Book Review: Money Money Money Water Water Water

Money Money Money Water Water Water

Written by Jane Mead

Alice James Books, 2014

ISBN 9781938584046

Money Money Money Water Water Water Jane Mead’s assured hand has snipped exquisite holes in her poems, allowing the unsaid to rise, waver and haunt every line. In her fourth collection, the poet has removed every non-essential word, a mastery of distillation, to create a work of pure potency.

In tercets, mostly (three line stanzas), roaming through lean sections of natural shocks, Mead contemplates environmental and existential immensities in a liminal subtext and never puts a foot wrong. On the left, single tercets with monostich gesture to the right hand poems in language as urgent, wistful and primary as   How much how much where going     and you know exactly what she means.

What can’t be said speaks wholly through absence; connections are deepened through asyndeton (no connectors). Gone, most of a sentence; the word going is allowed to remain, to reappear like the repetitions of the title, or ghosts. Going, going, gone.

Questions don’t need question marks, nether states like “the can-be / and the want” “primitive stalks of might-be / and aftermath” tell all. Known by the spirits of deer, and the dead. Ag reports, pesticides. The effect is transfiguring in a transfigured terroir. Something changes into something else in the space between the going and the aftermath, and in us, as Mead asks her last question.

How much can you subtract now 

How much and still get by

Review by Susan Lynch

© 2014, All Rights Reserved

Book Review: Glossolalia

Glossolalia: New & Selected Stories

Written by David Jauss

Press 53, 2013

ISBN 9781935708841

With prose that is precise and devastating, David Jauss presents seventeen new and selected stories about the resilience of people as they are dragged through the rough of isolation: isolation from God; isolation from love; from community. And in that isolation is discovery. Jauss builds and cultivates these immensely complex characters while never abandoning them completely. It seems to me that Glossolalia asks the question: what keeps these characters moving after taking nearly everything away?

Glossolalia_CoverIn the last twelve months, I have not read many new short story collections. Novels seem to have taken over my bookshelf, and so consequently, I really forgot why I fell in love with the short form those years ago. It was the surprises, the gut-punch that you never saw coming and left you forgetting how to breathe, only to start the next gut-punch pages later. Stories that ended far sooner than you wish they had, and Glossolalia lands every blow with stories that challenge the form, stretch the narrative bounds, while also committing to honest and more traditional storytelling.

David Jauss has no limitations. “Apotheosis” is a story written in letter-form, by Friar Miguel Sabogal during the Spanish Inquisition, pleading his innocence on the charge of being a heretic. In the letter, the friar recounts his story about torture and the fragility of the spirit as it is reduced to its fewest possible components. “The Bigs” is a story about a baseball player from the Dominican Republic playing for a Double A team. The story is written in first person and in a dialect that lends such authenticity to the narrative voice that the reader can nearly hear it. The title story, “Glossolalia,” is a much more straightforward narrative that shows what happens when a boy’s father has a complete mental breakdown. Jauss’ great attention to nuance is what really sells these stories: the nuance of voice, the nuance of character. Young fiction writers should read this collection and learn from one of the truly great masters of the form, and the casual reader should simply allow these stories to blow them away.

There seems to be a reoccurring theme throughout the collection of bad fathers, broken fathers. Stories about fatherly faith gained and lost and then found again. What Jauss achieves with this collection is a brutal realism, the hard callous that insulates us within our darkest dreams and our deepest regrets. But ultimately these stories remind the reader of the amazing resilience of people, of how “a life could break so utterly, then mend itself.”

Review by Adam Padgett

© 2014, All Rights Reserved

Book Review: Home Burial

Home Burial

Written by Michael McGriff

Copper Canyon Press, 2012

ISBN 9781556593840

Home Burial coverHome Burial (Copper Canyon Press,  2012) exposes the Pacific Northwest poet Michael McGriff knows inside out with a stunning forensic lyricism. His knowledge of the backwoods, the quarries, the bay “shaped like a rabbit / hanging limp / from the jaws of the landscape” is downright chthonic, haunted by spirits of place, the departed, and the old junkers they left behind. His poems track movement shapeshifting through his rural routes/roots, personifying Midwinter as a woman who “lets the darkness / sit down beside her” here, pointing to glimpses of reeds–or is it human hair– waving from the bottom of the pond in another abandoned wreck there. His unflinching reports are detailed with a poetic grace that does not betray the bleak realities of life, as, say, a four-legged predator, an obese dead man removed by a crane through a shattered chimney,  his grandfather’s will found on the back of an invoice in the shed, a woman about to die on the job at the mill.

