Of course, someone like me, who was born and raised in the Rust Belt, currently lives in the Rust Belt, and writes about the Rust Belt would instantly pick up Rust: The Longest War by Jonathan Waldman. Waldman's debut book is really a collection of essays all concerning, yep, you guessed it, rust. For most readers, this would not be the most interesting subject, but through strong narrative navigation of both history and science, Waldman tells the story of an element that "is costlier than all other natural disasters combined."
Rust is bookend by two chapters that explore the way that we discovered that the Statue of Liberty was rusting apart. In between these two chapters are other essays that explore the influence that rust has had on history. Many subjects are explored including the life of Harry Brearley, who is credited with inventing stainless steel; issues regarding the upkeep of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System which covers over 100 miles; and the day-to-day products of dealing with rust that can be found at the local Home Depot. Still, my favorite subject is the chapter titled "Indiana Jane" where Waldman introduces the reader to Alyssha Eve Csuk, who photographs rust, and in particular spends a lot of time finding the beauty is such places as Bethlehem Steel Works in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
In her back cover blurb, Mary Roach (one of my favorite authors), says this about Rust: "The clarity and quiet wit of Waldman's prose, his gift for narrative, his zeal for reporting, and his eye for detail -- these things and more put him in a class with John McPhee and Susan Orlean." I agree. But I also would place Rust in the category of books that bring to life the history of one element, whether that element is an animal, a place, or even a mineral. It's very easy to compare Rust to some of my other favorites including Diamond by Matthew Hart and Cod by Mark Kurlansky.
Still, Rust is not one of those books that "reads" like a novel. Instead, it's a book that should be read slowly -- both to digest the content and enjoy the prose. Certainly, I walked away from this work knowing a little bit more about the corrosion that covers old bait buckets, the hubcaps of my car, the guardrails, even the old tankers located in the railroad yard just a few blocks from where I live. In short, I know a little more about the world where I live.
Michael Meyerhofer's newest collection of poetry, What To Do If You're Buried Alive explores the way that the past shapes who we become. Constructing poems from both personal narratives and lyrical observations, Meyerhofer not only ventures into the realm of memory to capture those times that teach us that surviving can turn into hope, he also finds poetic moments in everyday life.
What To Do If You're Buried Alive is divided into two sections, with the first part titled "Scars". In this part, the reader finds the narrator exploring the way scars, both emotional and physical, teach us about surviving tragedy. Many of the poems in this section revolve around the death of the narrator's mother. For instance, in "My Mother's Darkness," the persona muses,"I wonder sometimes if she saw it coming ." A few lines later, we learn that the narrator's mother once interrupted a routine walk in the park because she felt "there was something bad in the trees." The next day, a girl's body is found, the event perhaps foreshadowing the mother's own death. In another poem, the speaker, after his mother's death, confronts an alcoholic grandfather learning that "the heart/like a dog betrays us but we/when we must, call this forgiveness."
Meyerhofer intertwines poems about these emotional losses with poems that confront loss through physical scars. Through many of the poems we learn that the narrator was born with a physical ailment, described in "How It Started" as a "kinked spine" that left the narrator in pain "no pill could cure." This ailment, not understood by his parents or the narrator himself, is dismissed by his world: "In Iowa/what you can't fix, you ignore./This explains my parents." Still, in later lines, the reader learns the narrator's own lessons about physical health explaining, that when one focuses on what is causing the pain, "it dissolves//like a light from a burnt-out bulb/a curtain gone up in flames."
While the first half of the book dives into memory, the second section, titled "Tattoos" takes a look at more present moments in the narrator's life. For example, in "Conjugal Visits" the narrator finds himself thinking about the innmates at the Delaware County jail, "who just so happens to reside/across the street from our kitchen." In another poem, "Tattoo Parlor," the narrator thinks about the tattoos he never paid for, "the kind even therapy and cocaine can't erase." There are some poems that do return to the themes of loss found in the first section of this book, but often the lines are more humorous. In the lighthearted, "My Mother Sent Me" the speaker explains that his mother always sends text messages from her coffin with messages saying "Glad you're not here." While the mother later explains that her communications suggest that "it's to help me/savor my remaining/days," the narrator believes it's only because he is the only one left who "hasn't changed/his number."
