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Station Zed

Tom Sleigh. Graywolf (FSG, dist.), $16 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-1-55597-698-9

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Poet, essayist, and dramatist Sleigh (Army Cats) seamlessly and imaginatively weaves together history, mythology, and autobiography to form a collection that feels personal and prophetic. Poems such as “KM4,” which finds the speaker in Somalia after a suicide bombing, question how to translate the trauma of war and explore ways in which the dead stay with us: “the body makes itself known before it becomes unknown.” The long poem “Homage to Basho¯” consists of a series of variations on haibun, with traditional Western forms following the prose blocks instead of haiku. In it Sleigh revisits both Iraq wars through his experience as a reporter, including interactions with a security contractor, a student whose brother was a suicide bomber, and even his own poetry. Although told through the filter of Sleigh’s perspective, these stories present complex accounts challenging both speaker and reader to question the moral lines of war. Some of the collection’s later poems seem superfluous in relation to the emotional gravity of the long poem, though Sleigh never fails to produce beautiful lines: “though just by shutting my eyes I can make the sun fall.” Narrative and wandering, Sleigh’s poems welcome readers ready to venture into the unknown. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/14/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Sand Opera

Philip Metres. Alice James (Consortium, dist.), $15.95 trade paper (100p) ISBN 978-1-938584-09-1

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In his latest collection, Metres (To See the Earth) operates as if the Iraq War unfolded in the age of social media. Readers follow prisoners at the now-infamous Abu Ghraib, observe children amid a developing war, and see the effects of the U.S. government’s extraordinary renditions. The book opens with a record of a prisoner being interrogated. Over the course of a few pages information slowly drains away, redacted until nothing is left but punctuation marks. While the concept is interesting, the writing doesn’t really live up to the form and the redactions don’t reveal anything about the subject that most readers won’t already know from a decade of war and reporting on it. Oddly, in a great tonal shift, Metres leaves the war behind in favor of a section that explores the work of pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge. In beautiful couplets he offers small vignettes loosely based on Muybridge’s photos. Here, in “desire’s winding/stare,” a woman is “clothed only in smoke/ & gender lessons.” The moment is beautiful but quickly passes, almost like a dream in the midst of great catastrophe. Readers are only left with destruction and the PTSD of a decade of war, and in that space language does little to help. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/14/2014 | Details & Permalink

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One Thousand Things Worth Knowing: Poems

Paul Muldoon. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24 (128p) ISBN 978-0-374-22712-8

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“I cannot thole the thought of Seamus Heaney dead.” Muldoon (Maggot) opens his 12th book of verse with an impressive set piece, one major Irish poet’s lament for another. The elegy makes the Pulitzer Prize–winner and New Yorker poetry editor’s fact-filled, intricately rhymed style sound not so much playful as meant to stave off grief, “hemmed in every bit as much// by sorrow as by the crush of cattle.” There follow poems built around decades-old memories, reactions to paintings, and reactions to poems by Lorca, Pessoa, Dickinson, and Muldoon himself—there is even an explicit sequel, “Cuba (2).” As loyal readers expect, there’s also a stack of proper nouns worth Googling, and an assortment of bafflingly allusive objects: “the face of a barstool/ covered in a whale’s foreskin,” or “the chestnut tree where a soul was known to roost// before it was set in linotype.” Unlike Muldoon’s books of rock lyrics and literary criticism, these densely worked poems are meant to be re-read. All the pointers to earlier work, and to uncommon knowledge, make it less than ideal (except for the Heaney elegy) as an entry point to the Muldooniverse, but it’s powerful nonetheless, with witty pleasures and strong feelings to be unlocked and cherished. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/14/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Dear Herculine