McGriff presents the hardscrabble vignettes in forms as natural as weather, in language at once harsh and beautiful, shitkicking and prayerful, but never off pitch. This, his second full-length collection, is a Lannan Literary Selection. In its thirty-one poems, the poet’s response to the natural world and the ultimate fragility of all its inhabitants hardened by necessity ties these cautionary tales, remembrances and elegies together like #50 Heavy Cougar Genuine Leather Logger Laces. Imagining McGriff creating his poetry in the tough guy settings of his titles: the break room, the Oyster Bar, or sitting – like Midwinter – at the kitchen table, is grainy, cinematic. Anyone who knows this heartbreaking country knows Home Burial  nails it; anyone unfamiliar is shown its beating heart, the lay of the land, and what lies beneath.

Review by Susan Lynch

© 2013, All Rights Reserved reviews The Conium Review’s Fall 2013 issue recently reviewed our latest issue.  The reviewer says “I found myself constantly itching to find out what was going to happen next . . . ” and she was pretty impressed with Claude Clayton Smith’s novella from the issue. Natalie Peeterse also gets a shout out; the reviewer says “Sonora” ” . . . cuts to the core of experience . . . ”  Take a look at the full review here.

Book Review: Counting Sheep Till Doomsday

Counting Sheep Till Doomsday
Written by Carlo Matos
BlazeVOX [books], 2011
ISBN 9781938103544

Counting Sheep Till DoomsdayBefore we’ve caught our breath, BlazeVOX [books] announced it will publish Carlo Matos’ newest poetry collection, Big Bad Asterisk* in 2013. Perhaps the editors feel eerily compelled to do so—for at the end of his last BlazeVOX collection, Counting Sheep Till Doomsday (2012), the Azorean-American Matos lets us know those who fail even once to grab on for dear life inevitably risk the wrath of many dire something-or-others. “When it lands between open arms, a simple catch, a lesson not learned enough—no blast craters to blow it all away”(from the poem, “The Insomniac’s Cookbook”). Consider yourself warned.

Or at least, be grateful you’re let in on the joke. For the next questions become: Well what exactly is supposed to rain down from today’s sky on our heads? How can we protect ourselves from insidious forces if we can’t even call them out?

In 2010, Matos demanded we pay attention to the sensual aspects of existence in his first poetry collection, A School for Fishermen (Brickhouse Books). He also authored a scholarly book, Ibsen’s Foreign Contagion (Academica Press, 2012), that focused on that most famous chronicler of human vulnerabilities. Now in Counting Sheep, Matos points out the many footfalls we poor mortals face daily which, if avoided, might yet insure our long-term survival.

This genuinely funny book imagines many gulp-laden takes on a planet seeded by Nervous Nellies, fatalists and rioting pachyderms. In such a world, Mr. Potato Head does not turn out to be the best consigliere for confession (an ear might just be delivered to your door); nor can caste systems ever be bucked by normal reindeer over reindeer who fly.

Counting Sheep struts in at 86 pages. Yet measuring 4X6, it’s just a wee bit bigger than a pocket-sized Bible or U.S. Constitution. So it seems apt to point out that, like those other texts, Counting Sheep is similarly useful to readers looking to be guided from here to there and back again—as Matos does right from his opening salvos in nine “Fate” poems which opine on inadvertent trespasses.

