"Cocktails With A Dead Man," poems by Joseph Albanese

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At the back of Cocktails with a Dead Man Joe Albanese lists a series of journals which have published his poems. I’m glad he’s found a number of fora for exhibiting his work; the works here collected take on an unremitting palette, tingeing most entries in the color of lament and loss. The 75 works share brevity and plain elucidation but stay for the most part in the realm of the abstract, rather than play to the reader’s imagination.

I wished for more concrete images in this group. They are few and far between in these poems, and so all the more striking when we find them. One example showing solid imagery, a piece called “Neon Crowds and Mirror Fights” describes the destructive potential of a neon “Open” sign diffused in an evening fog: “It could split the universe in two / as it has done to you many times …” The injury and irreparable hurt rule this poem as it does so many in this collection. 

Even when he uses a concrete image, as in the case of a kindergartener’s Crayola eight-pack, with its strict limit on opportunity, the poet puts it to use in his overall theme of loss and foreshortened choice: “ … or / if I only choose them because I knew I have to complete life’s assignment, / and that’s what I’ll be stuck with for the rest of my life.”

There are no poems here that could be called long, and sometimes the brevity serves well, as when Mr. Albanese plays with the language to achieve an effect. Here is “From You I Crumble” in its entirety: “here I sway, I know my weeds / form mutes each scene through broken fray / she’s cost of dream, I lied to myself / but you valley to protect my stream / from that I’d jump but crash straight through / these fragile knees / you’ve always been the gentle breeze and / handed shield - me, brittle leaf.” Besides the use of “valley” as a verb (meaning to shelter?), and the uncertainty I feel with the words “form” and “handed,” we note also the liberties taken with the rhyme scheme, unorthodox subtle echoes occurring mid-line. And again the theme of relationship across a gulf, perhaps impossible to span, gives you the flavor of the collection.

The emotions wash over us, and this poet opens his heart to us with all its difficulties and setbacks. I would hope, though, that he begin to focus these honest emotions into concrete form, that he find the worldly material to give them physical shape and heft, rather than remain so insistently in the conceptual. These poems need the clarity of everyday images; Mr. Albanese has talent - the heart and the urge are palpable. 

"The Vanished" by RC Binstock

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In “The Vanished,” author RC Binstock melds two narratives into one memorable story. In it he recounts the slow, halting recovery of a family still trying to find its footing a year after suffering a horrifying, life-altering tragedy. This matching of two disparate arcs delivers a striking tale of hope and regeneration.

Malcolm and Aaron, brothers in the Bernard family of Boston, each struggle in their own way to cope with the wrenching loss of their sister Barbara and her two small children, who died when their airliner exploded over the North Atlantic. The health of their parents, Dan and Naomi, begins to fail under the strain. And Barbara’s widowed husband James goes to ground in England, frightening two families, and adding to the strain.

In another narrative vein, Binstock aims his considerable talents at the trials of the 19th Century French master, the artist Jean-François Millet. An artist who gained renown in his lifetime for scenes of peasant life, but whose reputation was fodder for critics and political theorists, produced a handful of works mentioned in the novel, and which bear strongly on the author’s design and intent. 

Throughout the modern-day events of this novel, the lost loved ones haunt the survivors the way only such victims can. Malcolm, the oldest sibling, faces paralyzing fears about future events outside his control. So much so that he cannot proceed in his work as a sculptor and art professor. The scene where his prodigal black-sheep brother Aaron shows up at his house and the two a night-enshrouded rapprochement is one of the most memorable in the book. It contains a frankness, an energy, and a tenderness in which the brothers display every palette in the spectrum of family relations.

Through Malcolm, the artist and aesthete, we see the works of Millet, stunning and evocative, at this remove in time. Millet has no political agenda, paints no symbols, other than forgettable early-career devotional work, but only wished to portray the world and the people in his native Normandy. Events and themes echo across the decades: Malcolm is enthralled by Millet’s vision of the open horizon of the limitless sea (see The End of the Hamlet of Gruchy by Millet), but in Millet’s own life, a painting of a devout couple taking a prayer break while sowing a field (see The Angelus) takes on the most weight.

The work of this painter, winnowed down by the author to two emblematic works, lend depth, interest, and cogent comment on the latter-day events of loss and redemption. This scheme reveals to us a clever and persuasive storyteller at full power. This is a lovely and redemptive read.