Interesting scars make interesting stories, a friend of mine once told me. Indeed, after reading the poems located in both sections of this collection, the same can also be said for tattoos. Other readers may insert that both scars and tattoos offer stories of survival and hope, and yes, surrounding the poet's struggle with the pain of physical health and the loss of a mother, we see a cast of characters who are also finding hope in their stories. In these poems, we listen to Iowa wrestlers who are trying to "knuckle their way out" of their current surroundings. We see elderly women, "whose eyes go damp/for no reason" sitting in the audience of a poetry reading. We hear two children in first grade talk on the phone, just enough to say "hi and bye" but learning what the adults have forgotten, that it's enough "to hear breath/which those big textbooks tell us/help fuel our blood, the only real thing/that ever comes from the heart."
I have enjoyed the work of Michael Meyerhofer since I picked up his book, Leaving Iowa many years ago. Indeed, one of his other collections, Blue Collar Eulogies, remains one of my favorite contemporary poetry books of all time. What To Do If You're Buried Alive is definitely a great addition to his poetic work.
For more information on this book, see Michael Meyerhofer's home page, where readers can find work and reviews about his poetry as well as his new adventures in the fantasy writing world.
Everyone loves a good ghost story, which is why, I suppose, that some readers have been disappointed with American Ghost: A Family's Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest by Hannah Nordhaus. Nordhaus's book, which explores the life of the author's great-great-grandmother Julia Schuster Staab, does start with sightings of a ghost, but then moves on to become part memoir, part history book, part journalistic endeavor. Indeed, the book is just as much about the author's struggles with investigating family history as it is exploring the haunting stories, which is why, in some places, the ghost of the book's title seems to get lost. Still, I found Nordhaus's personal journey into the past an enlightening and entertaining read.
Nordhaus starts her book by explaining that beginning in the 1970s, sightings were reported of a woman's ghost haunting La Posada, a hotel in Santa Fe. In the past, Las Posada had been the home of Staab, built for her and her children in the 19th century when the world of the American Southwest was still very raw and wild.
Using these stories as a way to introduce the mysterious, but troubled life, of her great-great-grandmother, Nordhaus dives into history, both personal and cultural, to find the truth of Julia's life and her death. During Nordhaus's journey, she consults psychics, takes a DNA test, reads family journals and old newspapers, and even travels to the old hotel itself in hopes of finding answers.
Thus, American Ghost is more than a ghost story. It's a story of two women: one who found herself struggling to find her place in a foreign desert land and the other searching for answers about a past that may never be clearly articulated.
For more information, see the website of author Hannah Nordhaus.
I was 19 years old before I discovered Edward Abbey. His book, The Brave Cowboy was required reading in American Literature of the West, an English literature elective that I took during my sophomore year in college. I enjoyed the book, but was shocked to discover that Abbey was from Home, Pennsylvania, a small hamlet located a mere two hours from my hometown in rural Pennsylvania. Indeed, I drove through Home, Pennsylvania (which, incidentally, and having nothing to do with this review, is also the setting of one of my favorite X-Files episodes), on my way to college.
As I do with all first time reads I love, I went looking for more of Abbey's work, and then discovered Desert Solitaire, which remains one of my favorite books. Today, while Abbey is considered an important figure in the environmental movement as well as a prominent person in the canon of nature writing, he is also controversial, especially in regards to his view on immigration and Native Americans. Furthermore, his final resting place has remained a mystery -- when he died in 1989, a group of his friends buried him in the desert. There was no ceremony. While a stone does mark Abbey's final resting place, few people know where the grave site is, and those who do know, aren't telling.
Because I find Edward Abbey such an intriguing character, I was excited to find Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave by Sean Prentiss. However, in many ways, this title is a bit misleading, as Prentiss isn't really just looking for Abbey's grave -- he is looking to find out more about the elusive figure of Abbey himself and indeed, find answers about his own life.
