Monthly Archives: January 2018

Book Review — Pearls on a Branch: Arab Stories Told by Women in Lebanon

Pearls on a Branch: Arab Stories Told by Women in Lebanon Today by Najla Khoury is a collection of Middle Eastern stories. While civil war raged in Lebanon, Najla Jraissaty Khoury traveled with a theater troupe, putting on shows in marginal areas where electricity was a luxury, in air raid shelters, Palestinian refugee camps, and isolated villages. Their plays were largely based on oral tales, and she combed the country in search of stories. Many years later, she chose one hundred stories from among the most popular and published them in Arabic in 2014, exactly as she received them, from the mouths of the storytellers who told them as they had heard them when they were children from their parents and grandparents. This is a collection of thirty stories.

Where I grew up in an ethnically diverse Cleveland, Ohio. Many of my friends’ grandparents did not speak English. As a kid, I knew basic greetings in Polish. I also learned stories that were not the typical Hansel and Gretel or Little Red Riding Hood. Stories that held a moral and were somewhat magical. Animals talked to people. People talked to spirits. Animals had their own societies. Princes abounded. Wicked people, trolls, and spirits had their place. These stories were told and told again for ages. Not all of the stories were written down. But then too in an era with three channels of television stories had a bigger role than they do today.

Khoury captures stories of the oral tradition of the Middle East. She has a method of collecting stories and does not take them on the first listen. She wants to make sure that the stories are true to their form and not influenced by mood or other factors. She wanted to get as close to the traditional story as possible. Strict cultural norms are allowed in stories. Evil spirits, talking animals, immaculate conceptions, and women with more freedom than usual or even taking mocking advantage of men are allowed. Fiction presents a break from reality and an openness in a mostly closed culture.

Many of the stories presented are unique. In several, however, I did pick up on stories I have heard before. The details are different but the story is the same. Either this is the commonality of people or people trading stories and stories adapting to their own culture.  Our “Once upon a time” is replaced with a more appropriate “There was or perhaps there was not.”  Each story usually has an introductory poem to set the stage for the story too.  The stories are clever, some humorous,  and contain a moral without any heavy handiness.  This is entertainment carried down from the past in the oral tradition.  Having these stories in print is a way to keep the stories alive and available in an age of on-demand television, movies, music, and entertainment.

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Book Review — The Beauties: Essential Stories

The Beauties: Essential Stories (Pushkin Collection) by Anton Chekhov is a collection of thirteen short stories. Chekhov lived in Russia from 1860 to 1904 and is renowned for his plays and short stories. This edition is translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater. Slater has translated several works by Boris Pasternak, most recently The Family Correspondence, 1921–1960. For Oxford World’s Classics, he has translated Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time and Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories.

There is something about Russian literature that captures the mind of the reader. Perhaps it is the connection with the peasants and common people. Chekhov’s grandfather bought his freedom from serfdom along with his two sons. Anton Chekhov was the first in his family to be born outside of serfdom, but he was raised in the memory of it. He had a connection to the past. Russian literature also seems to have a fairytale quality to it. Princes and paupers, the clever and the silly, and a kingdom of snow all add a surreal feeling to the writing. The fairytale can also be warped by being trapped in an impossible life, prison, regret, drunkenness, and snow so deep it covers the top of telegraph poles. Chekov also manages to connect to these qualities too. He can add humor and seriousness any situation.

The Beauties manages to capture the best of Russian literature and in many stories, beauty is included. Beauty can be in the young girl in traditional dress seen at a train station or in the flaws of another woman that add a special quality to the beauty. Russia is also filled with natural beauty and that also is mentioned in some stories. Beauty can be found in friendships and in strangers. There is also a story of a man who in some way boxed everything he owned from the pocket knife in his pocket to his person in his many layers of clothing. His curtained bed even resembled a box. More overt silliness is caught in a couple trying to secure the marriage of their daughter by surprising them in a private moment and blessing them with an icon. There is sadness, too, in the story of the old woodcarver and his wife.

Chekhov was indeed a tremendous writer and for the English speaking world, Slater deserves much credit. His translation is not only very readable it seems to capture Chekhov’s own voice. The true test of a translation is reading it and not realizing the text has been translated. Slater exceeds expectations here. Very well written and very well translated collection of stories.

