Friday, May 30, 2014

Aaron's Leap

(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site. The publisher very generously provided me with a copy of this novel.)

Aaron's Leap, Magdaléna Platzová
Read: 11 to 18 May 2014
5 / 5 stars

Magdaléna Platzová's Aaron's Leap is a powerful, sobering meditation on both the human condition and the nurturing of the artistic soul that closes the distance between far-flung eras, absent friends, and seemingly unrelated histories of people and places alike--all of which demonstrate a unifying power akin to a ripple effect in time.

The narrative bounds across decades to explore a modern-day Israeli film crew's efforts to produce a documentary about the early- to mid-1900s life and art of Berta Altmann. Berta gets her own voice and story throughout the book, revealing intimate details about her that no retrospective examination of the conflicted woman could ever hope to replicate--a limitation that Berta's friend and fellow artist, Krystýna Hládková, is keenly aware of, coaxing her toward filmed interviews in the hopes of adding crucial dimension to what she sees as a detachedly historical film. Krystýna's granddaughter Milena tags along as a translator and soon finds herself romantically though confusingly entangled with the crew's cameraman, the titular Aaron, and the two add their own interconnected threads to the book's tapestry of inevitable connections.

Aaron's Leap is not just one character's story but it is bound by one idea: the necessity of art. The crucial role art plays in society and the artists' need to create form the backbone of the novel, with the characters' stories serving the central thesis to varying degrees. Aaron throws himself into his work, almost talking himself out of his feelings for Milena by convincing himself that she would be a distraction from the career to which he's devoted himself; Berta practically tortures herself to produce art that satisfies her, railing against her own impulses to fit a mold that isn't true to her own avenue of expression; Krystýna, primarily appearing as an elderly woman whose final days are upon her, destroys some of the uglier vestiges of her past and throws most of her efforts into detailing the Berta she knew in the hopes of leaving behind images both of herself that her son can peacefully live with after she's gone and of the Berta she knew and loved that would otherwise die with her.

The conflict between artists' utterly devoted, almost childlike tunnel-visioned regard for the work driving them and the cold imperatives of adult responsibility emerges as a recurring theme, emphasizing the frustrations that arise from trying to strike a realistic balance between the two. Berta is the best encapsulation of this, from witnessing a professor's descent into seeming madness in order to live in unbridled servitude to his art to trying to find her own harmonious allocations of energy. She responds to an interrogation regarding the openly communist ideals she has cultivated by explaining "We don't want to destroy... We want everyone to have enough food and heat, so they don't have to choose between working for money and working for the soul" and crying out in her diary entries with existential crises like "Must one really work and scrape by only for oneself to be able to create something? Must one be self-centered?"

The seemingly self-serving nature of the artist is a frequent concern for Berta, who is routinely described as a warm, magnetic and wholly selfless woman. A therapist suggests that growing up without a mother and with a father who couldn't give her the attention she needs left the adult Berta craving love and unwilling to impose upon others, which ultimately reconciles her artistic confidence with the ostensibly incompatible self-doubt plaguing her personal life. Berta is so worried that she doesn't give enough of herself to others and saves her best parts for her art that it's not until two days before she and her husband are sent to the Terezín concentration camp that she finally realizes she has sabotaged herself, confessing that "the balance of almost forty-two years" is that she has "accomplished nothing as an artist." Neither Berta nor anyone else directly pose the question, but it is this slap of clarity that asks whether it is more selfish to live for one's art or to be so devoted to others in the finite present that it compromises one's intended legacy as a canonical powerhouse, inadvertently diminishing the enjoyment of others in the far more expansive future. When Krystýna correctly observes that Berta was only able to give herself to others through her talents in Terezín by offering art lessons to the children imprisoned with her--and, therefore, giving them some shred of normalcy during a hellish obliteration of the childlike innocence she understood so well--it is one of the book's most piercing, tragic revelations about an otherwise strong woman whose unearned sense of guilty obligation to others was her undoing.