"I Exist. Therefore I Am" by Shirani Rajapakse

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While reading I Exist. Therefore I Am, I had the sensation of being submerged. I felt trapped deep an endless sea, with no hope of seeing the surface. Author Shirani Rajapakse’s stories of women in modern India has the effect of burying all hope for these females, these second-class citizens. While it is an oppressing collection, it was clearly designed to be so; while its function is to expose and obliquely denounce, its variety does nothing but strengthen and reinforce its message.

Ms. Rajapakse leads off the collection with “Drink Your Milk and Go to Sleep,” and establishes right away the grisly and hopeless tenor of the series. A unfortunate woman has married into a family suffering from the superstitions typical of certain classes of Indian society. So her new family inevitably finds her culpable when she gives birth to female children. This young mother resorts to her only recourse after so many births of the wrong sex again and again. It’s shocking and horrifying.

“Shweta’s Journey” recounts a modern young woman’s descent into household servitude and enslavement at the hands of a purported religious leader. Her naïveté plunges her into this self-obliterating hell; her fear for her life keeps her there.

Even women who have passed a long, satisfying life with family and spouse have an expiration date, apparently. In “Death Row,” Ms Rajapakse recounts the slow, tortuous journey to death of many older widows whose families no longer want them. It matches the bleakness of these women’s spirits with the bleak conditions in which they are forced to live out their days.

The title story features the plaints and exhortations of developing female fetus, and are thus simply inaudible. It echos the heartache of the first story and reflects the devastated lives of so many of India’s women.

Current cultural and religious conflicts have their airing here: young carefree women who have been kidnapped and subjugated into wives by Muslim men hold no hope of ever being rescued, and scant idea of even being missed. This sad state distills the sad theme of the collection into one brief story.

There are ghastly crimes in these pages; there are hopeless laments; each tells a different aspect of the complete pulverization of the female character in India. The author has followed up her award-winning poetry collection, “Chant of a Million Women” with an alarming and sensational collection of short fiction calling attention to the plight of women in India. Pick it up; prepare to be educated and appalled.

"Where My Heart Used to Beat" by Sebastian Faulks

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Sebastian Faulks presents a book-length confessional of a man alienated from his own feelings in Where My Heart Used to Beat. Robert Hendricks grows up in England, having lost his father in the Great War. His mother refuses to talk about his father, saying it would be “too painful.” Hendricks’s life becomes painful in its turn, too, and through a physician’s knowledge of symptoms, and the self’s absorption with its own history, he tries to get some sort of closure on the pain.

Born during the cataclysm of World War I, Robert grows up with his mother, reads incessantly, has a very active imagination and desire to read, and eventually goes to university. His degree in medicine assures his installation as an officer in a celebrated British Army regiment for World War II. He serves with distinction in Dunkirk, North Africa, and Anzio. It is the fraught and frustrating Italian that seems to do in his mental state. While recuperating from wounds, he falls in love with a comely Italian woman, who proves to be the love of his life.

Hendricks tells these episodes late in his life to an elderly doctor on an island off the south coast of France. These conversations amount to an extended therapy session where Hendricks is encouraged to unburden himself. Talk ranges far and wide. The older doctor admires the book that Hendricks wrote in the 1960s, about mad people, and how they could best be supported, because curing them seems beyond the reach of the medical community. 

I read of this Hendricks, of his problems and doubts, but nowhere along the way did he engage my sympathies. He is a fine fellow, stalwart with his comrades at war and caring   with his patients as a doctor. But the purported alienation he feels, his inability to find comfort or a happy ending … I missed the part that would have made me feel these in my viscera. That may not have been Mr. Faulks’s point, but in a novel of this kind - a highly personal journey in search of comfort or love or support - it certainly seems like it has to have been.

This novel is quite vivid in its descriptions of the British experience in World War II. Its philosophical asides - spoken by our first-person Dr. Hendricks - about the violent worldwide paroxysms of the 20th Century, and how they become embedded on an individual’s soul, are undoubtedly strong. These supports deserve a clearer and more forceful main plot, I felt.

"Sweet Lamb of Heaven" by Lydia Millet

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Lydia Millet has captured something in Sweet Lamb of Heaven, and I feel at the very end of my abilities to say what it is. This Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel captures in frightening detail the horrifying political world we live in today - this example deals with the American version. This novel will haunt you, and stretch your imagination, and scare you, in an Alfred Hitchcock mode. It’s challenging, head-turning stuff. Supremely rewarding.

