The Not So Wild Girls

Ana Garcia expresses disappointment about “not so wild girls” in Mary Stewart Atwell’s recent novel, Wild Girls.

Mary Stewart Atwell. Wild Girls.  2012. 273 pages. $17.84. ISBN: 978145168327.

Mary Stewart Atwell has left behind her usual short stories to write her first novel, Wild Girls. In this novel, Swan River County has nothing to offer for Kate Riordan to stay after graduation: all she wants is to flee from her dysfunctional family, her good-for-nothing friends, broken relationships with a couple of boys, and what she’s most afraid of—the wild girls.

Some people consider them a legend, characters from superstitious stories, but Kate knows better: teenage girls suddenly go mad, as if possessed, and destroy everything in their path, from buildings to lives, committing the most atrocious murders. Kate refuses to become one of them, doing everything in her power to avoid getting stuck in Swan River for the rest of her life as all the surviving wild girls do when they return to their normal selves. Even when Kate tries to avoid becoming a wild girl, one frustrating thing about these mysterious beings is that nobody knows the reason why they turn into serial killers or how to avoid it. At the beginning of the story, Kate witnesses the transformation of a wild girl, and, from that moment, the reader’s perspective changes.

“He prowled among them, and Rosa reached out to caress his shoulder. As if on cue, they circled him, their black robes hiding him from sight. I hears one scream, guttural and rattling, as if he were choking. The wild girls were screaming too, and streams of blood blackened by moonlight ran from under their robes spilling over the edge of the stage.” (Wild Girls, pg. 242)

Atwell does a great job of show-don’t-tell, making the reading flow easily for us and drawing us in to continue the reading. The flaws, wants, needs, and characters’ personalities are very unique, making the story unpredictable and therefore making it even more interesting to read. Even though it’s a story about a teenager with all her friend/boyfriend/family problems, Atwell doesn’t make her problems fall into clichés but transforms them into bigger problems that put Kate in danger.

As gripping as it sounds, as one goes through the pages, the idea and concern about the wild girls gets lost because we don’t hear from them as often as we would expect. Well, nicely played Mary Atwell, because she let our guard down and then we have this spectacularly macabre twist of events that make your hands shake while reading. As I read, I found that the perspective I had of this story before I started reading it changed. It sounded like an exciting thriller about girls going wild and the role of a teenager trying to avoid joining them. It turned out to be a powerful story, but maybe one missing the nail-biting suspense of the best thrillers. Wild Girls is indeed a unique story, with original characters and a very good plot, undoubtedly making it a worthy read.

 

A Part Time Midwesterner’s Perspective of Robinson Alone

Erin Breen uses her geographic perspective to review Kathleen Rooney’s poetry collection, Robinson Alone.

Kathleen Rooney. Robinson Alone. Gold Wake Press. 2012. 132 pages. $12.95. ISBN: 9780983700142.

Kathleen Rooney’s Robinson Alone is a collection of short poems that tell the tale of Robinson, a man based off a character in Weldon Kees’ poem “Robinson,” a poem which describes a man’s dog observing his master’s house once “Robinson has gone.” Following the character Kees created to a tee, Rooney takes us through Robinson’s life from his “middlewest” beginning to his stints in New York, California, and various road trips throughout the United States. Rooney brings to life Kees’ character from “Robinson” and gives him a life that is so real it can be easy to forget that Robinson is not a real person.

Coming from the “middlewest” myself, I could understand Robinson’s intense desire to leave the place exhibited in the poem “Robinson’s Hometown.” In this poem Robinson retained his desire to return to his hometown once he left, a sentiment I found to be incredibly accurate. As my history teacher once said, “The Midwest is the kind of place you miss.” Of course, Robinson would have his moment of exultation once outside the limits of his small town, but regardless of who you are or what your personality, the Midwest will creep its way back into your thoughts, leaving a melancholy that I found in Rooney’s book. It is easy to show one’s desire to leave. It is much harder to ingrain in a piece an inexplicable longing for an escaped hometown.

After Robinson’s move to New York City, the best characterization of the Midwest’s pull is when in “Robinson’s Parents Have Come to the City for a Visit” Robinson’s parents visit and “Bells in the tower of the church next door bellow the hour./The Our Father pops into his head unbidden; he’s not a pray-er.” The repercussions of his parents’ visit can be seen immediately after the visit in the following poem, “Robinson Sends a Letter to Someone.” Robinson takes a break from the city. We can see Robinson grappling with his desire to both be away from and return home in lines like, “Robinson/desires-& tires of-the semi-/constant public performance/required,” “Late of NYC, he’s really/from the late Great Plains, the great/American desert, the sea of grass/that has no real sea,” and, even in one of the final poems, “Out West,/in the hinterlands, no one/ever walks. But after work,/Robinson’s a one-man parade.”