Matos often shifts perspectives and points of view in his poems to topple modern readers off self-satisfied thrones. If not, we might never find ourselves cheering for the Job-like beetle as a piano sonata rains down on his head in “The Insect King”. Or after reading three different poems labeled “Design”, we might not somehow tumble in our minds to consider when we last explored the moral ambiguities of purists who see their contributions as indispensable—perhaps not since our flashlight-in-bed perusals of Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Yet if we give in to these surprising mind-burps and farts (see “In The Spider House”) and also have the sense to chew, not simply swallow, the popping hot-buttered verse Matos puts before us, we might just find no food taster need be hired. For there are enough sentries, friendly gargoyles, and third parties flanking us in the Counting Sheep poems that we’re practically insured safe passage in this roller rink world.

Review by Michele Merens
© 2012, All Rights Reserved
Michele Merens’ short stories have appeared inPlumHamptonsLilithThird WednesdayInkwellTherma, and Crawdad literary magazines and three anthologies. She is won of a Puffin grant for her full-length drama, The Lion’s Den, a DVD of which is now archived in Wisconsin Veteran’s Museum in Madison. Michele is a Barnard Senior Scholar in Creative Writing and a member of the Dramatist Guild.

Book Review: The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction
Edited by Dinty W. Moore
Rose Metal Press, 2012
ISBN 9780984616664

Examining a Flash Nonfiction “Field Guide”

Dinty W MooreSo what is creative flash nonfiction? Dinty W. Moore, editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, works toward a definition in his introduction to the volume. He is well positioned to do so, having established Brevity, an online journal of short literary nonfiction, more than sixteen years ago and having edited numerous flash nonfiction essays. Moore’s writing preferences indicate a willingness to relinquish a degree of control in the writing process. These preferences are apparent in the selections included in the volume. Readers familiar with Moore’s book The Mindful Writer will see how those preferences play out in the writing of flash nonfiction.

Working within the frame of 750 words or less, the writers of these essays jump immediately “into the edge of the fire,” to use Moore’s imagery, “getting to the fire” as quickly as possible. The authors write with concise language using the same elements, of course, of other literary forms, but making voice, verb tense, sentence sound, and mood serve this extremely short form in the most expeditious way. The form, then, promotes a sense of the immediate and the personal.

All of the 26 authors presented are editors and instructors, as well as writers of the brief form. A flash nonfiction prompt follows each author essay, followed in turn by an essay example. This allows the reader to see the application of the writing idea(s) the author offers.

Though not all of the applications were readily apparent to this reviewer, Brenda Miller’s “I’m sorry” essay made the application highly visible. She demonstrates how the recall of a single object lead her into a deep emotional response and understanding of an event in her past. Her essay approaches, yet manages to avoid, a self-pitying wallowing.Anne Panning finds “thingy-ness,” that is, concentration on ordinary, everyday objects, useful in forming flash nonfiction. Her first essay shows us how a small object or part sometimes stands in for the whole and can be used “as a means of reaching something much larger.” Her final essay, “The White Suit,” is one of the most poignant in this volume.

Flash Nonfiction GuideIn Lia Purpura’s essay we are directed to all things miniature, from dollhouses to Fabergé eggs to Chihuahuas to Chopin’s Preludes. Miniatures, she discovered, cause us to experience time as compressed. In viewing certain objects, such as miniature railroads, the smaller the objects, the more detail we notice, such as the lettering on a tiny boxcar, or the spatial scenes enclosed within an egg.

When Kyle Minor begins his essay with “We begin with the trouble, but where does the trouble begin? My uncle takes a pistol and blows his brains out,” we don’t know where he will lead us. Minor himself may not have known where his essay would take him. He seems to meander back and back in time, until he has lead us into the Garden of Eden. His exercise asks us to play with the element of time. The question of where we begin is only one of many choices we make for a piece of writing, he says.

In “The Sounds and Sense of Sentences” Barbara Hurd quotes Virginia Woolf: “Style is a very simple matter:  it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words.” Contrariwise, Hurd states, “Aristotle knew that when music satisfies, it’s not just because we like how it sounds, but because it goes somewhere.” Her writing exercise advises you to copy favorite sentences of authors you admire and post them around the house. “Read them aloud, slowly and often. Then try imitating each of their rhythms and structures.” Listen for how the rhythmic pattern of a sentence does or does not propel the sentence sense forward, she advises. In her second essay she speaks of silences and pauses in action, such as the way blizzards shut everything down, or the functions of rests in musical scores.