Anna, a sometime college lecturer in languages and literature, takes her six year-old daughter Lena and flees her emotionally-remote husband. (The husband is so remote, in fact, that midway through the story Anna checks off a long list of characteristics, and decides he is sociopathic. It doesn’t take the reader that long to figure it out.) We learn from the outset that after her daughter was born Anna had hallucinations - I don’t say “suffered” because the term doesn’t fit. She hears voices speaking to her. The voice seems versed in a wide range of subjects: “single-cell organisms, hockey scores, feathers on dinosaurs, celebrity suicides, the pattern of Pleistocene extinctions, the fate of the tribe called the Nez Perce; relativity, particle accelerators,” and so on. It speaks to Anna in English, Spanish, and French. Anna also thinks she hears English that sounds like Shakespeare, and Middle English, which she encountered while reading Chaucer.

And it is this breadth of the voice, in subject matter, language, and temporal origin, that is the key for me. It supports Anna’s fellow “listeners,” a group of people who have also had the auditory hallucinations, which we meet at a motel on the rocky coast of Maine - the end of the earth. The one salient opinion to emerge from the motley crew is that the voices have something in common with a common subconscious, a language which is the foundation of all life on earth. 

Lay on top of these metaphysical considerations the thread of Anna’s cold, repellant husband. He uses his over-the-top charisma and ingratiating acting ability to start a career in politics. He corners Anna in Maine, coerces her back to Alaska to appear as part of his campaign for state senate, all the while having coopted the “family” agenda of a reactionary political party. After getting her back “on board” for photo ops and meet-and-greets, he sends her emails with each day’s appointments, bullet points of opinions to express if pressed; Anna and her daughter have daily sessions for makeup and clothes.

And thus is the shallowness and venality of modern-day politics exposed to us. Estranged husband Ned despises Anna, but hauls her up before cameras and microphones during his campaign. He threatens her and treats his daughter as though she doesn’t exist - and then the real fun starts. In a few jarring pages, Anna hallucinates something very strange indeed. She watches herself age before her eyes: terrified at the pace of her growing hair and nails, she emerges from her bath to see Lena and a trusted friend still seated on a hotel bed, reading, where she just left them. The sequence abruptly turns to a midsummer festival in Anna’s home town, and she has apparently lost three months, just like that. She has been in an altered state the whole time and cannot remember any of it.

Thus through strong drugs and an outwardly orthodox relationship, does Ned control and attempt to ruin Anna’s life. This Hitchcockian episode illustrates the very real and ruthless impulse of those who would control speech and discourse to their own ends and agendas. Ms. Millet takes it further: the totalitarians would control or even exterminate not only the public policy discussion, but would ruin language of any and all kinds. There is grist here for a much more in-depth treatment, which I promised to try to grind to fine flour at some point in the near future.

Suffice it at current to say that any modern reader interested in communication, politics, sensory perception, or theories of language would be challenged and delighted with this book. It’s also a damn fine read: something sinister’s always lurking near the surface; a group of friends and supporters are a particularly motley crew and we can’t be sure they’re reliable. Anna lives a desperate existence on the margin, and sometimes has reason to doubt her own stability. It seems unlikely that you’ll be as confounded as I was by Sweet Lamb of Heaven. I recommend you go ahead and try to find out.

"Miss Jane" by Brad Watson

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Brad Watson presents the story of Jane Chisolm, born in Mississippi in the early part of the 20th Century, in Miss Jane. Delivered at home by a country doctor, Jane comes into the world with a birth defect that complicates her bodily functions, and which the doctor believes would put her at perilous risk during a pregnancy, if such is even possible for her. If Jane is unique, this narrative treats her with reality, candor, and honor.

The book opens with Jane’s birth, the doctor’s concerns, and her superstitious parents’ doubts. During her childhood Jane only spends a few months going to the one-room school, but learns how to read in that short time. She learns her numbers watching her dad sell items and make change in his roadside store. But she learns to trust and love the avuncular doctor who takes an interest in her growth and development, in her life.

At length it is the doctor, Ed Thompson, who becomes her most important mentor and confidant. He researches possible cures for her physical abnormalities, but given the time period, the first half of the 20th Century, these will not pan out for Jane. The doctor visits frequently during her infancy and babyhood, and as she grows up, his visits become more those of a devoted and caring neighbor. When Jane travels socially to the doctor’s home, she encounters the peacocks with which the doctor has populated his property. These unique creatures give piercing calls, and keep insect numbers under control, but most importantly allow Jane and the doctor to consider some of life’s essential questions. 

Dr. Thompson introduced peafowl to the area early in his practice, and they become part of the story as his and Jane’s years pass. She becomes familiar with them during her visits, and at length the doctor shares his thoughts about them. He sees them as magnificent and proud creatures, who make extravagant display at no slight cost to themselves. The very illogic of it is a wonderment to the doctor, and generates thoughts on creation, life, and the apparent lack of reason to it all. He explains to Jane that, like her, the birds do not have apparent outward genitalia, but must procreate through a small puckered opening called a cloaca. Thus does her communicate his opinion of Jane’s grace, beauty and uniqueness in the world. It is a beautiful moment in a book rife with them.