Prentiss starts his journey in Home, Pennsylvania, looking for the graves of Abbey's family. It's a discouraging start: the village itself is nearly deserted and those he does stop to talk to (including a teenager who works at the local ice cream shop and a local pastor) have never heard of Edward Abbey. Eventually, however, he does find the lonely graveyard. With a friend, Prentiss studies the site: "We stand in front of the Abbey family grave, both knowing this piece of granite means nothing to the larger world. Abbey isn't buried here, and he probably only stood here once, to put his mother Mildred to rest back in November 1988."
Still, this lonely cemetery marks a sound start to Prentiss's journey which takes him across the United States through various places where Abbey once lived. During this journey, Prentiss interviews a few of Abbey's friends, including Doug Peacock, the man who has been described as the real life model for the character of George Washington Hayduke in what is probably considered Abbey's most famous novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang. It's on this journey that Prentiss starts to take stock of his own life: "What matters is that I listened to Abbey's friends. It's about seeing the desert through their eyes. Questioning Abbey through his writings, probing further into why he felt the way he did toward women, minorities, and immigration. Revitalizing my political self through his books and his friends' words. Questioning my life--how and where to find a place called home."
Part memoir, part travelogue, part biography, Finding Abbey is a book that not only explores the life of an elusive literary figure, but also catalogs a young writer's own self discovery. Prentiss discovers that it doesn't really matter whether or not he finds Abbey's grave -- in the end, he finds out what he really wants to know.
For more information about Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave, see the author's website.
I have been a fan of Jehanne Dubrow's work since I read The Hardship Post (her first poetry collection) five years ago, so I was excited to find The Arranged Marriage delivered to my doorstep just last week. In her newest collection, Dubrow takes on the violence of the past in a series of biographical work from her mother's life. Intertwining narrative prose poems (told mostly in third person point of view) with ekphrastic poems, she shows the reader that the past never leaves us no matter how much we try to paint our lives in linear lines.
Dubrow, as the daughter, is telling her mother's story and besides her own poetic choices (with both language and syntax) there is very little of the poet within this book. Still, there is one poem, "The Blue Dress" that describes a young narrator, "tired of playing dollies and Let's Pretend" who looks through a dresser drawer and discovers a photograph album with pictures she has never seen: "In each photograph, my mother's face was water just before a stone drops in." There's an epiphany moment where the narrator muses, "That our parents have lives before us is a secret we close in a dark compartment."
It's this "dark compartment" of her mother's life that is explored in The Arranged Marriage -- a compartment that is full of violence, secrets, and silence. From the start, we see the tension start to build in the narratives as the first poem, "The Handbag" opens with the threat of violence: a woman contemplates the idea that her purse, one that is "deep enough to confine a bowling ball" could be used as a weapon against the man who is holding her hostage. This man, however, is not afraid, and indeed is only thinking about, "Spaghetti. Meatballs. The meal she'll cook for him."
Poems that explore this attack are intertwined with stories about the woman's first marriage, which is not violent, but cold and often, confusing. Her relationship with her first husband is detailed in such poems as "Bespoke" where the marriage is described as "a custom-made suit" that "fit expensively" yet "scratched her skin, smelled like stale cigar and men playing poker." In another poem, "The Epileptic," the woman says this,"If this is marriage, then it's a mystery -- those pills he takes for headaches, for instance, and when he claims the afternoon is the smell of rotten fruit." Later, she relays a conversation between the two of them, where he calls her "a stranger" and she does nothing but agree. Indeed, it's only after she leaves him that she understands the name for his condition and the reasons why he wears "the pale halo of secrets around him."
Thus, from the beginning, we follow the tension of this woman's life, from the survival of a violent act, to a loveless marriage, to her second life where the events from her past intertwine with day-to-day activities. Years after this incident, memories slip in and out this woman's life. In one poem, "My Mother Wonders---" she contemplates the idea that a dog may have helped rescued her from her attacker. In another poem, "Shot Through with Holes," even a benign setting becomes a place of fear. At Upland Terrace, the scene is described as relatively peaceful, with the "worst menace" being a bird "that pecked the neighbor's cat." There are also raccoons around, with "brave ones" that actually climbing the second story to look into the family home. Still, there is a moment when the mother comes home to an open door -- a sign that perhaps an attacker was near -- that she is again flung to the past, even when the police say, "Ma'am, there's nothing here."