Platzová expertly illustrates the connectivity of the past, present and future, as well as the influences such chains of events impose on the widening spiral of time. It is not only Berta's living past and current memory that unite strangers and places but also the shifting times that she witnessed that drive this point home with a poignancy. The artists comprising the company she kept as a young woman regard themselves as midwives ushering in a new era on the ashes of the old in an "attempt to remold human life and its industrially produced elements into an artistic work." There can be no new worlds created without nurturing a dissatisfaction with the old, and a willingness to sit by dispassionately in uncertain times of flux between the two is to suffer a living death.

Likewise, stagnation arises from sidestepping opportunity one too many times, as the chances to become the person that one's talent mandate they should be are not a limitless resource. While it took Berta nearly her entire life to keep her short-term needs from obscuring her long-term goals, there is a chance that Aaron will not make the same mistake and, in fact, take the leap that will lead him to the sublime fulfillment that life is waiting for him to embrace.

Monday, May 19, 2014

"Elegantly Naked in My Sexy Mental Illness" virtual book tour

Heather Fowler’s fourth collection of fiction speaks the language of need. Desperate, obsessive, even demented need—both emotional and erotic—is voiced by characters ill or ill-advised. From cyber to stalker, illicit, explicit, tender and tedious, the relationships in Elegantly Naked in My Sexy Mental Illness translate love and lust into disorder. How we hear our own need and the way it sounds to others proves in these enthralling stories an imperfect but utterly captivating conversation, a destructive yet dynamic discourse between well-being and disease, images and words.

You can purchase Heather’s book here.

Top Ten List!

Interesting Things the Characters Do in Elegantly Naked in My Sexy Mental Illness

1. Star, socialite. Has casual sex then commits randomly destructive acts.

2. Lisa, beleaguered office worker. Fantasizes about being brutalized and murdered by office love interest Howard Sun, and then is mildly pissed off when he shows up in person and interrupts her morbid daydream.

3. Myles, university professor. Designs a "pool-stay" he straps himself into to swim in place, too lazy for monitoring head-bonking into walls. Fetishizes burlap dolls.

4. Tatiana. Makes up alternate histories for her mother in the final stages of delusional bubonic plague.

5. Treble Ann, rural pugilist. Beats a man to death and then boxes is ears with a prosthetic leg he stole from a girl in a barn.

6. Susan, young sister of a bi-polar depressive. Pre-plans remarks about her older sister's eventual suicide, years in advance.

7. Brianne, career woman. Flings every kitchen knife she owns out her Manhattan window—then  goes down to retrieve these to throw them again.

8. Terry, fired businessman. Walks down the street in a black Speedo and his wife's make-up, a tiger, just before biting a cop.

9. Neighborhood child. Defecates in the front yard of the main family because the little girls who live there told him to do so. His parents must come to retrieve it.

10. Michelle, caretaker for the elderly. Burns down the house of a dead woman who tormented her for months—feels no remorse and freaks out her own therapist.

Heather Fowler is the author of the story collections Elegantly Naked in My Sexy Mental Illness; This Time, While We're Awake; People with Holes; and Suspended Heart. Fowler’s work was named a 2012 finalist for Foreword Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction. She received her M.A. in English and Creative Writing from Hollins University. Her stories and poems have appeared in: PANK, Night Train, storyglossia, Surreal South, Feminist Studies, The Nervous Breakdown, and others. Please visit her website:

Thursday, May 15, 2014


Cosmicomics, Italo Calvino
Read: 25 to 28 February 2013
5 / 5 stars

Calvino opened this beautiful little collection with "The Distance of the Moon," a tale from the days when the lunar landscape could be reached with nothing more than a ladder and some well-timed gymnastics, so it struck me as appropriate that I began reading Cosmicomics on the night of a full moon.

I had its richly resonant first two stories running through my head while driving home from work that evening. The first half of my commute is a journey illuminated by the artificial lights of both commerce and my fellow impatient motorists before giving way to a monotonous stretch of interstate road, offering precious few spots of gap-toothed skyline that allow the evening sky to break through; one of these infrequent openings offered a glimpse of the looming, swollen moon. The distortion of a full lunar sphere just beginning its ascent, an engorged orb hanging so low and heavy that she could pass for the grandest part of the man-made horizon, is one of my favorite displays offered by my favorite celestial phenomenon: I’ve had a particular affinity for the full moon ever since I discovered that unusually well-lit nighttime walks were the most reliable antidote for my teenage moodiness. The optical illusion that makes a low moon loom gigantically renders a familiar sight unusual, and stealing a few glances of it during my daily trek home lent a tangibility to Calvino's story I wasn't expecting but didn't really surprise me. This would not be the first (and I sincerely doubt the last) time I couldn't help but apply Calvino's vision to a real-world occurrence.

