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In a Landscape

John Gallaher. BOA (Consortium, dist.), $16 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-1-938160-50-9

Poet Gallaher (Map of the Folded World) chronicles the questions, profundities, and crises of midlife, marriage, and fatherhood in a long poem divided into 71 sections and employing long, loose conversational lines that read much like prose. The collection functions as an extended monologue of varied pitch and range in which the speaker is less concerned with results and technical prowess than the process of speaking (and living) itself. The book opens by asking “ ‘Are you happy?’ That’s a good place to start.” Gallaher’s charm and wit, and the project’s breadth, will woo readers, despite his deterministic worldview and flat tone: “Improving our circumstances had been a stalled idea/ for some time now. I grew up in the era of domes/ and visions and the imminent arrival of/ a new world, and instead we got the 1980s.” Childhood stories (from the time of Gallaher’s adoption and adolescence), provide a backbone for the poem, and round out a history of adversity, uncertainty, and ever-shifting identity: “When did I become what I’ve become, then, as it always seems/ nothing’s changing?” As Gallaher argues, “cataloging one’s life is a sort of other-living,” and “all of us are having different/ experiences right now.” (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Contraband of Hoopoe

Ewa Chrusciel. Omnidawn (UPNE, dist.), $17.95 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-1-890650-99-5

Polish poet Chrusciel (Strata) opens her strange, mesmerizing fourth collection—her second in English—by asking: “Can you feel the apparition?” The book is less a collection of discrete poems than a flowing lyric study on sheltering oneself in the face of many faces of death. That flow is periodically interrupted by 14 poems titled “Ellis,” each of which describes objects, concepts, and people that were carried by immigrants on their journeys to new countries. In between, the mostly untitled poems all begin with an image that eventually unspools into a meditation on religion and oppression: a prayer candle becomes a metaphor for anti-Semitism; St. George’s dragon becomes kudzu vines overtaking buildings and cities. At times Chrusciel’s repetition becomes confusing, heightening a sense of déjà vu. Whole lines reappear in several places. The momentum that Chrusciel builds, however, wards off any tediousness and serves to make the experience of displacement feel familiar, as if one were dreaming, then woken, or maybe in a waking dream. Late in the book we are told that “[i]t is only the gravity of objects that keeps us from moving.” But movement seems holy and in Chrusciel’s hands objects exert their own gravitational pull; each one a little world, hidden, secreted away, and sacred. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Collected Poems

Mark Strand. Knopf, $30 (512p) ISBN 978-0-385-35251-2

“The secret voice of being telling us/ that where we disappear is where we are,” is written in the confident, inviting, yet almost “always mournful, always sad” voice Strand has sustained for 50 years, in blank verse, chiseled stanzas, and compact prose poems. Nothingness, the void; solipsism, the lure of the mirror; blank otherness, as seen in the moon and the seashore—these simple symbols predominate in oeuvre most influential in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when its stripped-down lyrics and asides matched a national trend. Later, the former U.S. Poet Laureate and 1999 Pulitzer Prize–winner leavened the bleakness with avuncular jokes, extended meditative passages, and comical alter egos. Now based in Madrid and teaching at Columbia University, Strand enjoys wide respect among poetry’s institutions. First-time readers may be surprised at the short length of the volume, which is Strand’s first collected edition, but they may also find it absorbing in its focus on first and last things. For all the streamlined sadness of his dreamlike domain, Strand remains aware of other poets, which is particularly evident in his homages, translations, and elegies. His recent string of short sardonic prose poems are all quite distinct from one another, but all are instantly, recognizably Strand, “erasing the world and leaving instead/ The invisible lines of its calling: Out there, out there.” (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Hormone Factory

Saskia Goldschmidt, trans. from the Dutch by Hester Velmans. Other Press, $17.95 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-1-59051-649-2

