifically has a tendency to twist his English into poetic, indistinct statements, the meaning of which you can only guess at although you know it's meaningful. If Gerson understands, he isn't saying; and if not, he certainly isn't going to help the reader out by asking.

  September 2012


Shannon Schmidt recommends

Incubation: A Space for Monsters by Bhanu Kapil

Laloo, love, I am writing back to you. Your inquiry and travels through the expansive country, red in Kansas, sucking down coffee with your cola-colored eyelids, compelled contemplation of the relationship between body, environment, language, memory and assimilation. Thank you for your exploration, this switching and your space for monsters. Moving from grey to gold, your color sense is impeccable too. Yes. Vermilion. Yes, Laloo, I appreciate your darkness in a dress and hope that the trees along the highway continue to welcome you.
All the best,

  August 2012

Then Go On

Nicole Trigg recommends

Then Go On by Mary Burger

"She is the mesh depicting a mathematical equation in three dimensions translated into two."

In reply to my fan letter about her new book, Mary Burger discussed an effort to find "some form for ideas in language that can respond to both the contingency and the necessity of experience." Her way of putting it is remarkably to the point, when the point is not a point but a shaded area. Then Go On is a network of short prose units that navigate around, between, and through both the "loose rocky terrain that shifted under anyone's weight," and the "self-replenishing aquifer." Into this mixed nebula that "the alphabet... does not map," Burger dispatches the "man without stumps" and "woman without facial features." When they kiss wearing stockings over their heads, "it is the nylon that soaks up the moisture from their tongues and stays wet and clammy on their faces when they pull away." So the stuff "without" these two holds the impressions and evidences of event that they don't or can't. Material is language, or it is brass, earth, or alabaster. This reminds me of learning to draw from observation in the 9th grade: i.e., to forget drawing an "eye" or "hair" or "me," to draw, rather, lines and shadows exactly as I observed them. MB's mode is analogous: she describes the relationships between forms, in perpetual motion and flux, "but for naming these shapes she has no vocabulary and must refer to approximations." The resultant prose is not only life-like, but a living thing that evinces physicality and a rhythmic consistency like stepping or breathing. Sentences are long and muscular and pool together into the fresh paw-print of each new paragraph.

  July 2012

Life Is With People

Angelina Coppola recommends

Life Is With People by Atticus Lish

When I picked up LIFE IS WITH PEOPLE from the shelf in our warehouse, I felt like I had stumbled upon someone's private notebook. I had fallen through the rabbit hole and had entered a world brimming with comic snapshots of the grotesque, the awkward, and the fantastic. As I flipped through the pages, my eyes soaked in the inky figures moving across the white-lined paper and lingered upon the neat handwritten captions. Lish's prose heightens the comedic effect of an image by creating an additional eureka moment for the reader. He oftentimes combines the unsettling with the humorous, and is therefore not afraid to go "there"--to merge,"humor and disease, transcendence and decadence, laughablilty and pain"--Giancarlo DiTrapano. As a result, LIFE IS WITH PEOPLE makes you grin and shift in your seat as you hungrily turn the page for more.

  July 2012

Nancy Hale

Johnny Hernandez recommends

Nancy Hale: On the Life & Work of a Lost American Master

This third installment of the Unsung Masters series is definitely worth checking out, not only because it is a departure from their past two collections (by poets), but because, in a way, it isn't really a departure from poetry at all. This collection of seven short stories by Nancy Hale not only encapsulate a world somewhat removed from the present, but also illuminates the relevance of memories. This collection, and her work in general, attempts to show readers the artistry of life's details. She crafts every story with descriptions that seem over-sentimentalized and personal, but each of her details are very much a crafted prism meant to evoke a memory in the reader's life. As I think back on the collection, each of these stories orbit around the idea of one pristine moment in a young woman's experience growing into an identity,( as yet to be determined by its writer). She is always trying to find a way towards a ‘present', through these moments. Hale seems to be holding up memories for her readers and trying to make them objects to meditate upon. This collection is also a great teaching tool because of its supplementary material, (i.e. contextualizing essays about Hale's life, career & critical essays on the included stories). The collection also includes an excerpt from her memoir: The Life in the Studio, which documents her recollections of growing up in a household of artists. I can't express how much you need to read her work. The Editors of this series have done a beautiful job in their reintroducing this ‘lost master' into the lexicon of writers who should not be forgotten.