These stories make the kind of sense that dreams do, in a way. While clearly mismatched words don’t rhyme upon waking as they do in nocturnal narratives and the person who represents a singular entity in sleep becomes an obviously symbolic amalgamation of strangers and forgotten friends once the dreamer is jarred into consciousness, the creation myths Calvino weaves into dazzling truths actually do hold up upon further examination, even if they do require the occasional suspension of disbelief; still, who’s to say the cosmos and the population that arose with it adhere to the same stringent reality we’ve come to accept?

While the formative years of the cosmic terrain -- the Earth and its lunar satellite included -- are decidedly alien in their lack of familiar concepts (just as our commonalities were novel then: "You understand? It was the first time. There had never been things to play with before. And how could we have played? With that pap of gaseous matter?"), the inhabitants' stumbling confusion about what's going on but solid certainty that whatever's happening is important didn't require a leap of imagination to understand. Calvino imbued his cast of nonhuman characters with decidedly human curiosity and incredibly human failings, which helps to ground an otherwise ethereal collection of interweaving tales in achingly relatable terms.

What struck me most about this book is how actively shameful impulses have shaped and driven self-aware creatures since, quite literally, there have been self-aware beings in a position to affect their environment. Those jealousies, those prejudices, and most of all those proud insecurities were allowed to reach a boiling point and bubbled into the external world. The effects weren't always catastrophic but they did leave lasting marks on the nascent universe. To consider that the universe as we know it (what we know of it, anyway) was crafted neither by a happy, scientifically explained accident nor the whim of just but avuncular deities, but rather some ordinary guy's selfish motives and a need to leave a cosmic "I wuz here" smear of existential proof is a perspective shift worth mulling over.

I still maintain that this is perfection in 153 pages. My second encounter with Calvino was just as fortuitous and spilled off the page into real life just as much as my first -- so much, in fact, that I bought another one of this books almost immediately upon finishing this one because I just want to glut myself on Calvino's unequaled prose. Simply, the man reminds me of what a magical experience a good book is and why reading has been one of my favorite pastimes for as long as it has. This is a quick read that demands the reader to pace him/herself to properly dwell on the densely packed splendor within.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Books + food = A downright enjoyable introduction to 30

(The Old Book Shop of Bordentown, Bordentown, NJ)

My husband asked how I wanted to spend my 30th birthday. I said that I wanted to browse a used-book store and nosh on tasty foodstuffs. The spoils of the former demand are above (that's some Camus second from the bottom, or my excuse for using the phrase "Camusement park" as often as I could shoehorn it however irrelevantly into conversation); the feast we enjoyed is below. All in all, it was a damn fine way to usher in a decade I wasn't entirely crazy about welcoming into my life.

(The Chicken or the Egg, Beach Haven, NJ)

Thursday, May 8, 2014

"We, Monsters" virtual book tour

Zarina Zabrisky, author of the novel We, Monsters (2014, Numina Press), shares a bit about the importance of food—what’s being eaten and why—during her visit at “Books, With Occasional Food.” Check out other aspects of the novel—including psychology, sex, her perspective on women writing, and a read sample of the novel at the first stop—on the rest of her virtual book tour.

Synopsis of Novel: A wife and mother searches the internet for a job as a dominatrix. She needs the experience; it’s research for a book she’s writing about her dead sister. Taking the name Mistress Rose, she learns the darkest desires of the human psyche while slowly doubting her own perception of reality. Rose’s manuscript ends up in the hands of clinical psychologist Dr. Michael H. Strong, who adds footnotes in which he analyzes Mistress Rose’s behaviors and undoing.  

Food and We, Monsters with Zarina: Rose may be living in California now, but she is from Ukraine. As a result, the food that appears in the book is an indicator of Rose’s state-of-mind. When she is more peaceful, she creates dishes from her native country for her family. When she is frantic, she resorts to frozen pizzas haphazardly thrown in the oven.