At the end of his life, Dutch Jew and dubiously ethical entrepreneur of the newly emerging field of pharmaceutical hormones, Mordechai De Paauw, is physically incapacitated but mentally fit enough to recount his life’s story, which he claims helps him by “putting off the time of departure.” The tale seems solely for Mordechai’s benefit, however, as he recalls cavorting with one factory girl after the next, refers repeatedly to the former power of his phallic “beast,” and generally drones along in an unconvincing first person. Set in the before, during, and after of World War II, Goldschmidt, who is Dutch and whose own father survived Bergen-Belsen, has a potentially riveting connection with the history. More often than not, though, that history is established through overly expository statements such as, “We were in the throes of the most serious economic recession the world had ever seen, and since those uncertain times a reorganization might become necessary, I wanted to be in a position to make the right decisions when the time came.” As both De Paauw’s own family and Europe as a whole crumble, he holds fast to his determination to invent what will next change the world all over again—the Pill, but the book never becomes as interesting as all its elements would suggest. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Twilight of the Eastern Gods

Ismail Kadare, trans. from the French by Jusuf Vrioni and David Bellos. Grove, $26 (208p) ISBN 978-0-8021-2311-4

Back in the days of the USSR, the regime maintained a literary institute in Moscow for young writers from the vast region it dominated. On the evidence of Kadare’s (The Fall of the Stone City) early autobiographical novel, the writers, including a very young Ismail Kadare, spent their time drinking, attending stupendously boring lectures, hitting on women, and dealing with their ambivalence. It’s 1958: the big news is the scandal of Boris Pasternak’s Nobel Prize, but below the surface lurks the gradually cooling relations between Albania and the Soviet Union. Kadare, now an elder statesman of Albanian literature, casts a cool eye on his fellow writers, depicting discussions of plots they will never write (about “limping party secretaries who stole piglets from the collective farm,” for instance) and their guilt at renouncing their languages to “take up with that hag of a step mother, Russian,” but he seems no less miserable and conflicted. Translated into English for the first time (with an informative note by the translator about the book’s complicated publishing history), its appearance as Putin’s Russia tries to reclaim former possessions is timely, and the view of a world that seems so tremendously far away has its interest. Unfortunately, however, Kadare’s fidelity to the dull, compromised, and often soddenly drunk lives he and his fellow writers led makes for dull reading. Agent: Andrew Wylie and Jacqueline Ko, Wylie Agency. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Indigo

Clemens J. Setz, trans. from the German by Ross Benjamin. Liveright, $26.95 (416p) ISBN 978-0-87140-268-4

Austrian writer Setz’s first novel to be translated into English is a complex, sometimes convoluted tale that incorporates elements of mystery, science fiction, and sociological commentary. His alter ego, math teacher Clemens Setz, interns at a school in Graz for children diagnosed with Indigo, a disorder that causes dizziness, nausea, diarrhea, and other symptoms in nearby people. Clemens soon notices that some children are “relocated” from the school, and he claims investigating their whereabouts leads to his firing—but suggestions of alcoholism and mental illness undermine his reliability. Fourteen years later, former student Robert Tätzel, whose Indigo has disappeared with adulthood, but who remains emotionally detached, becomes intrigued by a newspaper story about Clemens, recently acquitted of skinning a man who abused dogs. Setz creates a collage of history and anecdotes about medicine, animal experimentation, 20th-century exploration, and more, laced with pop culture references and supplemented with excerpts from classic works and black-and-white illustrations. This densely packed novel should satisfy readers who enjoy connecting the dots for themselves and following a winding path through a near future fraught with vague but urgent anxiety. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Devil Is a Black Dog

Sándor Jászberényi, trans. from the Hungarian by M. Henderson Ellis. New Europe (Random House, dist.), $14.95 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-0-9900043-2-5

This impressive debut collection of 19 stories comes from Jászberényi, a Hungarian news correspondent who has covered the conflicts in Eastern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. The book employs minimalist prose and, in several of the stories, the recurring protagonist Daniel Marosh, an ill-fated, sardonic war journalist. In “The Strongest Knot,” Marosh reveals that he is a chronic insomniac due to problems with his adulterous wife who has blocked his visitations with their child. “The Dead Ride Fast” finds Marosh covering the political revolution in Cairo, where he bumps into an old colleague and kindred spirit, the German photographer Sahra Gamalt. In “Something About the Job” an older, crankier Marosh is told by his boss that his subpar work makes him expendable unless he is willing to show a promising young photojournalist the ropes on assignment in Chad. The other standout tales, such as the unsettling and darkly comedic “The Desert Is Cold In the Morning” and “How We Didn’t Win,” demonstrate the range of Jászberényi’s storytelling talents. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 09/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Plus One