Judith Kitchen writes on digression, and Ira Sukrungruang on using the “You” instead of the “I” in memoir. Aimee Nezhukumatathil wants you to take a plant, an animal, or landscape about which you know very little, research it, and then do “the fun part: expand each fact just enough to create an original and surprising rendering of the subject at hand,” trying to evoke a distinct mood.

Norma Elia Cantu steers us toward the use of shifts in tenses. She writes, “In my autobioethnographic writing I often blend the tenses in a piece to take the narrative to the past and situate it as a NOW event. I am remembering an event at a fiesta in Spain in the 1980s and comparing it to the next time I was at the fiesta in 2010. In this way, I can shift between what it was like years before and how it is in 2010; but as I write about it from the vantage point of what I call ‘the writing present,’ the spring of 2011, I am allowed to insert a future tense as well.” For her prompt, she asks a writer to think of a photo of (him)herself at a given age and ask: Who is taking the photo? What is the occasion? What are you sitting or standing on? If that child in the photo would talk to you, what would (s)he say? Then Cantu asks for a free-writing session, “letting yourself go wherever the writing takes you, answering the prewriting questions or not.” A next challenge is writing the exercise in different tenses, including the future tense.

I found two other prompts particularly enticing:

Robin Hemley’s essay arose when he accepted a challenge to write an accompanying piece for a friend’s series of photos of people running (i.e. late to appointments) and women idly “twirling their hair.” His essay concluded with explanations of the stadium and punctum (i.e. the point in the photo at which the decisive emotion, or “wound,” occurs), and of how we can bring these same elements to bear in an essay. “It’s the correlation between the literary imagination and the photograph that interests me, that inspires me as a writer,” Hemley says. For his prompt, he suggests students write about a given photo from one’s past. Then write about an imagined photo. Write so convincingly that your reader cannot distinguish which photo is fake and which is real.

Nichole Walker guides the writer into concentration on two disparate subjects, focusing on these for perhaps days at a time. She encourages us to allow our brain, as writers, to bring the two together into new juxtapositions, resulting in something unique, different, and idiosyncratic. Walker states, “Threading two narratives together in this way might work for you as it does for me—giving me a broader canvas onto which to figure out what I’m trying to say.” In her ensuing essay she brings two narratives into certain coherence, and surprises the reader with specific uses of the words “resonance” and “the methodology behind wishing” and, with poignancy at the ending, “We’re all walking on eggshells here.”

Moore presents so many ideas, approaches, images, methods, and styles in this volume. It’s a rewarding read, especially for the aspiring writer or for the teacher of the art of this miniaturized form. The collection carries us into newer modes of expression. We are free to explore them in order or randomly, like the crows seem to do on the beautiful cover of the paperback.

A list of suggestions for “Further Reading” accompanies the collection. It was compiled by the editor, the contributors, and the press and includes such works as Flannery O’Connor’s Habits of Being, Lia Purpura’s On Looking: Essays, Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, Virginia Woolf’s The Death of the Moth and Other Essays, and a collection, Distance and Direction, by Judith Kitchen to whom this anthology is dedicated. The breadth of this list itself indicates the sobriety of intent the authors represent in this useful volume.

Review by Carole Mertz
© 2012, All Rights Reserved
Carole Mertz has reviewed for the Page and Spine Fiction ShowcaseThe Christian Communicator, and the Long Ridge Writers Webletter. Her stories have appeared in various online sites, and in The Rockford ReviewThe Lutheran Digest, Mature Years, and a Whortleberry Press Anthology. Carole lives in Parma, Ohio, but grew up in Pennsylvania Dutch country. She likes to think her most unusual “claim to fame” is having once played a triangle solo with a symphony orchestra.