Mr. Watson has placed in Jane’s life the wonder and unsolvable riddle of life. Jane is no scholar, but her wisdom and ability shine through. In Jane’s dotage, the peafowl have colonized Jane’s property, and the reader is moved to admire Jane’s resilience, and the author’s wondrous though very plainspoken skill in showing it to the world.

"Norwegian Wood" by Haruki Murakami

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When his debut novel Norwegian Wood put Haruki Murakami “on the map” when released, it launched a career for a writer of some very speculative fiction, featuring other-worldly plots and settings. Norwegian Wood however, takes place in very down-to-earth terms with very realistic people, events, and settings. Protagonist Toru Watanabe pursues his college career in the late 1960s and with its inevitable romantic attachments, with typically mixed results. This book took me on a voyage and surprised me with its constant allusions to popular songs of the times, including the Beatles’ song of the title.

Watanabe has few friends while living at a dormitory in Tokyo. He simply doesn’t find the young wastrels who are his fellow students very interesting. His one friend from high school killed himself when he was 17. In this bereft and unforgiving world Watanabe turns to his friend’s girlfriend Naoko, and she looks to him. This vulnerable and enigmatic girl doesn’t necessarily return Toru’s affection, but needs him nonetheless. He remains steadfast in his friendship, visiting her at the sanatorium where she tries to recover some emotional strength.

Toru, working and studying, cannot see her often at her remote hospital in the mountains, and captures the eye of Midori, a pretty and vivacious young girl who wears her skirts too short. Midori leavens this story with her wit, audacious flirtation, and her worldly-wise take on all situations. She deflates egos, spots a sham a mile away, and is out for herself, in pretty teen-age girl style. Toru catches her eye, and the interactions between these two characters is a definite highlight. Toru’s dense and slow reaction to her overt affection and effort at seduction is hilarious. Typical nineteen year-old guy.

This has the very strong flavor of memoir. The tribulations of becoming an adult affect us all, and this book is a bittersweet journey for anyone who has gone through it. If you happen to be of Toru’s age, a time when the Beatles absolutely ruled pop culture, this book captures that moment superbly. But even more noteworthy, Murakami captures a timeless, sympathetic, and beguiling path for his hero. This was a wonderful diversion for me, and I treasure it. While is doesn’t represent an attempt by the author to capture any of the alien and fantastical worlds of some of his other work, this is wonderful in its own right.

"Before We Sleep" by Jeffrey Lent

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At the end of Jeffrey Lent’s Before We Sleep, Katey Snow must call her mother. She’s spent an eventful week on the road, having taken her father’s truck on an extended sojourn from Vermont to Virginia, but her imperative is to speak to her mother, from whom she had a fraught departure. The two characters, Katey and her mother Ruth, carry this graceful novel, and have alternating chapters named for each in turn. In Mr. Lent’s usual style, their stories unfold at an even pace, their revelations laid out in a magisterial and majestic tone. Another beautiful and gratifying book from Mr. Lent.

Salient events begin with yet another verbal set-to between Katey and her mother. This story, set in the mid-1960s, captures the era’s terrible tension between parents and teen-age children; Katey sees things simply and in straightforward terms, as 17 year-olds do, but her mother sees the same things in terms of threat to be avoided, and stridently challenges her daughter at every turn. One tense evening holds more of the same as mother and daughter go at it  hammer and tong yet again.

Oliver, the father and husband, sits by as usual, but then, perhaps fed up by the constant bickering, lets fall a bombshell. It is a revelation that sends Katey off on a journey, one in which she discovers certain things about herself and her mother, which lend a new perspective to her life.

Mr. Lent deals with the heart’s agendas in unique ways. He makes his characters’ thoughts and feelings so abundantly clear, and in such plain language, that we find our journey with his characters rewarding and believable. This is a sympathetic group - Mr. Lent has a way of making you love his novels’ populace. 

This novel follows Katey’s journey from indignant youth to sadder-but-wiser young adult in a matter of days. This speeded-up time frame allows for Katey’s progress - it is an eventful trip, as I say - and enough happens that she graduates into a much more nuanced and understanding view of Ruth. Ruth’s own narrative includes the horrifying truth about Oliver’s wartime experience in Germany, and how he and her life are altered as a result of it. Katey’s trip involves meetings with a gallery of strangers, each described in chiaroscuro-type clarity in which Mr. Lent specializes, and which I find kind of a drug.

