Book Reviews: May 2013
With her debut collection Survival Skills, Jean Ryan brings to the short story what Mary Oliver does to poetry. Both writers enrich their work extolling the wonders, as well as warning of the dangers, found in nature; and both intimately align women with the natural world. Using keen observation of the natural world, Ryan reveals how “unnatural environments create unnatural behavior” and underscores “it’s not just people here who have stories, it’s the land.” Each character traverses one emotional precipice after another, like the spider in “The Spider in the Sink,” to “cling, bewildered, to the edge of its world.” Ryan’s stories praise the transformative power of compassion, and reveal how the rescued can become the rescuer, as in “Greyhound.” The grieving couple in “Archaeology After Dark” are like the fossils they excavate; and after a visualized but unrealized infidelity with a bone collector, Doris comes to cherish her husband. Collisions fill these stories, from literal car crashes to the blow of witnessing a beloved’s betrayal, as in “A Sea Change,” where Jenny finds Antonia in the arms of her heart’s desire—not another woman, but an octopus. Even after impact, Ryan’s central characters refuse to relinquish their “hopeful curiosity” for life and find ways in which to “come in out of the cold desert night just to sit, shoulder to shoulder, among their own kind.”
In Charmaine Cadeau’s second collection of poems, following What You Used to Wear (Goose Lane, 2004), the poet returns to the natural world where her speaker is consumed by water and air, by sunlight and the blackness of night. There is something haunting and dark about her latest work, Placeholder; her verse has this suctioning power that swoops in with dangerous grace. These poems are delicate in a lulling way, yet rife with deception.
Like the subtle foreign sounds that come at night and guarantee restlessness, Cadeau often begins by presenting something innocent and mesmerizing, like the “Winter thirst, confetti snow,” or “Make-believe stars,” found in the poem, “Attendant spirits.” Here we discover the simplicity of children laughing and skating on a pond, and then the speaker creeps in with “a room so dark you can’t find the body. / And below the ice, the pull.” We don’t even see it coming.
As a whole, Cadeau focuses on the little details, like the working world of the queen bee who is compared to “the Wizard / of Oz behind the curtain, / all levers and smoke.” Or, where in “a house made of light. / Door latches click like eyelids.” The poet is sparse and deliberate with her words and her enjambed lines lead to complex multiplicity in meaning.
Yet among Cadeau’s musical verse is a prose poem so heavy, so greedy on the page it nearly jolted me out of the poet’s usual siren song. “Six workdays” is organized in thick paragraphs, yet Cadeau pays as much attention to sound and syntax here, erasing any burden on the weighted page: “Begin with exhalation, somewhere between a runner’s pant and a sigh, between a low D held on the clarinet and a sneeze, blowing up balloons and puffing bangs out of your eyes.”
This is what I adore about Cadeau’s work. She has such a penetrating sense of imagery that I can’t help but inhale and exhale with deliberate gusts as I take the poem’s lead. But she’s not all business all the time. Cadeau invites us to play a game with the poem, “vow l,” wherein—you guessed it—an assortment of missing vowels makes for a quirky fill-in-the-blanks puzzle.
With verse like “M st f the morning l ying n the gr ss,” my own challenge was in behaving—by working with the poet’s lead to fill in the gaps—but I most often faltered. Instead, I came up with ridiculous ways to tie letters together in amusing gobbledygook. And, why not, when “M st of the morning” can also be read as “most” or “mist.”
I remembered Cadeau’s first collection and was anxious to read Placeholder. I crossed my fingers that I would open this new collection and find sleight of hand verse that would again leave me feeling caught off guard—in a good way. Placeholder does not disappoint. Consider me joyously blindsided.