The first love we receive is food. To quote Dr. Michael H. Strong of We, Monsters (who is quoting Freud): "Love and hunger meet at mother's breast." Or at mother's kitchen table. By feeding her kids borscht and vareniki—purse-shaped Ukrainian dumplings—Rose connects to her mother/grandmother and to her children. Like Proust's madeleine, her borscht is not just food, a scarlet-hued soup of beet roots and green onions. It is magic infused with memories of her grandmother's kitchen, sultry summers in Odessa, life still full of colors, tastes, textures and hopes. She loves her kids through food. When she is detached, food speaks nothing of her or to her.

Rose grew up on Ukrainian, Russian and Jewish cuisine fusion. Since she is suffering from disassociating and identity issues, being grounded is the matter of survival to her. Cooking (with its aromas, rich sensations, and memory triggers) and eating (with the physical, and, often, sensual and erotic acts of biting, licking, chewing and swallowing) provide the way to connect to her body. The heavy bliss of hot borscht and creamy Fantasy cake cut deep into the bone marrow, dig out the memory of the flesh and bring Rose back to her core. Food becomes self-medication, a substitute for all things lost: mother, motherland, and the sense of belonging.

I once had a heated dispute with a Russian-speaking taxi driver: he said there was no pistachio ice cream in the Soviet Union. I remembered eating it. He almost threw me out of his cab, he got so angry. Later, I spoke to a few friends, and everyone had a different opinion and stood by their guns with the vehemence and ardor of religious fanatics. I then recognized that the ice-cream itself didn't matter. It was a phantom of our lost country. And a symbol. We all lost a lot, left our memories behind in search of a new foreign future. Memories are like dreams: elusive, bittersweet, unreliable, and full of meaning. People fight for their dreams and their memories. Nostalgia hides behind the rows of canned anchovies, rolls of blood kielbasa, and jars of raspberry jam.

In her fabulous essay about "Babbette's Feast," Esther Rashkin gives a thought-provoking and illuminating analysis of mourning through cooking. I really recommend this essay to all readers interested in the psychology and food. The essay is a part of one of the best modern books on psychology and culture book I have read, Unspeakable Secrets of Psychoanalysis of Culture. I lived in the Soviet Union and I am not proud of it. My favorite dishes are international: I prefer Georgian cuisine to Russian, and Ukrainian and Armenian dishes are amazing, too. My absolute winner is khachapuri, a Georgian cheese pie—divine, flaky, golden pies oozing with melted cheese. I can't cook it. It is magic. Look it up, maybe. My family dishes come without recipes. I am convinced that real Russian blinis or kasha cannot be cooked following traditional recipes and rules. I did write a poem that starts "Do not measure your love," after all.

Listen to Zarina talk more about her relationship with food and place in this very short clip.

Purchase We, Monsters here.

Zarina Zabrisky is the author of short story collections IRON (2012, Epic Rites Press), A CUTE TOMBSTONE (2013, Epic Rites Press), a novel We, Monsters (2014, Numina Press), and a book of poetry co-authored with Simon Rogghe (forthcoming in 2014 from Numina Press). Zabrisky started to write at six. She earned her MFA from St. Petersburg University, Russia, and wrote while traveling around the world as a street artist, translator, and a kickboxing instructor. Her work appeared in over thirty literary magazines and anthologies in the US, UK, Canada, Ireland, Hong Kong, and Nepal. A three-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a recipient of 2013 Acker Award for Achievement in The Avant Garde, Zabrisky is also known for her experimental Word and Music Fusion performances.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, Anne Fadiman
Read: 1 June to 2 June 2013
4.5 / 5 stars

If you'll excuse what I know has to sound like a weak attempt at an obvious pun, I find that books are easier to read than people. I summon far less effort to read a page than a face, a chapter than mixed body language: Even the subtext and allusions and metaphors are all naught but new takes on old tricks, and the most elusive hidden messages are often buried no deeper than a careful reexamination of text laid bare with a willingness most people eschew in the name of self-preservation and tactful modesty. Besides, I'm far (far, far, faaaar) more apt to dislike a person than a book, so why not be better acquainted with the entity that's more likely to strike me as pleasing?