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Book Review — Feast Days

Feast Days by Ian MacKenzie is a novel about a young upwardly mobile couple transferred to Sao Paulo, Brazil. MacKenzie’s first novel was City of Strangers and his fiction has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, The Greensboro Review, and elsewhere. He was born and raised in Massachusetts, graduated from Harvard College, and has lived in New York City, Ethiopia, and Brazil.

I do not review much contemporary fiction because it seems to be written for instant entertainment without much depth or lasting memory. Feast Days is something different and, yes like many reviews have already said, it does deal with a young American couple in Brazil. He is an investment banker and she is trapped in a foreign country without much marketable skills or a visa that would allow her to work. The descriptions of Brazil are accurate. The division between the rich in their walled complexes and the poor in their shantytowns is very clear. Among the rich Brazilians, there is also a status competition. Emma, the American woman, works for friends teaching English. Having a tutor is a status symbol, even if one doesn’t really need one.

There is crime on the streets. There is corruption in business and government. There are protests and protests that turn into riots. Children of the rich are joining in the fight if not for the movement for the thrill. Haitian immigrants legal and illegal are protected by the parish priests and become the new outcasts giving the poor someone to target. A great deal is given to the division of the people and to the chaos of society outside walled complexes.

The most interesting thing I found and what kept me digging into the story is the narrator. The cover flap will tell the reader her name is Emma. You will only find her name once in the text. Her husband does not refer to her by name nor do her Brazilain friends. Perhaps she is just another American woman with no value except as a status symbol tutor or wife. Equally interesting is her husband. He is never referred to by name. When they were dating Emma refers to him as “the man who would become my husband.” She addresses and refers to him as “my husband” throughout the rest of the book. No one addresses him by name. Perhaps he too is just another Yankee in a foreign country. There for a while then replaced with another equally forgettable person. This makes the book far more interesting to me than I originally expected. It added depth to the story that made it much more than just a story.

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Poetry Review — My American Night

My American Night by Christopher P Collins is a collection of wartime poetry. Collins is a former military officer and a twelve-year veteran of the U.S. Army Reserve, having completed three overseas combat deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. He is the 2015 winner of Farmingdale’s Paumanok Poetry Award and has published one poetry chapbook, Gathering Leaves for War.

World War I was the last war that members of the military wrote poetry in great quantities. The poetry started as inspirational with thoughts of glory, duty, and honor and ended with despair, senselessness, and the waste of a generation. World War II did not inspire poetry in any great measure and neither did Korea nor Vietnam. There was a divorce between poetry and war much like life and death. A clear line had been drawn as killing became mechanized.

Collins brings back war poetry, but fighting the enemy is not the central point of the poetry. It is the individual battle in the soldier’s mind that is exposed. Rather than glorifying war, the message is a father caught in war and seeing and causing the deaths of others children:

I cannot cauterize
the memory
of your legs shredded,

the thick femoral
blood spraying
upon fatigues,
my sand-caked palms.

~ Ordering Disorder

There is no escape from the war as Collins insists throughout the collection. In tents, letters from home do not offer an escape because are stained with CLP. The mention CLP takes me back. I can still smell it even after being out the Marines for three decades. CLP (Cleaning Lubricating Protecting oil) has a distinct smell to it that many veterans remember as easily as the smell of coffee.

“Child of Chicken Street” is an especially moving poem. There is a duality between the children in Iraq and Afghanistan and Collin’s own child. An examination of the differences of life and death between the worlds of existence. There is a violence and a crudeness on one side of the war zone and the caring protective parent on the other side. This exists in geography as well as in the mind of the soldier in combat. Each side makes a deep mark in ones thinking and removing one is impossible after witnessing it and removing the other would make one less human. A startling collection of poetry and a collection that speaks strongly about war and what it does those in it and those trapped by it.  Imagery that anyone one who has served will appreciate and eye-opening to those who have not.

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Poetry Review — Let It Bleed

Let it Bleed by Nicole Nesca is a collection of prose and poetry. Nesca was born in Ohio. She developed a love of music, painting and writing early on and continued that love throughout her adult life. While living in Canada, she completed her first three works of poetry and prose collected in the anthology piece, KAMIKAZE WHITE NOISE, and her latest release of poems, Diamond Scarred Alley. She has been published in several E-Zines and has been a part of two anthologies.