While many of the poems in this collection are narrative, others are ekphrastic poems, works based on visual pieces of art. "The Leap" is based after the 1967 Thriller Wait Until Dark and offers a poetic summary of the climax of the movie where Audrey Hepburn's blind character attacks her stalker. Another poem, "Eros and Psyche" offers a critique of a sculpture by Antonio Canova, and perhaps a critique on mythology itself, with the words, "From this angle the knife is hidden, although it's there, the way an arrow is always shooting through this story." In different ways, these poems also take on the subject of violence, whether it's found in the shadows of an old film, or the smooth texture of a sculpture.
Dubrow's work shows us that history, even personal history, is not linear. Whatever is part of our past stays with us forever, often finding us in unexpected places. This history may slink in through an unlatched door. It may find us in a grocery store or a bedroom. It may get snagged in the zipper of a pencil skirt. It may catch us in a newspaper headline or a work of art. It is never truly pushed behind us.
The Arrange Marriage is part of the Mary Burritt Christiansen Poetry Series published by the University of New Mexico press. For more information about this book (and Jehanne Dubrow's other collections), visit her website.
In many ways, Amy Jo Burns' Cinderland is a typical coming-of-age memoir that takes place in a small town in the Pennsylvanian Rust Belt. Readers will witness the young narrator journeying through her teenage years with descriptions of summer community pool excursions, high school musicals and plays, friendships that form and also dissolve, and the heartache of that first love.
Yet, unlike the traditional coming-of-age memoir, which is usually told through a linear storyline that follows the transistion of a child or young teenager to the adult world and features a defining moment that changes everything about the main character, Burns' work introduces this defining moment at the start of her book. Thus, she weaves the consequences of her actions through her teenage years as she grapples with what happens to those who tell the truth and what happens to those who don't.
The year that Amy Jo Burns turns ten, she finds herself in a scandal that has shaken the tiny town of Mercury, Pennsylvania, located halfway between Pittsburgh and Erie. Howard Lotte, the town's highly respected piano teacher, has been accused of sexually assaulting several of his female students. Out of Lotte's many students who were questioned, seven came forward to tell the truth, while others lied. Burns was one of the students who lied. Those who told the truth were ostracized by the town; those who lied were safe from the repercussions.
Or were they? Burns' memoir traces this incident through her teenage years, exploring the role of women in the rural Rust Belt (as well as perhaps America, in general). Silence is supposed to be golden. But in many ways, these young women got lost in the silence. As Burns explains, "We are the girls who lied about Mr. Lotte when others told the truth and most of Mercury hated them for it. We performed for a fickle crowd and lost ourselves in th charade."
Full of vivid characters and scenes that are familiar to me (Afterall, I am also a product of Pennsylvania's rural Rust Belt), Cinderland is a lyrical response to an issue that could have been the equivlaent of a Lifetime made-for-tv movie. But it's not. Instead, Amy Jo Burns reminds us that being silent is not always as easy as it seems, and that there are always consequences to our actions.
For more information about Cinderland by Amy Jo Burns, visit her website. Burns also discusses her book at Belt Magazine.
At least one reviewer has named Tom Bouman's debut novel, Dry Bones in the Valley, a work of rural noir, but as I read through the opening chapters, I couldn't help but think, I know this place. And I do. That is because Bouman's novel takes place in rural northeastern Pennsylvania, in a world not so different than where I grew up. So, I am going to reclassify Dry Bones in the Valley as a work of Pennsylvania rural noir.