Christopher Noxon. Prospect Park (Consortium, dist.), $25.95 (288p) ISBN 978-1-938849-42-8

In his first novel, journalist Noxon, the husband of TV writer-producer Jenji Kohan (Weeds, Orange Is the New Black) doesn’t stray far from his own experience in writing about Alex Sherman-Zicklin, a former marketing executive (last campaign: soystrami) whose wife, Figgy, is the creator of the hit TV series, Tricks, about a suburban housewife who runs a prostitution ring out of a scrapbooking shop (sound familiar?). Alex stays home to take care of their two young children and accompany his more successful wife to various industry functions. His descent into Hollywood marriage purgatory begins when Figgy wins an Emmy and has a “Swank moment,” forgetting to thank him in her acceptance speech. A rat sighting in their home sends Alex into the byzantine world of L.A. residential real estate. To complicate matters, Alex worries that Figgy might be having an affair with Zev, her Israeli director of photography. The last blow, though, comes when Alex finds out that Figgy has gone off the pill and wants another child. His response sets off a climactic marital crisis. Noxon (Rejuvenile) channels the ’80s semi-classic, Mr. Mom, with a Hollywood makeover. But despite some deft observations about the L.A. parenting scene, Alex’s story seems inconsequential. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 09/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Love Book

Nina Solomon. Akashic/Kaylie Jones, $15.95 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-1-61775-317-6

Solomon’s follow-up to her 2003 debut Single Wife revolves around four unlikely friends who first meet during a disastrous Flaubert-themed bike trip in France. There, one of them comes across the titular book about attracting a mate. While the premise of four disparate personalities meeting cute may seem trite at first, Solomon’s effort eventually blossoms into a compelling mix of story lines. Back in Manhattan, Emily, a freelance writer with an impressionable 10-year-old son, catches the eye of Duncan, a charming author with a mean streak that rivals Emily’s ex-husband’s. Fellow New Yorker Max, a tough tomboy who guards her heart fiercely and worries about having fallen for too-good-to-be-true Garrett, works as a personal trainer. Superstitious Cathy, who found the Love Book and keeps trying to get the four together to follow its exercises, lives with her elderly father after having lost her home in a fire. She’s dying to find her soul mate, unlike fiery Beatrice, who is fiercely independent at 69 and determined not to let any man tie her down, even her married paramour Freddy, who wants to marry her, or his brother Malcolm, who is clearly the guy for her. Things may end a little too neatly for the protagonists, but there’s plenty of good banter and characterization before the inevitable happy conclusion. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 09/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Single, Carefree, Mellow

Katherine Heiny. Knopf, $22.95 (240p) ISBN 978-0-385-35363-2

Dissatisfied teenagers and bored housewives, clueless boyfriends and cuckolded husbands, and 11 variations on the recurrent theme of infidelity and its fallout populate Heiny’s first collection of stories. “The Dive Bar” shows a woman cajoled into having drinks with her lover’s more sophisticated wife; unsurprisingly, the tête–à–tête ends doesn’t end well. “Blue Heron Bridge” finds a physique-obsessed mother consumed by an affair with an aging personal trainer. In the second-person “The Rhett Butlers,” a teenager embarks on a tour of seedy hotel rooms and blah sex with her smarmy high school history teacher. A man leaves a dalliance with a woman he met on Facebook for a gal whose tweets he admires in “Cranberry Relish.” Three of the offerings—“Dark Matter,” “Grendel’s Mother,” and the title story—follow the romantic entanglements and discontented musings of one character through marriage to her long-time boyfriend and pregnancy. But it’s hard to care about her fate when her snarky asides about life’s superficialities and near-constant critique of herself (and her relationship) continue unabated, despite her changed circumstances. First printing: 50,000 copies. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 09/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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