Book Review: Eyes, Stones

Eyes, Stones
Written by Elana Bell
Louisiana State University Press, 2012
ISBN 9780807144640

Eyes StonesElana Bell’s debut book of poems, Eyes, Stoneswalks a hairline-tightrope between one side and another in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Bell mines the depths of twentieth-century history, presenting persona poems in the voices of Jewish Holocaust survivors, Zionists, Palestinian refugees, and folk heroes from either side of the violent ongoing conflict. Reading Eyes, Stones is like rediscovering the poets Carolyn Forché and Ai; there’s a sense of joy and terror bleeding through the page. However, Eyes, Stones is wholly Bell’s achievement—a deeply personal collection of poems of witness, illuminated by compassion.

Bell, who descended from Holocaust survivors and has taught in both Israel and Palestine, has a deeply personal stake in this book; she depicts her ancestors’ struggles to reclaim their homeland in early to mid-twentieth century, while also depicting the struggles of “the enemy,” exiled in their own land, afflicted with poverty and extremism. Bell’s compassion leads into a painful conflict for the poet and these poems—rather than maintaining objectivity, Bell opts for subjective first-person speakers, placed side-by-side, at times difficult to differentiate. Perhaps the best example of this is her poem, “Naming Our Dead,” which is composed entirely of extinguished and displaced Palestinian and Israeli towns, villages, and settlements. The poem, which is difficult to reproduce here, is rendered as a long block of prose with names in alphabetical order, punctuated by periods and indents. In three different places, a gaping hole yawns across several lines as if missing chunks of prose; the holes resemble the crisp silhouettes of petals.

Another poem presenting the immediate conflict (of conscience and compassion) is “Language in the Mouth of the Enemy”: “I am afraid that this poem / will contribute to the destruction of Israel” (1-2). Motive is not what’s in question here, but consequence. Bell’s speaker, a teacher, fears that if she educates Palestinian women, she will arm them with yet another weapon:

if I teach the women of Nahalin poetry,
if I give voice to their rage,
what great-aunt of mine shot in the back
before an unmarked grave will have died then,
again for nothing? (7-11)

And if she expresses sympathy toward the plight of Palestinian refugees, she will automatically betray the Israeli state; she will betray decades of sacrifice and struggle:

If I love the suffering of the Palestinians—it is so bright–
more than the suffering of my own,
[. . .]
then what have I done? What have I
done? What have
I done? (12-23)

The question, “What have I done?” is repeated over the last three lines; here, Bell carefully breaks the lines to impose short pauses, adding to the sense of gravity. Their syllabic lengths whittle down suggesting that the bulk of the poem balances uncertainly on two syllables, as if one single well-intended act will cause the whole destruction of Israel. The anaphoric, iambic “If I” directs us toward the speaker’s personality, motives, and empathy; the last line, “I done,” places the stress on her action, ignoring original intentions and focusing on the consequence.

Another standout (trio) of poems, each spoken in the voice of Yasser Arafat, are “How I Got My Name (Arafat),” “The Chairman,” and “Military Tactics.” Each poem occurs in each of the three sections composing Eyes, Stones, and each may serve as the closest reminder—along with the poems “How I Got My Name (Jabotinsky),” “Wolf,” and “Kishinev,” which are spoken in the voice of Zionist leader Jabotinsky—of the poet Ai. Bell’s abilities as a persona-poet (a bad label since arguably all poets are persona-poets) are impressive, given that much of the language she employs is consistently richly violent, stark, and rhythmic from poem to poem, with slight differentiation between speakers beyond context and tone:

We are inside the dream of a God who’s forgotten us. There is no other way to say it. Through the stippled glass I watch the neighbors hammer nails into the Jewish babies’ eyes. Mama pulls me to her breasts that smell of bread and smoke. I want to look. There are no windows from which I do not see the city burning. (“Kishinev”)

The sentence, “There is no other way to say it,” recalls a sentence from Forché’s “The Colonel”: “There is no other way to say this.” Perhaps Bell unconsciously intones the voice of Forché, whose definition of “poetry of witness” has pretty much shaped all consequential discourse on the genre. However, comparisons are easily drawn in any book; this is not to detract from Bell’s originality or discourage reading the volume through an autobiographical lens. Rather, calling forth these two poets help us locate Bell’s prescient, carefully and urgently crafted verse as among some of the most jarring and provocative poems of witness available. Unfortunately, aside from having the distinction of the Walt Whitman Award, Bell’s Eyes, Stones won’t place high on poetry bestsellers lists (yes, they exist!). But rest assured, the book will circulate among patrons of The Academy of American Poets, backdoor reading circles, and a few classrooms in years to come.