Officer Henry Farrell, who is hiding his own painful past, spends his days breaking up bar brawls and looking for stolen farm equipment, so when he stumbles upon a body on the land of a local recluse, he finds himself deep in a world of meth labs, violence, and family secrets that date back for generations. Easily marketed as a crime novel exploring a who-done-it theme, Dry Bones in the Valley is more than just a mystery. It's an exploration of people and place and how secrets can tear both apart.
Bouman, whether he is exploring the landscape and its history or examining the lives of people, is a master of description. And it's his descriptions, more than the plot, that pull the reader into this world. For instance, when the narrator explores the woods of northeastern Pennsylvania, he sees "rusted strands of barbed wire" disappearing "into tree trunks that have grown around them." One dirt road that he travels is little more than a creek bed: "you could see great ribbons of muddy water cut through it." Bouman's characters also share similar descriptions, descriptions that often seem to mirror the environment around them. For instance, Aub Dunigan, the local crazy recluse, is described as a man with "stooped shoulders" and a "pink scalp" shining through "yellowed hair." His eyes are "dark and sunk deep."
Bouman's book is a solid read. I felt like I was traveling through the backwoods of Pennsylvania with every turn of the page. If anything, when I closed the book, I wanted more: more about this harsh world that somehow sparks both violence and hope.
For more information about Dry Bones in the Valley, see the author's website.
Jeannine Hall Gailey's fourth full-length collection of poetry, The Robot Scientist's Daughter, is a part coming-of-age exploration of the poet's life growing up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, part critical look at nuclear history in America. It's a departure from Gailey's previous collections, which often convey retellings of traditional fairy tales and stories of women in popular culture. Yet, fans of Gailey's work will be happy to see that her exploration of the fantastic has not disappeared in her newest book, as she travels back in time to use both personal narratives and segments of American history to explore our love/hate relationship with nuclear power.
Gailey opens her collection with an author's note explaning some autobiographical material, and thus, the genesis of the book. The Robot Scientist's Daughter, who waves her way in and out of this collection is fictional in some aspects, but as Gailey notes, she "also shares many charactertisitcs with me." Many of the Robot Scientist Daughter's poems display surreal elements, helping to explain her role in this Nuclear World. For instance, in one poem, she is a medical wonder with "nails made of plastic and paper mache" and "one kidney curled inside her ribs, her blood trying/to escape." In another poem, she explores the image of the woman in popular culture nuclear films: "The robot scientist's daughter must be there/to humanize the robot scientist; he is both a protagonist/we identify with and a villain we know must fail." In yet another poem, we see the Robot Scientist's daughter journey west, away from her childhood home: "She's a bit of an alien here in the land/of tanned legs and blonde hair, beaches/and bongo drums."
Still, many poems leave this surreal world behind in more concrete, narrative writing. In one poem, "The Taste of Rust in August" the narrator, as she licks "lampposts, iron grates, jewelry" for the rust flavor, laments her own complexion, which is "dull and transparent as wax paper." In another poem, "Death by Drowning" she recounts an incident where she almost drowns: "I cannot float/merely thrash six feet underwater. If only I was a smooth/sleek sale, a dolphin, a mermaid, if ony vestigial gills/might open." In yet another poem, "The Girls Next Door" the narrator describes her neighbors who taught her how "to curl her bangs," "put on lipstick," and "tuck a rose" behind her ear. Oak Ridge also becomes its own character in several poems including "Oak Ridge, Tennessee" where the poet describes a world tht is "Always things hovering over us -- mountains, thunderstorms/a poisoned valley. Lightning bouncing across the yard/Bees swarming a horse. My father strode off to work/with government-issue TLD cards and a black suit/How much radiation today?/The card would tell him, but he knew it lied."
Finally, infused throughout the book are glimpses of America's relationship with the nuclear power. One poem looks at the role women played in 1945 secret city, while another poem references Dr. Manhattan, a comic book character from The Watchmen. More current history is also included, with many poems alluding to the devastation surrounding Fukushima. Even the mysterious Roswell, New Mexico, makes an appearance in this collection!
THe official release date for The Robot Scientist's Daughter is March 1, but preorders are already being taken. See Mayapple Press for information. See also Gailey's website for information about this book as well as her previous books.