In Carter Sickels’ tense debut novel, stagnancy and turmoil dominate the lives of rural West Virginians, leaving Dove Creek’s residents, who have few economic opportunities, susceptible to the pressures of mountaintop removal coal mining. Rooted in this struggle, The Evening Hour approaches issues of poverty, substance abuse, corporate malfeasance, and environmental degradation. Although this wide scope causes the novel to creak under the weight of its own ambitions, these timely concerns lend urgency to Sickels’ attentive portrait of West Virginia’s rural landscape and its people.
The festering uncertainty that defines Dove Creek takes human form in twenty-seven-year-old Cole Freeman. A nursing home aide, Cole supplements his income with money earned dealing prescription drugs bought or stolen from his elderly patients. As the novel opens, the physical decline of his grandfather (the strict, snake-handling preacher who raised him) and the return of Terry Rose (his childhood best friend who spiraled into drug addiction) put Cole on edge. Later, tumultuous romantic relationships, the return of his estranged mother, and the coal company’s looming presence reverberate through Cole’s world. Nevertheless, Cole numbly continues in his routines despite the strain.
Sickels crafts Cole as a character who leaves the reader questioning what counts as human goodness. A single paragraph includes Cole tenderly making tomato soup for an aged supplier, whom he has found collapsed on the floor of her trailer, while also riffling through the medicine cabinet to find “OxyContin and Vicodin, and an old bottle of Ritalin, all of which went into his pockets.” Throughout the novel, Sickels repeatedly focuses on Cole’s double-mindedness: “He slipped fifty dollars in his shoe, filched a half-empty bottle of Vicodin. His hands were shaking and he almost returned all of it. But he didn’t. He didn’t return anything.” The constancy of Cole’s indecision makes his inability to change deeply believable.
Similarly, Sickels’ elderly characters read true in rich descriptive passages. The nursing home residents “held [Cole’s] hands, their cockled skin stretched tightly over brittle bone.” In the back country, a couple “sang an old death ballad, their voices taut and sweet” against a backdrop of “hundreds of tin cans…arranged on fence posts and suspended from the clothesline.” Sickels deftly portrays these elderly characters, stirring the reader with their vulnerability while surprising us with their tenacity.
As The Evening Hour progresses, however, the story’s strands proliferate and overwhelm one another. A multitude of purposeless characters quickly pass through the narrative; clear-cut, dramatic events overshadow examinations of moral ambiguity. Correspondingly, Sickels’ prose loses its vibrancy. Vivid descriptions of both landscape and people give way to emotion-filled run-on sentences: “They stood in his grandparents’ room and golden light shone through the window and Ruby went over to the small oak desk his grandfather had built many years ago and she touched the surface and remembered him and Cole could still see the old man as well.”
Notwithstanding these downfalls, Sickels’ commitment to rural West Virginia and its people carries the story through its end. Near the novel’s conclusion, Sickels writes, “All around [Cole] the wilderness sang, the old people sang and God sang. The memory of the place was deep inside of him.” Despite stalled moments and struggles, despite the ravages of mining and social ills, Cole—and The Evening Hour—remains rooted in the land.
Susan Thurston is a writer of prose, poetry, and fiction. Her work has been published in numerous publications and anthologies and featured on “The Writer’s Almanac.” Her novel “Sister of Grendel” is forthcoming in July. She recently assumed the mantel of publisher of The Black Hat Press, and lives with her family in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Lori A. May writes across the genres, edits, teaches, and travels as a frequent guest speaker–all the while drinking copious amounts of coffee. You’ll find her work in print and online with The Writer, Writer’s Digest, Passages North, Brevity, and Phoebe. She’s a regular reviewer for publications including Los Angeles Review, Rattle, New Orleans Review, and Northern Poetry Review. She writes books, too.
Julie Swarstad Johnson, a poet and native of Arizona, received her MFA from Penn State in 2013. Her writing centers on the natural world, naming, and collective memory. Her master’s thesis, a collection of poetry titled Pennsylvania Furnace, explores the legacies of the 19th-century iron industry that shaped the landscape of central Pennsylvania. She has published reviews with NewPages and Rain Taxi Review of Books Online.