Review by Tristan Beach
© 2012, All Rights Reserved

Book Review: Fables

Written by Sarah Goldstein
Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2011
ISBN 9780982541661

Sarah Goldstein’s first book, Fables (Tarpaulin Sky Press) defies easy categorization. Marketed as “fiction,” Fables is formatted into five sections, each featuring short, numbered blocks of prose that depict a scene or relate a story in the fashion of Aesop. However, like Aesop, Golstein’s “fables” can just as easily be taken as (prose-) poems, each one containing a pronounced, concentrated rhythm and featuring familiar and strange images, while lacking proper nouns and specificity. Another thing lacking from these fables is a moral or encapsulating final phrase—something that comments on the preceding action. In the case of Fables, the minimal commentary renders these dark fables vague and cryptic. If there is a lesson to be learned amid the catastrophic misfortunes befalling the characters in these fables, human and animal alike, that lesson is found solely within the reader’s analysis.

FablesFor instance, in the very first piece in the section entitled “Fables,” Goldstein seems to bring in the very question of narrative, which is to explicate a series of events beyond simply ordering them into a digestible sequence. When a group of adults bring with them grief-stricken orphans on their next hunt (they heed an old myth: “take an orphan child hunting, you will return with threefold the bounty” [author’s italics]), the orphans vanish mysteriously from their party and the hunters return empty-handed. According to the fable, the children depart from the party, sensing the adults’ frustration, and wind up falling asleep in the underbrush of the forest, only to awake as birds: “When they cry, it is the sounds of the whippoorwills. The nightingales become their mothers, and pheasants usher them to winter quarters” (7). When the adults return to face the other villagers, “[everyone] grimaces, hearing only what they decide to understand” (7). There’s no clear alternative interpretation of the events that Goldstein presents to us. The children disappear and turn into birds. Birds and transformations figure greatly throughout this collection as recurring motifs, enabling these fables to feel interconnected, despite each one being both microcosmic and singular, without repeated characters or settings, yet still managing to recall Greek and Western European storytelling tradition. In the instance of this fable, Goldstein affords her readers the freedom to “decide to understand” what they read or how they read into Fables.

Rimbaud, in his famous prose poem, “Conte” (“Story”), utilizes then brutalizes the familiar fable form, depicting a restless prince who savagely slaughters his subjects, who in turn mysteriously emerge unharmed and compliant. “Conte” ends with a cryptic encapsulating sentence that has nothing to do with the preceding text. This is to illustrate that what Goldstein does with the fable, by reinvigorating or reinventing (or even calling attention to the form and structure of the fable) isn’t entirely new or untried—think: Donald Barthelme and many of his numerous narrative experiments here. However, Goldstein writes with the air of someone who simultaneously knows what she’s doing while not obsessing with encrypting or disclosing meaning. Fables is no flagrant assault on any literary movement, but a very poised, playful, and unpretentious collection of proses that challenges readers’ notions of what is a fable and to whom is the fable directed.

In her section entitled “Ghosts,” Goldstein shifts attention to the familiar, universal ghost story—haunted folklore that has seeped through the centuries. The third fable of this section unexpectedly brings the reader into another cryptic, ominous scene:

She shudders along the roadside with her limbs deciphered. You are close enough to hear them clattering. A windshield held her indent but the driver has already taken a sledgehammer to it: her backbone a plaintiff pounded into dust. Her sightlines narrow to a dreary hallway of open doors with see-saw voices sobbing into amputated handkerchiefs. (43)

The “you” may be taken in the figurative sense; however, would it not be more delightful and insidious to assume we bear witness to this violent aftermath which despite its vividness (deciphered, clattering limbs and a road compared to a hallway of sawing, creaking doors) is still quite puzzling? Goldstein infers the driver has hit a tree, whose shape has left an indent in his windshield. Another way we could interpret this—this, with its free associations!—is that gendered tree is in fact a woman, shuddering along the roadside as the man who hit her with his car is obliterating the evidence. Again, no comment illuminates or firmly directs our thinking, which is refreshing to say the least.