Aaron Apps. Ahsahta (SPD, dist.), $18 (104p) ISBN 978-1-934103-57-9

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In this second collection of verse and lyric essays, after Compos[t] Mentis , Apps speaks to, empathizes with, and commemorates Herculine Barbin—the 19th-century memoirist given posthumous fame by Michel Foucault—as one intersex, or ambiguously gendered, person to another. The book is clear, forceful, and moving in its concerns: “I’m interested in the formation of gender. The way bodies with weird formations slip and exist below expectations. The way we form and un-form in the fluid when thrown out of the womb gush.” Apps writes about growing up with an obviously unusual—apparently an intersex—physical body, and that bodily estrangement, along with early sexual experience, lies at the root of his work, which finds “no tranquil answers in the simplicity of facts.” Sometimes sexy, though haunted by self-disgust, Apps is “a grotesque puppet,” and “a raucous sac of sex.” Apps uses Barbin’s story along with images from the animal world—slugs, octopi—to push back against the “labels tattooed into every pore of my flesh.” The results—part memoir, part analysis, part outburst—become not just memorable but pellucid and teachable: the volume might be important far outside the precincts of poetry, a classic for young people trying to figure out, and then to say, who they have been who they could be, and who they already are. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/14/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Swing Set

Joanna Kadish. CreateSpace, $12.75 trade paper (290p) ISBN 978-1-4839-0902-8

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Sexual ennui cloaks a much deeper relationship fissure in this disappointing novel by Kadish, set in a moneyed enclave on the New Jersey shore. The passion once shared by Shelly and Steve Isaacson has cooled after four years of marriage, so the two attempt to stoke their ardor through online pornography and visits to sex clubs, ultimately landing on a website for swingers. But their swapping escapades fall frustratingly short—meeting a couple to whom they’re both attracted proves difficult, and when they do, jealously and insecurity come into play—and their union deteriorates at light speed. Shelly secretly engages in casual sex while plagued with thoughts of her disintegrating marriage; Steve grows increasingly agitated over money worries and concerns about his parents’ health. It’s very difficult to care about these paper-thin characters, as Kadish’s uneven writing isn’t enough to compel readers to invest in their struggles; indeed, she never truly offers an explanation as to why the Isaacsons are together or want to stay that way. Riddled with clichés and overwrought prose that lead to a ridiculously abrupt denouement, this one is best left on the shelf. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 11/14/2014 | Details & Permalink

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God Loves Haiti

Dimitry Elias Léger. Amistad, $24.99 (272p) ISBN 978-0-06-234813-5

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In the moments just before the biblically awful Haitian earthquake of 2010 hits Port-au-Prince, the beautiful Natasha Robert is walking across the tarmac, pulled by her new husband, who happens to also be the Haitian president , toward a waiting plane. Though she has been anticipating escape her whole life and is indeed about to be ferried off to a luxurious life in Italy, Natasha is suddenly hesitant, apprehensive about leaving behind her true love, Alain, whom she’s left locked in her closet at the National Palace. For all the destruction the imminent earthquake will cause, it will also save Natasha, though in unexpected and mysterious ways. This debut novel explores how Natasha comes to grips with what has unfolded both in her country and in her heart. While the setup is promising and the context rich for emotional mining, the novel often feels slow and even repetitive, not for the mourning and reflection such horror would seem to force, but for the cyclical tendencies of the narrative. Although Alain, the president , and Natasha wander in the aftermath of the quake, their separate emotions seem restated rather than deepened, but the book still shows undeniable strength and a powerful message about creating something new out of such devastation. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/14/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Blood-Drenched Beard

Daniel Galera, trans. from the Portuguese by Alison Entrekin. Penguin Press, $26.95 (384p) ISBN 978-1-59420-5743

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Brazilian writer Galera’s novel follows a young man in a beautiful but impoverished coastal town as he tries to uncover the details behind his grandfather’s death. Still reeling from a complicated breakup, the unnamed protagonist visits his ailing father, where he’s told the mysterious story of his grandfather’s murder: no body was ever recovered, no guilty party ever found. After the young man’s father dies, the listless fellow leaves Porto Alegre for coastal Garopaba, desperately seeking some kind of personal peace while also searching out the truth about his grandfather’s end. The bulk of the story has the young man exploring tropical settings, exercising, or attempting to infiltrate the loose social network of Garopaba’s highly secretive, nefarious inhabitants. The task is made significantly more difficult by the young man’s rare condition—he’s unable to recognize faces, even those of people he’s known for years, within minutes of looking away from them. This blunt translation presents a stoic journey of self-discovery, the murder mystery functioning merely as a backdrop. Galera’s keen sense of characters and unflinching depictions of the sometimes awkward desperation of coastal life ground the story and give it a gritty feel that is consistently satisfying. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/14/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty

Amanda Filipacchi. Norton, $25.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-393-24387-1

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Filipacchi’s fourth novel blithely upends the social constructs of beauty, desire, and art in her signature brisk, darkly comic style. As usual, Filipacchi taps the sleaze at its source: Manhattan. The focus is on a successful costumer designer named Barb and her group of artsy friends, the Knights of Creation: Georgia, a bestselling novelist; Lily, a talented pianist; beautiful socialite and would-be potter Penelope, who was once kidnapped; and Penelope’s rescuer, ex-cop Jack. The fractured fairy tale of a plot turns on narrator Barb, who inherited her supermodel mother’s jaw-dropping looks but has dressed in an elaborate disguise since she learned that her beauty drove her friend Gabriel to suicide, and Lily, whose face is “simply extremely ugly—the kind of ugliness that is inoperable,” and who yearns to write a piece of music that will hypnotize her longtime crush, a bro-ish violinist named Strad. Filipacchi (Love Creeps) succeeds by loading this frothy plot with sharp surreal turns and layers of subversive meaning as Georgia’s lost laptop mysteriously reappears, Lily’s melodious powers of persuasion become supernaturally effective, and Gabriel warns in a postmortem letter to Barb that one of the Knights intends to kill Strad. The author’s own mother, model Sondra Peterson, even makes a cameo, but while looks can kill, they’re no match for Filipacchi’s rapier wit. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/14/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Infernal

Mark Doten. Graywolf, $18 trade paper (440p) ISBN 978-1-55597-701-6

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In Doten’s artfully deranged debut novel, the “war on terror” is revisited as a feverish science-fiction odyssey starring disfigured versions of Osama bin Laden, Condoleezza Rice, and Mark Zuckerberg. In a desert in the Middle East, a possibly divine child with burned flesh sets a kaleidoscopic series of monologues in motion. “The traitor” Jimmy Wales is sent, as part of an amorphous conspiracy, to extract the boy using the Omnosyne, a destructive machine consisting of pure information. Bin Laden leads his “Blood Youths” in an increasingly bizarre series of experiments determined to unravel the boy’s secrets. Adopted siblings Rice and L. Paul Bremer long for each other within the reaches of the sprawling American-occupied Green Zone. Roger Ailes rants about turtles. Folded into these transmissions is Zuckerberg and Nathan Myhrvold’s Nintendo-esque struggle for “the cones of power,” the vaudevillian misadventures of two survivors of a drone strike, and, most significantly, the poignant story of an American soldier missing a leg. Doten frames his post-historic “memory index” in virtuosic, antic prose, but his goal is neither purely satire nor surrealism for its own sake. Rather, his novel constructs a new language to confront atrocity and becomes in the bargain a story that truly thinks outside the cage. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/14/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Satin Island

Tom McCarthy. Knopf, $24 (192p) ISBN 978-0-307-59395-5

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McCarthy’s newest novel is as delightfully unclassifiable as his last effort, C. The narrator is U., a fanciful and probing anthropologist who works for a corporation he refers to simply as “the Company.” Recruited as an ethnographer on the reputation he earned through his published study of nightclub culture, U. has been commissioned by his boss, Peyman, to write what he calls “the Great Report”; but U. can’t seem to get started or be sure if he’s necessarily even working on the Great Report at any given moment. Though he associates with people who have consequential experiences (his friend Petr dies of cancer) his thoughts are more often occupied by abstract concepts, images, patterns, and theories. U. is intent on making connections and creating meaning from the information he takes in, to the point where he begins to compile dossiers on various topics including parachute accidents and oil spills. His ultimate goal is to combine all of these together into a “Present-Tense Anthropology.” The book itself subtly takes the form of his Great Report, with U. often addressing the reader, and is marked by fascinating philosophical tangents that justify the apparent lack of a story. This novel of ideas is begging to be read and reread for meaning with pens, diagrams, and maybe even a dossier or two thrown in for good measure. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/14/2014 | Details & Permalink

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