Having encountered hundreds of agreeable books by now, I can tell when one is poised to bound across the threshold between casual acquaintance and trusted friend. Because no two books, in a rare display of commonality with us moodier mortals, share the same personality, the one variable is when the deepening of our relationship will become apparent -- will we know by the time the last word hits us like a too-soon au revoir or will we realize that our meeting was fated for roaring success before I've even turned the first page?

Ex Libris and I were destined for each other. I knew this to be an undeniable truth simply from a mutual friend's appropriately glowing review that gave rise to the heartening pang reserved for the flash of recognition in spotting a kindred spirit from a distance that may be easily conquered but lengthened intolerably by the inconvenient fact that we'd not been properly introduced yet. Like a friend insisting that I ought to meet this person they just know with whom I'll enjoy an easy rapport, I sought the aforementioned book's companionship immediately, knowing it would be one of those rare times reality and fantasy sung in pitch-perfect harmony. Anne Fadiman's collection of essays culled from a lifetime of bibliomania and I, in truth, needed no introduction once our eyes locked in a Barnes & Noble: We knew that we were about the enjoy the rare bliss of a fast friendship and flowing conversation buoyed by quiet but doggedly personality-defining quirks.

Forgoing the polite formalities of aimless small talk that I've never had any use for, we quickly discovered our kinship by way of unabashed conversation girded with the intimate admissions that are usually divulged to the friends whose loyalty was built on years of shared experiences: Ours was a love at first sight that is usually only relegated to the fictions we both treasure as though they are the pillars upon which our own personal histories rest (and, really, they decidedly do).

We found instantaneous common ground by confiding early on that we both regarded it as a monumental moment, indeed -- with an eye cast far more optimistically toward the future than a mere marriage proposal, infinitely more demonstrative of a trust we'd only felt for one person that we proclaimed it before a roomful of witnesses, embracing a humbling but welcome vulnerability light years beyond that first appearance of the two-backed beast -- when we allowed the person we've vowed to love and support until both of our bodies have expired to combine their personal libraries with our own lovingly tended but fiercely guarded treasure trove of tomes, that to allow such a commingling of the closest we'll ever come to an outward manifestation of our personalities' truest forms with another's is the very definition of the hard-won but popularly cliched and carelessly bandied-about designation of "soulmate."

As we freely offered each other the pieces of ourselves we usually sheltered beneath layers of protective trivia and adopted personae, sitting forehead-to-forehead as hours melted away like minutes during our sometimes tittering, sometimes somber but always generously peppered with earnest, animated outbursts of "I know exactly what you mean! I thought I was the only one!" conversation, we unearthed more and more gold nuggets of shared insights and experiences: rampant logophilia; an incorrigible but well-intentioned need to proofread everything made of words; the ongoing struggle against but secret thrill of one's living space looking less like a home and more like a used bookstore (which, really, is the only other place we're truly ourselves, anyway); the pleasure of carnally loving a book to the extent that its spine is permanently bent and its marginalia is such an imprint of the self that the very idea of letting someone else borrow it requires tapping into some inner peace to get over the anxiety akin to letting someone rifle through your diary with dirty fingers and malicious intent; the unavoidable comparison between a decadent meal and a five-course book and the primitive, multi-sensory satiation that accompany both.

Alas, all good things must come to an end and, as we blinked with disbelief into the light of a new day, we realized that our electrifying and animated first meeting was rushing toward its inevitable denouement. And I realized that the jealousies I'd brushed aside in the eager pursuit of getting to know this marvelous new ally with whom I shared multitudinous proclivities and compulsions were now a spreading stain that unfairly marred our enchanted first encounter, which is a personal failing that should say terrible things about me and should not, at all, be held against this exuberant and eloquent little book (but is what keeps it from being a five-star read for purely selfish reasons -- I assume, with the heavy-handed clarity of hindsight, that Ex Libris is dressed in green to warn me how deeply I'd envy anyone whose childhood was a warmly nurturing word nerd's dream and a booklover's haven). I know we'll meet again and, that when we do, my pettiness will have long ago been overshadowed by fond memories of a soul-baring heart-to-heart that is worth the dozens of instances of painfully insipid chatter I suffered through to find it.