Rooney did such a good job of capturing this unattainable sentiment that her Robinson immediately resonated with me, and it was not until writing this review that I knew why. This collection is perfect for anyone born of the Midwest, though I doubt coasters could fully understand the sentiments, having not grown up in the distinct salt-of-the-earth, bread basket culture that is hard to pin down and entirely unique to the American Midwest. Robinson’s story is both ordinary and vastly intriguing, one that everyone should discover.

 

Psychological Examinations for the Existentialists

Isaac Dwyer peers around Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi’s Fra Keeler, and finds a whole lot of neuroses, pomegranates, and manila folders.

Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi. Fra Keeler. St. Louis, MO. 2012. 128 Pages. $16. ISBN 978-0-984463-4-5

To be weird. To be confused. To drown in the dreamy, the disconnect, the anxiety. To be caught. To be introverted and obsessive, compulsive and circulatory, rambling, dark. These are the tools of this era’s writer, these are the goals, the endgames, the means, the powerhouse for all hyper-microscopic  psychological examinations. Post-modernism, existentialism, what have you: this is how today’s writer can get into your skull, dig around for a few hours, and either turn you into something new or atomize your entire existence.

This is where you will find Fra Keeler.

A man moves into a house previously inhabited by the mysterious Fra Keeler, and begins to investigate the circumstances of his death, for no other reason asides from the fact that our narrator happened to have purchased Keeler’s house. In the process, he gets so wrapped up in his own mind and pseudo-surrealist rants that it becomes a dialogue of OCD introspection coupled with pleasant, though wasted, uses of delightfully musical words such as “humdrum.”

The best way to describe the narrator is neurotic. A passage:

“When I bent down to stack the papers, I thought the sensation I had had in my brain earlier was the same sensation I had once felt when I shook a pomegranate near my ear […] it had made the same sound as the sound my blood made when it swiveled in my brain, and that both sounds led to the same sensation of having something dissolved where it shouldn’t have[…]”.

Such an examination has its place, for sure, and certainly there is a style of writing that employs sections well. One example of this is Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory, where the narrator takes extreme care in describing the object that is the namesake of the book – a device that sends wasps spiraling to their deaths, varying from drowning in urine to combustion. But, alas, this is not the case for Fra Keeler, for, to put it simply, the subject matter just isn’t wacky enough. The neuroses comes in empty-handed and aimless, like the babblings a schizophrenic makes to a lamp post about what she had for breakfast. Being disoriented can only carry a plot (or the reader’s interest) so far.

In Fra Keeler, Van Der Vliet Oloomi also has the tendency to brush by subjects of intrigue, such as the nature of death and its importance to the human condition, with blasé importance but no indulgence. The voice carries with it the alienated observations of Camus’s Mersault in The Stranger, saying things such as “The phone rang persistently. I let it ring a few times. Imagine, I thought, the possibilities on the other end.” – but, much to its detriment, masks all potential importance with mindlessness. All potential whimsy is dry and falls flat, like the icing on a grocery store cupcake: “What madness is this, I thought, when I awoke in the midst of the woods. Not the woods per se, but the trees at the far end of the garden. Everything looks larger when you are looking at it from the bottom up.”

Although it toes the pleasant border between enchantment and post-modernism, a spot that allows for mind-blowing observations and emotional investigations, Fra Keeler is unable to do either, because it refuses to touch down to focused human sensitivity. Van Der Vliet Oloomi, however, appears to possess the skill necessary for deep introspection. Perhaps, a future novel is to be looked forward to.

Early Judgments

Clint Margrave’s The Early Death of Men will die on you early – if you’re expecting something filled with skulls.

Clint Margrave. The Early Death of Men. New York, NY. 2012. 96 pages. $14.95. ISBN 978-1-935520-60-3

Cover art is in interesting thing: we see it and it calls to us, pulling our sweaty palms to the spines of dusty books – or, it makes us violently avert our eyes and wish we’d never caught a glimpse of it. When I first saw the dark drawings of scapulae and vertebrae on Clint Margrave’s latest collection of poems, my sweaty hands were magnetized to its flesh. I believed I was about to bite into a piece of epic, morbid, and perhaps even gothic humanism. In, they are poems of the existential, poems of wisdom gained, of innate humor in dark situations. They are poems of philosophy, nostalgia, of recklessness. Not quite what I was expecting – but of course, I shan’t blame the author for not succeeding at something he wasn’t trying to do. Instead, I shall examine the part that actually matters the most about the book (i.e. not the cover) – the text. A poem’s title:

“The Role of Art”

Quite a noble topic to attempt to tackle in a poem, indeed. One that, after the Enlightenment period and the coming of self-awareness in Western society and thought, that became a topic of debate in many a French salon and thoughtful letter among the edified aristocracy. Surely though, since the topic is so heavily trodden, we should expect Margrave to provide an interesting twist, a new angle. Some lines:

“Like all who tell the truth,/ Art has few patrons,/is always offending somebody./Art is solitary,/rebellious/abstract./It is not communal./And when embraced too fully,/has a tendency/to crash things down.”