Nesca grew up about an hour down the road from me and a decade later. The first thing I noticed about the prose writing is that a decade apart in Northern Ohio is not significant. For me, it was a trip back to the late 70s and early 80s. Little King’s, swimming in a quarry, and purple microdot survived the gap in years. The industrial city with the hit and miss job of steel in my city auto plant in hers is ever present. Then there is the music, The Stones, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, Bruce Springsteen (including a story based on his worst line), and Patti Smith (tick tock tick tock f*ck the clock). The prose is blue-collar Ohio youth. Things sucked but there was always some kind of hope of getting out and living better. Sometimes we do get out and find it’s not that much better even as we get older. Nesca describes this effect perfectly in “The Bus.”

The poetry is gritty and in some cases self-critical. Body form, age, loss, and hysterectomy are repeated topics in the poetry. Losing a sister to drugs and a friend to drowning shows how tough life can be. Now living in Winnipeg, Nesca describes how Canadain friends talk about Americans, Trump, and the uglier aspects of their southern neighbor. She hears the full force of it from people who do not realize where she is from.  The problems, however, are not only limited to America.  Even Canada has its homeless struggling to get by.

Nesca writes with a mix of prose and poetry.  Her Northeast Ohio roots show through and are as easily recognizable as someone’s Brooklyn accent would be.  Let It Bleed creates a snapshot of youth and the present.  Perhaps it is a reminder that “we have one last chance to make this real .”

 

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Poetry Review — Poems of Sappho

Poems of Sappho by Sappho

Sappho is perhaps the greatest poet who we know so little about. She was born around 615BC on the island of Lesbos into an aristocratic family. She was married to Cercylas and had a daughter named Cleis. Many know her by the for her sexuality modern words of Lesbian and sapphic are connected to her. This part of her reputation seems to be connected to a play written three hundred years after her death. In that play, she is portrayed as a promiscuous lesbian. In 1073 Pope Gregory had her work destroyed based on the portrayal in the play. Others had a different view. Plato called her the tenth muse and her likeness appeared on coins. He claimed she was beautiful while others called her “very ugly, being short and swarthy.” Regardless, her poetry was very popular in her time.

This collection is a reprint of the 1912 publication translated by John Maxwell Edmonds. In the last one hundred years, we have found more fragments and poems by Sappho but nowhere near the complete nine volumes. Edmonds explains in his introduction that Sappho ran a school for young women teaching singing and the choruses of the maidens used in marriage ceremonies. Book IX, in particular, speaks of the wedding ceremonies. One theory is that Sappho’s lesbianism may have just been the male voice in wedding choruses. With so little known about the poet, it’s really difficult to make a solid claim. Most claims one way or the other were made long after her death.

The fragments and poems in this collection are all the ones that were available in 1912. What was discovered of her work is presented in this edition? Some words are filled in but well noted by Edmonds. The words flow well but being fragments it can be frustrating reading. Complete poems are a joy to read:

The moon is gone
And the Pleiades set
Midnight is nigh;
Time passes on,
and passes, yet
Alone I lie

There can be little doubt of the popularity of her work in ancient times. That popularity continues into modern times. Although new materials have been found, this collection presents the vast majority of the work (and new information for its time) and has been translated by a respected translator of ancient Greek.

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Poetry Review — Under Green Leaves

There was a time when people spend much more time outdoors. There was nature in people’s life. Today we are in concrete cities and spend our lives indoors. Nature is limited to green strips and front lawns to many today. There was a time when you could stare up at the night sky and see the wonder of the universe. Today we are limited to seeing the moon, planets, and a few bright stars that most cannot identify.

Under Green Leaves takes the reader back to a time when nature and the outdoors provided a sense of wonder and a connection to the world around us. In this collection of poetry birds, especially the cuckoo. Abraham Cowley, Leigh Hunt, and John Keats write about grasshoppers. “Summer Morning” by Thomas Miller provides the longest poem of thirty-one stanzas. The classics writers of English poetry are included in this selection from Shakespear to Milton, Wordsworth, and Tennyson. There are also a few women poets in the mix. The only seem that seems to be missing is Shelley. This is a great selection of nature poems that was originally published in 1865. A new introductory note has been added to the text.

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