Savage City: A Review

Anyone looking at the current state of affairs in the US–the violence, racism, poverty, and corruption–will ask, How did we get here? The answer presented in Donald Levin’s Savage City is that we’ve always been here.

Levin takes the reader to Detroit in the Spring of 1932. The Great Depression is in full swing, as is the Great Migration. Competing forces in organized crime–the Purple Gang, the Sicilian mob–are vying for control of the city’s vice economy. The Black Legion, a white nationalist spinoff of the Klu Klux Klan, is intent upon taking the country back from Blacks, Jews, and Communists. On March 7, 1932, in a hunger march from Detroit to the Ford Rouge plant, demonstrators will be met by armed goons and police, led by Harry Bennett, Henry Ford’s enforcer. There’s plenty of death in the streets of this novel.

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Divine Aphasia: A review

In 1973 Clifford Geertz introduced the term “thick description” to ethnographic studies, recognizing that “culture is a knotty and often mysterious thing, made up of layers upon layers of intertwined symbols and signs.” The researcher produces detail-rich accounts of his or her research, identifies patterns and relationships and contexts for meaning.  

It is this penetrating cast of mind that Nancy Owen Nelson brings to her memoir, Divine Aphasia, a detail-rich memoir that, at its heart, is about patterns, relationships, and contexts of meaning.  I would also liken her work in this book to an archeological dig, as she searches and asserts the meaning of her lived experience over the past decades.

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A review of Deer Season

What happened to Peggy Ahern? This question arises early in Erin Flanagan’s new novel Deer Season and captivates the community of Gunnthrum, Nebraska, the small farm town where this story takes place.  Bored and rebellious, with dreams of the big world beyond Gunnthrum, the high school senior regularly sneaks out of the house at night to join the revels up at Castle Farm, a rundown farmhouse where booze and drugs and sex provide young locals with an escape. One night Peggy doesn’t come home. 

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A review of Seven Springs

In her new memoir Seven Springs Ellen Blum Barish explores big questions about what makes a life. She does so in two compelling narrative threads: one examining a car accident that occurred when she was a girl, and the aftermath of that experience; the other delving into the underpinnings of her faith life, and how that faith informs her relationships and her place in the world. 

Barish weaves these two threads together, taking the reader to the scene of the accident, to neighborhoods and locations where we meet friends and family, to class reunions and visits with her parents of over two decades. “I had come so close to the sharp edge of death,” she writes, without ever unpacking that experience. Over the years, what happened to her, to her friends, and how her family handled that scrape with death lies buried “under a blanket of quiet.” Similarly her curiosity about God is buried “under shame and fear.” 

This “psychospiritual-archeological dig,” as Barish calls it, reveals the usefulness of a faith tradition. Judaism as she comes to know it is practical. But come to know it she must. Her parents are not practicing Jews. As a child, when she asks her father if they believe in God, he tells her to go ask her mother. Her mother’s answer–she says she doesn’t know–leads Barish to a position of unbelief that lasts into her adulthood. 

When she becomes a mother, she engages the tradition. The fruit of that study informs this memoir. “Judaism,” Barish observes, “is by its very nature an ongoing conversation.” That conversation, which she joins and shares, enriches this absorbing story.

A review of Get Thee to a Bakery

Thank you, Liane Kupferberg Carter for this lovely review of Get Thee to a Bakery. An excerpt:

“Rick Bailey sounds like an ideal travel companion. He’s endlessly curious, astute, and hilarious. All these traits are on dazzling display in his new book, “Get Thee to a Bakery,” a delightful blend of memoir, travelogue and creative nonfiction. This is the perfect book for armchair travelers, which, thanks to the pandemic, most of us currently are. ”

Read the whole review here:

Spectrum of Flight, a review

Spectrum of Flight, David Hanlon’s new collection of poems, invites the reader to occupy an interior world—of pain, of struggle, of a search for a way to rise. These poems are intensely personal, some of them raw, many of them agonizing, as the speaker turns himself inside out, asking how a gay man can live in a straight world. Not just live in that world, but thrive, prevail, be free, be completely himself. Taken together these poems body forth a painful life story.

In roughly chronological in order, the over-arching narrative takes place in settings you might expect—in public and private places where identity takes shape: the home, the street, in classrooms and stores, where awareness of the body and desire gradually dawn on one. In the first poem of the collection a dead animal is the focus. The speaker, just seven or eight years old, sees a dead fox by the side of the road. Described as “the embodiment of abandon,” he sees himself in it: “because I too only came out in the dark,” “because I too had been gutted,” “because it was stillness after chaos.” In a poem entitled “Swimming Lessons” he is taunted, told he is gay. He writes, “they bully me / they think they know / the damage—they don’t.” In response the poet sounds a positive note in this poem, an expression of strength in the face of this adversity. He wonders “what they would say now / if I told them how lucky I feel / that I became / A strong swimmer.”

Early in the collection, early in this narrative of confusion and suffering, that positive note is a rare affirmation of self. More commonly the reader senses disintegration and struggle to forge an identity in the face persecution and derision.

In many of these poems predator images recur. The poet describes “lion-boys.” Here, for example: “the lion-boys think I run like a girl / I feel their clawed-grip tighten / tear my safety net to shreds.” In the poem “If only my body was made of stone” we hear a teenage boy described as a lion safe in his den, shouting from an upstairs window, “fucking gay boy.” Again and again, Hanlon’s sense of isolation is captured in a line like this: Them / in their maned coalition / boys / Them / in their feathered congregation / girls / Me / a neither.”

Hanlon’s prosody challenges the reader. There are poems with a flowing poetic line, sentences with syntactic completeness, that he pauses, interrupts with a slash. Here, for example:

I remember
being a teenager in that sportswear store with my younger brother /
too scared to ask / the sporty / muscle-manly assistant
for the Adidas cap I wanted / on the top shelf behind the counter /

And here, lines even more disrupted, from “Inhaling the Sky”:

Battered / weary-bodied
toothpick bones / clipped wings
alarm / flapping
unceasing mind-chatters
warm-buzz / anxious bees
fist pummel
collapsing into a ruinous truth

Then, as if to represent further the disjunction, the fracture of a self in a society that rejects him, Hanlon’s words appear on the page in a kaleidoscopic fashion, as something like shrapnel:

The violence in many of these poems is unrelieved. In the final poem, “Revive Yourself,” however, there is this positive note: “Remember,” Hanlon writes. Remember the pain, but remember too the possibility, “when you were a child / and you ran toward everything.”

It is an uplifting conclusion to this collection, suggesting flight not as fleeing from but as rising above.

Spectrum of Flight is published by Animal Heart Press.
It’s also available at Book Depository, Barnes and Noble, and other stores.
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