Alright. Here are some ideas on this grand topic, and yet I am left asking – where is the power behind these statements? They are constructed like those in a philosophical essay, and lack the spark that is required of a poem: the ability to revitalize what has been said by saying it in a way that can’t be said. The ability to make me, the reader (or listener) have shivers rocket down their spine with the knowledge that they have heard something carrying an undeniable truth. These statements saying things like “Art is an outcast/whose only role/is to protect its value” leave me not with a feeling that I have received a truth, but instead feeling discontent. If the function of this poem was to change or enlighten my perspective as to the role of art, it was not successful.

It can be said that the difference between a novel and a poem is that a novel opens the door to your home (with your good graces) and moves in with all of its stuff – furniture, un-nameable musical instruments, and psychological disorders – and camps out in your living room for a few months. A poem, on the other hand, opens your door without knocking, screams something profound in its haggard and tired voice, and slams the door closed again, perhaps knocking a few priceless artifacts off of your wall while doing so.

And thus, I have more difficulties as I encounter another of Margrave’s poems, Exposed:

“His last night at the hospital,/my dying father was in no condition/to change himself./The nurse and I slipped his pants down,/and for the first time,/I saw he wasn’t circumcised.”

Sure enough, this seemingly autobiographical story holds within it plenty of leads – the one that Margrave chooses is one wherein he speaks that the differences between the Voice and the Father goes beyond the internal, but to the external as well. It’s a perfectly plausible avenue, but one that is executed with such blundering imprecision that I found myself scratching my head after reading it, thinking to myself, “is that really it? Why is this a poem and not a personal essay?” Sure, plainly written, everyman-style poetry has a solid place in literature – Andrea Gibson, with her raw content that screams through a megaphone, even in the dark corners of a university library, is proof of that. But, that’s because she’s effective in extracting all of the emotion out of a thought without delving into contrived similes and cliché literary devices, so the sound of spoken language streamlines the emotion as it would in a tear-jerking argument. In Exposed, Margrave fails to make use of the tools and freedom the poetic form provides to elaborate upon his desired effect, or to compact enough emotion into its lines for me to rationalize its minimal length. I want the real story. I want the background. I want emotional history. I want to feel empathy for the Voice. As a reader, I feel denied of it.

The Early Death of Men is a collection of poetry caught in its fetal stages somewhere between non-fiction essays and everyman poetry, with as much precision as a jackhammer trying to perform neurosurgery. Ignore it, and instead scour and search for some literature that will truly shake, dismantle, and empower you.

 

 

Toddlers, Coloring Books, and Tiaras

Rebecca Cox confronts gender roles with her younger brother over Jacinta Bunnell’s coloring book.

Jacinta Bunnell. Sometimes the Spoon Runs Away with Another Spoon. Oakland, CA. 2010. ISBN 978-1604863291
Sometimes the Spoon Runs Away with Another Spoon

Recently, a family member was confronted with an odd request for a niece’s Christmas gift. The constraint, though she felt it was completely warranted, eliminated most popular toys, books, and movies. Her sister-in-law had asked that she purchase a gift that was, “genderless.” Having recently looked through the pages of the coloring book Sometimes the Spoon Runs Away with Another Spoon, a book written by Jacinta Bunnell with the intention of providing parents with a vehicle with which they may discourage the establishment of gender roles among young children, I suggested the book as a gift for her niece. Realizing that most of the content would be lost on the three-year-old child, I decided to experiment with my slightly older four-year-old brother, Mark.

Sitting cross-legged in the center of my living room with the sound of Modern Warfare Three humming in the back round, I removed the coloring book from my bag. Enamored with the sound of guns and falling helicopters, Mark did not at first seem interested in the book. I asked him if he wanted a present, then handed him the pink and purple covered activity. He did not immediately dismiss it, but asked me who the people on the cover were. We began to flip the pages and he laughed at the silly illustrations of dancing monsters. I found a page I thought was fitting, captioned with, “Enough war, tonight we dance,” and asked Mark what was happening in the drawing. He immediately said, “He has a sword,” ignoring the disco ball and the boy with a large afro.

Watching as he flipped through the pages of the book, laughing at the odd depictions of princes and monsters, I realized that Mark had a few of his fingernails painted. I asked him why he painted his nails, to which he responded, “Because I wanted them to be pretty.” My brother has been raised in quite a conservative household; it was odd to me that my father should allow him to paint his nails. I had often heard my father say to him, “Mark, those are for girls,” in response to his asking for certain items like heeled shoes. From this experience with Mark I came to the conclusion that I do agree with the author that gender roles are forced upon children, but the book’s implication that children fall into those roles only when influenced I must disagree with.

Accompanying the many hilarious illustrations is a page of questions which many adults may have some difficulty answering. This book is taking a step forward by exposing children to images of both boys and girls engaging in interesting and genderless activities, though I feel it was ineffective in its purpose do to the fact that children confronted with the book would not understand the message. This book takes on a relevant topic. Jacinta Bunnell has raised questions that I do not usually think about. This book could be a great tool in the fight against disempowering gender rules.