  July 2012

Not Blessed

Brent Cunningham recommends

Not Blessed by Harold Abramowitz

It's tempting to describe this terrific work in the hollywood "pitch" style as Raymond-Queneau-meets-Robert-Walser. Formally, it closely resembles Queneau's Exercises in Style, with both books telling a single, seemingly small incident multiple times, with variations. But while Queneau's book is mostly just brilliantly clever and adept, using a different narrative style for each variation, Abramowitz uses the same style for all twenty-eight tellings. That style echoes, for me, the great Swiss writer Robert Walser, especially with the pastoral setting and somewhat antiquated rural terms like "village" and "cottage." Plus, in both Walser and Not Blessed the sentences, in and of themselves, are fairly modest and straight-forward, while at the same time the syntactical and conceptual links between sentences show disturbing gaps and odd leaps. The effect is that fiction becomes poetic: there's a tendency for the reader to start moving faster, at normal "fiction" reading speed, as if it all smoothly cohered, only to end up having to backtrack after realizing they don't know where they are or what a specific reference is to. This effect becomes even more pronounced when you've heard the story 20 times, and in that respect Abramowitz is doing something that isn't in Walser or Queneau, something subtler and more existential. For me, Not Blessed creates a feeling that something important in each telling is just beyond the reader's grasp, which in turn feels like a pursuit. By the final run-through of this simple tale, a sensitive reader will feel like a redundant and stationary exercise is moving at very high speed, raising a host of questions about not just the protagonist's character but also the nature of mannerist borrowing, literary form, style, and communication in general.

  June 2012


Melissa Hohl recommends

Citizen by Aaron Shurin

In Aaron Shurin's eleventh book, Citizen (City Lights), transformative lyrical language echoes with soft yet emphatic imagery. He writes of the "swirling vault of pressed voices" and "white walls kneading blue out of their shadows." In Citizen, contours of the twenty-first century delicately collide with those of the cosmos; the poem "Tracings" contains "steam whistles, church bells - those waxing moons - low hum of the refrigerator, my co-conspirator" within "the old city's new space." Furthermore, as Shurin investigates the limitlessness of imagination within the mind of a human citizen, the ‘aposiopesis', or ‘trailing off' form of ellipses, comes into play a huge role. Appropriately, the last poem within the collection, "The Adventure", leads readers all the way into the "distance . . ." Throughout Citizen, Shurin produces kaleidoscopic visions of urban and domestic daily life, of sprawling cities and small shimmering objects. Most importantly, he takes the prose poem "to where the beautiful nights dance like bears." Citizen promises a journey to a space somewhere in between now and the future, which readers are sure to find both fascinating and familiar.

  June 2012

bird book

Chris Carosi recommends

bird book by Laura Walker

Laura Walker's third collection, bird book, composed of fragments, illusory speech, and disjunctive phrasing, is a fascinating field guide that both satiates and disentangles the impulse of metaphor. Each poem ends with the name of a bird, sometimes acting as a caption to the description above, and sometimes complicating description of human communication. This causes some extraordinary physical reaction in the reader. The compulsion of phrase to expand visually, as if in flight, then to land on an indirect statement or an obscure detail seems to conjure memory and action semi-consciously. These are very short poems, but the sheer agility of Walker's talent can be deathly still and peaceful or politically enormous in the amount of time it takes to go from phrase to bird. There is also an attention to the materiality of language, which might texture a quotidian action as bizarrely symbolic (often in the form of infinitive phrases, "to turn her head"), or a disguise for the action of a bird ("he walked through pines"). These descriptions/metaphors are shared by the observer, the characters, and the birds, and it becomes clear that at the level of line, this relationship is shifting every moment an image passes. The amount of possibility that the reader engages is so dynamic, that there are too many examples to list here. The book is a welcome replacement for any field guide, not just birds, and can be read as such, flipping through the book and reading the poems in whatever order one pleases. Some of the phrases or characters repeat (or are suggested to repeat), as do some of the bird names, and reading them out of sequence increases the sense of bird tracks, or bird shadows, allowing for the possibility that metaphor or memory might reveal itself in various forms in the same consciousness. A superb and fascinating book.