In temporal setting and theme, this piece allies itself more to A Peculiar Grace than to the epics Mr. Lent has set in days of yore: Sleep and Grace portray young people coming of age through their own particular trials on the way to reflective and wise adulthood. 

The speed with which Katey’s point of view shifts reflects the shock of her experience with true independence. Ruth’s position as a teacher gives her a close-up view of the novel vagrancies of 1960s high-schoolers; in her mind this warrants her carping over her daughter’s direction in life, although frankly there’s nothing much alarming there. As always, Mr. Lent achieves a deft touch with the simplest language. Conversations are real-life oblique and laconic in New England style. Real human growth through everyday striving and stumbling - these are Mr. Lent’s stock in trade and they are fully on display here. Take this one up by all means!

"The Water Diviner and Other Stories" by Ruvanee Pietersz Vilhauer

New author Ruvanee Pietersz Vilhauer won the 2018 Iowa Short Fiction Award by hewing close to the theme of the culture shock experienced by immigrants to the United States from Sri Lanka. In “The Water Diviner and Other Stories,” these uprooted people react and adjust - or fail to adjust -  in a wide variety of ways to the strange American customs and culture. Their stories are told in effective and unadorned language; the emotions and tensions are plainly depicted, sometimes lurking below the surface, sometimes erupting strongly into the open.

There are the childhood friends visiting in young adulthood, in which old grievances prove surprisingly durable (“The Beauty Queen”); in “The Water Diviner” a woman emerges from the thrall of a televangelist to turn once again to her “real” life when a prophecy turns false. In “Sunny’s Last Game” immigrant parents find reason to back off their tendency to over-protect their junior-high student son. The urge arose from perceived slights inflicted by classmates. 

In one of the more interesting pieces - among 15 absorbing stories collected here - “The Lepidopterist” portrays the struggles of a girl who treats everything she reads and everything everyone says as strictly - abnormally - literal. However she grows to become a scientist spurred by her childhood fascination with butterflies. She triumphs over the prejudices she faced as a young girl, and this is often the case with other characters whose talents and attitudes serve them well and provide the basis for success in life, in the U.S. or Sri Lanka.

It is plainly the skill in executing these stories that won Ms. Vilhauer the award. Pacing and structure, characterization and treatment of theme, all bear the stamp of an accomplished fiction artist. These stories feature both variety and clarity: characters are found and portrayed in very different circumstances and stages of the assimilation process - often within a single story. It’s a pleasing, impressive display taken together. Congratulations once again to the jury giving the Iowa short fiction awards. This is another deserving winner.

"The Lightning Jar" by Christian Felt

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In The Lightning Jar author Christian Felt spins out a curious mix of the imaginative and the impossible - or seemingly impossible. For nothing is really impossible in a child’s imagination. This short story collection contains perplexing shifts in which the reader must allow for fanciful surprises and arresting changes of scene and mood. But how better to conjure a child’s active mind, and where better to set it than in Scandinavia the backdrop Hans Christian Andersen used.

Mr. Felt twirls his spell over us, challenging us with his cuts and swerves, in his adept evocation of a child’s imagination. One loose series of stories leads us on the trail of Karl’s life by a lake, with his sister and cousins. At least I think the cousins are real. He arranges a series of empty jars outdoors during a thunderstorm, hoping to capture lightning, and then wonders what to do about rainwater accumulating in them. 

“She washed their castoff shells, it seemed, every day, yet the cousins always found something smudgy to wear.” Are these hermit crabs? They leave at the appointed time, but leave the youngest. The smallest cousin (the name of one of the stories) apparently falls into a tube of fulgurite; Karl can hear him laughing at the bottom of the tube. Karl then wears a jar with a captured ghost to a bonfire, wants to dance but doesn’t. A guest comes to visit at the lake (he’s presumably real - he smells like Cheerios), and turns out to be an excellent storyteller.

A subsequent series features a deformed youngster named Mons who vaguely pursues collecting a tax on whales in the local pond. He guards a magic ruby from a kind of troll who
apparently takes half of everything you have when you encounter it. 

Midway through this collection and at its end, the author provides vivid tales of family history; these stories are more orthodox, and interesting for the contrast they exhibit. Taken on the whole, Mr. Felt achieves a beguiling mix of fancy and image. We’re never quite sure what will happen next, since it almost always depends on the imagination of a bright and energetic child. The stories mark the arrival of a writer whose future is hard to imagine. His language is effective, his vision highly spectacular. I clearly look forward to more of this young man’s spectacles.