Perhaps one of Goldstein’s greatest achievements in this slim, provocative (and beautifully designed) collection of proses is her consistent, dark and at times terrifying tone (terror as suggestive; horror as explicit—according to Anne Radcliffe’s “On the Supernatural in Poetry”), sustained through a consistent pattern of narration—no exposition, a sequence of action with or without a climax, and overshadowed by dodgy yet curiously vivid, heavily auditory-based depictions. Goldstein’s tone, along with these violent, intelligent, and suggestive yet playful and inventive little stories make Fables an outstanding candidate for any poetry/prose lover’s bookshelf.

Review by Tristan Beach
© 2012, All Rights Reserved

Book Review: The Sensualist

The Sensualist
Written by Daniel Torday
Nouvella, 2012
ISBN 9780983658542

The SensualistI should start by talking about the title. I’ve been walking around for the past two weeks with this book in my hand, and everyone who sees it gives me a look that hovers somewhere in the middle of mild shock, illicit curiosity, and outright envy. After all, I’m not normally one to read books that skew especially blue, at least not in public, and with a title like The Sensualist, it’s natural to assume that Daniel Torday’s debut novella is perhaps a more literary version of that book about fifty shades of something or other that was all the rage earlier this year.As it turns out, however, the sensualist at the heart of Torday’s novella is about as far removed as possible from anything E.L. James could ever imagine, and we’re all the better for it. Indeed, by focusing on a young Russian immigrant who imagines himself a sensualist in the style of Dmitri Karamazov—i.e., someone who says what he feels when he feels it and does what he likes to do—Torday gives his coming of age novel a center of gravity that speaks directly to the headstrong yet interstitial nature of the teenage years.

The novella tracks the relationship between the aforementioned sensualist, Dmitri Zilber, and narrator Samuel Gerson as they attempt to navigate the choppy waters of young adulthood in the early 1990s. What draws Samuel to Dmitri is the latter’s uncompromising nature. Where Samuel is occasionally cowed by his overbearing gym teacher, Dmitri pays no respect to anyone who hasn’t, in his eyes, earned it. It also helps that Dmitri has a beautiful sister named Yelizaveta, who catches Samuel’s eye and eventually steals heart.In love, or so he believes, with Yelizaveta, Samuel begins to see the world as Dmitri does: as a series of black and white propositions: right and wrong, good and bad, heroes and villains. Consequently, when Samuel learns that Yelizaveta has eyes for a popular jock, the jock becomes a villain from Samuel’s perspective, and much of the remaining narrative revolves around the narrator’s gradual realization that life rarely offers such cut-and-dried distinctions.

Ultimately, it’s this gradual realization that makes The Sensualist so effective. As he struggles to understand his relationships with Yelazaveta and Dmitri, Samuel must also deal with a grandfather whose delusions of persecution put a heavy strain on the family. Likewise, the delusions of grandeur that Samuel’s growing circle of friends tends to entertain place them in increasingly precarious positions. Through it all, what Samuel needs most is to grow comfortable with uncertainty, of occupying the spaces between good and bad, of appreciating (dare I say it?) the shades of gray that complicate human experience—and Torday leads his narrator through the winding maze of young adulthood with the deft and sensitive heart of someone who’s thoroughly explored its many twists and turns.

Thoroughly engaging and beautifully written, The Sensualist stands alongside such works as The Catcher in the Rye and The Basketball Diaries as that rare breed of book that perfectly captures the ambivalence of youth, a delicate balance of absolute certainty and uncertainty held together by the undeniable anxiety of looming adulthood. In short, an excellent read.

Review by Marc Schuster
© 2012, All Rights Reserved