  January 2012


Nicole Trigg recommends

Schizophrene by Bhanu Kapil

Bhanu Kapil's experimental prose, in her new book Schizophrene (Nightboat Books, 2011), explores and enacts a relationship between migration and psychosis. She notes in an afterword, "I learned that light touch, regularly and impersonally repeated, in the exchange of devotional objects, was as healing for anti-psychotic medication. In making a book that barely said anything, I hoped to offer: this quality of touch." So what Kapil's book does not "say" is offered instead as body. The content is a testament to, and by, bodies in motion. There is the manuscript Schizophrene, which traveled in an arc from the author's back door to her garden in winter where it endured ice and thaw and ice again before Kapil re-gathered, transcribed and remade it, and there are the displaced persons and communities of India and Pakistan, and there is the author herself. The effect of relocation on all of the above is modeled by the text, lush with color and texture yet consistently and jarringly broken by white space or cancelling imagery. In "blanked out jungle space," there is invariably a veil or screen between the implied whole and the subject. Metal trees "snap" and break, desire is linked with caging and surveillance, families are meat and deal meat inside of burnt, smoking architecture, black and indigo dyes are "leaking" into "pocks" on the grid... Barred from its continuity, the sumptuous image becomes a disturbance, as if lit by strobes. Importantly, Kapil documents without victimizing her own and others' diasporic bodies-ultimately the body perseveres even as it records its broken history, and its senses never dull. The resultant book then, is indeed what the author intended: an object for healing, in the permanence of its ink, thickness of its paper, limits of its form.

  January 2012

Hunters & Gamblers

Israel Cisneros recommends

Hunters & Gamblers by Ryan Ridge

This is one of the best books I've read in years. I first picked up the book because of the gallant cowboy on the cover. As I read the first few stories I wondered how he fit in the novel. Then I realized that Ridge is a literary cowboy, doing things his own way with a rugged sense of structure that makes you wish you had his swagger. Ridge tells us stories from all directions, of psychics, of religious zealots, of war-time drummers, all with their own very specific set of issues. To say that his characters and his situations are unique is a bit of an understatement. Ridge deviates from our societal conventions and preconceived cultural notions in way that seems to describe our modern lives more accurately. Ryan Ridge just makes you step back and look at his words as they are, and through those words you find yourself looking at how things in life "actually" are.

  January 2012

Sasquatch Stories

Israel Cisneros recommends

Sasquatch Stories by Mike Topp

Mike Topp's writing is the literary equivalent of observational stand-up comedy... except it's actually really funny. His stand alone statements are the best kind of awkward. I advise that you slow down a bit after each line and take the time to enjoy the white space moments that he's left for us on page.

  January 2012

Solar Poems

Charlie Wormhoudt recommends

Solar Poems by Homero Aridjis

Solar Poems, translated by George McWhirter, is composed of alternating pages of the original poems in Spanish and the English translations, so that they face each other across the spine of the book like a standoff; like lovers; like an object and its reflection in water. Immediately this reminded me of the book of poems by Pablo Neruda that I bought in Argentina thinking I would learn Spanish through poetry (what a romantic!). That book was stolen and never recovered, but in Solar Poems I find redemption.

The benefit of a translated work constructed in this way is that the English speaking reader with some knowledge of Spanish can figure out what the original poem felt like—the cadence of the language and the looping quality of lines like “Virgen de los ojos encendidos.” Readers may also gain an appreciation for the art of poetic translation when reading a clever conversion like “igneous eye” for “ojo de fuego.” Igneous eye! Or you might pick up a new word of Spanish, like sonrisa, meaning smile.

More importantly, the dialogue between languages is echoed throughout the book in parallel binaries. The first poem, Poem to the Sun, is literally a conversation between a painter and a poet. They converse about the sun and its light, using the metaphors of their respective disciplines. In the middle hangs a question: in the beginning was the word, or in the beginning was light? This initial conversation engenders dozens of others in the poems that follow—between the poet and his dog, the poet and his dead parents, the poet and himself. The collection as a whole has the levity, fluidity and intimacy of a conversation. We feel we are listening in on close friends talking.

Like Neruda, Aridjis was a Latin American diplomat as well as a poet, and so there exists within the author yet another dialogue. Why do the two occupations seem so at odds? The erotic quality of Aridjis’ words and his beheld subjects, like rolling grapes around in the mouth, contrasts with our idea of a calculating man with a suit and a brief case. And yet there have been other poet-diplomats: Claudel, St. John Perse. Perhaps it makes sense. After all, wordplay is the name of the game for both poet and diplomat. But would that all politicians were also poets! There must be some transferable virtue in noticing that the glow of someone’s eyes (yes, lots of eyes) is “more intense than mango skin,” or believing, “Man's task / to not be sad under the light.”


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