I grew up in a Blue-collar Catholic town, so I grew up with Saints -- whether they were garden ornaments, portraits on medals, or parts of prayers, it seemed like the Catholic Saints were part of my life even if I, myself, was not a Catholic. St. Peter's B-List, edited by Mary Ann B. Miller, is a wonderful anthology of poetry that explores how Catholic saints are part of our lives.
The collection is divided into three sections. The first section is dedicated to "Family and Friends" and is my favorite part of the book as it details the way saints find themselves in our world. For example, in "Ode to Saint Barbara of the Barbara Shoppe" poet Rebecca Lauren calls the hairdressers saints, saying "Bless us, your patrons/with shears. Baptize s with holy hairspray/before we go inot the world and preach/the gospel with fixed bouffant of faith." In another poem by Kelli Russell Agodon, the narrator found in "Patron Saint of Worry" invents a new saint when she bemoans the fact that no one "had invented/a babyproof lock for the bathroom faucet."
The second section, titled "Faith and Worship" showcases works that describe Saints' influences on more spiritual matters. Some poems describe more formal worship, while others look at religous awakenings in everyday events, such as the narrator in Brett Foster's "Spiritual Exercises in a Cellar Bookstore" who struggles to find some kind of wisdom and peace among dust and books. In another poem, "The Patron Saint of Lost and Found" by Greg Kosmicki, the narrator retells his experience with praying for something that he is struggling to find.
Finally, there is the third section titled "Sickness and Death" which brings the saints into our lives, often when we believe we most need them, in times of personal sickness or times of prayer for those of us around us who are sick. Dean Kostos, for instance, in his poem, "Elegy for a Living Man" offers both hope and prayer for someone who is struggling with Parkinson's disease.
St. Peter's B-List contains over 100 poems by contemporary poets -- some may be familiar to the reader while others may not. For me, I was happy to see some favorites such as poets Erika Meitner, Kate Daniels, Martha Silano, Annette Spaulding-Convey, Sarah J. Sloat, C. Dale Young, Rebecca Lauren, Jim Daniels and Kelli Russell Agodon. Yet, the collection also introduced me to many poets whose work I did not know (and thus, I found myself looking at the contributors' notes to see where I could find more of their work).
Readers looking for contemporary retellings of Catholic Saints' lives will not find them in this collection. (However, the editor does include a helpful and very interesting guide to the Saints at the end of the book) Instead, St. Peter's B-List includes a wonderful array of poets who find both humor and hope in their personal encounters with saints.
For more information about this anthology, visit Ava Maria Press's website.
"Can we ever really kill a myth?" author Matthew Gavin Frank asks in Preparing the Ghost. "Even though the giant squid has long been proved actual, the beast retains the mythological narrative, can't shake its sea-monster designation. The legend lives on."
It's the idea of myths and legends that is explored in Frank's newest book. Yes, the cover sports a subtitle, "An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer." And yes, the book starts out in a typical linear narrative with an introduction of Reverend Moses Harvey, an amateur naturalist in the 1870s who is obsessed with the Giant Squid. Indeed, as readers, we even get to see his captured squid in a black-and-white photograph that is found at the very start of the book. (The picture, somehow, reminds me of the monsters in the old monster movies of the 50s and 60s -- even though the picture was taken decades before).
Still readers venturing into Preparing the Ghost should be prepared. This is not a linear narrative or a typical biography. Instead, Frank weaves myth, science, history, and even personal memoir throughout Harvey's story. Indeed, there are even glimpses of Frank's own research process, including his efforts to find out more information about Harvey and his family and the very landscape that helped to capture the myth of the giant squid. Yet, even though the author wanders, he always returns to Harvey's story and the mysterious squid. Any reader who sticks with the author's meanderings will be treated to intriguing history, interesting mythology and strong lyrical writing -- and most of all stories that will grab a hold of you and not let go.
Sorta, I guess, like the suckers of a Giant Squid.
In many ways, I am more of a reader than a writer. This page will serve as a home for my informal reviews of what I've been reading.