In John Popielaski’s The Hollow Middle (Unsolicited Press, 381 pages), forty-something Albert, an English teacher in a private school, longs to retreat from the human world. Early on, hungover, he looks out on a river and “waits for the compass needle to flutter less.” The answer, he senses, leads back to nature.
Albert’s wife Mary senses their childless marriage has been on some kind of border and, partly for that reason, develops an interest in adopting two ten-year old autistic boys, twins. Albert is drawn into the plan by the generous stipends the couple will receive for the boys’ care, money which can help fund his back-to-the-land dream. Additionally–in keeping with the novel having an ear toward environmental tampering–he receives funds from a settlement with the U.S. Government for his father’s cancerous death after working decades on a radiation tainted site. Continue reading
Newton’s collection of surreal stories, Seven Cries of Delight (Recital Publishing, 170 pages) was nominated by Brent Robison who, in his review, writes, “As legions of MFA students busily workshop their childhood drama into market-friendly ‘realistic’ fiction, Tom Newton has clearly been following a different muse.” At Dactyl Review we value unique and eccentric talent and our readers will find those few authors writing today who aren’t trying to appeal to the most common of those dominating the market. Newton appeals to a special literary taste, to those whose minds tend to wander, who question the act of thinking itself and who often catch themselves in the act, examining the form and structure of the process of meaning-making. In short, Newton writes about thought-art. Continue reading
Presented as a memoir of Captain John Smith, founder of Jamestown Colony, Virginia in 1607, The Weight of Smoke (McPherson & Co, 389 pages) is the work of a self-described antiquarian, rare books dealer whose imagination is stacked to the ceiling with historic archives and Elizabethan letters. With this volume of historical fiction, Minkoff truly does seem to inhabit the language of those times.
Smith’s narration has a reflexivity to it that radically alters the reader’s sense of time. Every line is both fraught with Smith’s rich backstory and, at the same time, is nervously peering into his bleak future. Such tricks with time are only possible in literary narrative. And it’s a reading experience that is mind-expanding. If his narration had a shape it would torus-like, perhaps, or arabesque, but definitely not linear. Continue reading
Mean Bastards Making Nice (Leaky Boot Press, 168 pages) is a slim volume from small UK publisher Leaky Boot Press. It contains two novellas related by theme and setting. It’s a thoroughly New York book, but that doesn’t mean stock Big Apple accents or tired tropes from TV. It means both city streets and upstate forests are simply there: as integral as the air the characters breathe.
To gloss the surface: “Book One: The Pain of Wearing Our Faces” introduces a painter, a composer, their shared alcoholism, and a mysterious woman who is a muse for both of them, but a dangerous one. “Book Two: Grace” follows a girl on the run from country to city, her discovery of her own warrior strength on the streets, and her profound impact on a few of the city’s art-world glitterati. Continue reading
I will avoid the absurdity of defending a National Book Award finalist; we can agree that the western can be literature. We have Larry McMurtry and Charles Portis to underline the point. The clean prose of News of the World (William Morrow, 224 pages) similarly explores universal themes of honor, purpose, age, and culture within a detailed period piece, allowing the conventions of bar fights and gunfights, natives and lawless towns, blacksmiths, willing ladies, and Mexican aristocracy to tell a fresh and compelling tale. Continue reading
Sea of Hooks (McPherson & Co) was nominated by Barbara Roether, author of This Earth You’ll Come Back To. In her review of Hill’s unusual novel, Roether writes,
There is a paradox that floats through the Sea of Hooks, which is that the experience of reading it is almost the opposite of how it is written. That is to say, while the story is told in its short collage-like segments, their effect is an almost seamless classical narrative. The way sections move from multiple perspectives, dreamtime, real-time, then meld together with such cohesive and penetrating storytelling, is a testament to the author’s insightful eye for detail and character.
Andrew’s Brain (Random House, 244 pages), by E. L. Doctorow, is the narrative of a brain whose content has been digitized, whose DNA code has been cracked, and which now resides in a vat or has been uploaded to a computer at some Bush-era detention or torture site, unaware that he is no longer embodied, believing himself to be telling his story to a therapist (who, Andrew suspects, may be CIA), sometimes imagining himself to be elsewhere, writing to or phoning his therapist, sometimes visiting his office, but never realizing that he, like any human perhaps, has no true self-awareness because a brain cannot objectively know itself. Continue reading
It starts in adolescence. The questions come to you while lying in bed (certainly now with a growing awareness of your sexuality), the walls of your room expanding into endless grainy darkness, as if the room itself could encompass the entire world: why am I here, why is there anything at all?
The questions may haunt you at age 13 or 15 or 17, but by adulthood they tend to feel banal. Unanswerable, impossible, if taken seriously debilitating, they are in a word blinding, and so you tend to avert your gaze. But suppose you can’t, suppose the inviolable white light only draws you closer, to madness possibly, to paint or write or drink or pray (to what God, tell me?) almost certainly. And so perhaps you scribble, the pages of your notebooks filling with furious script, like eons of sediment piling into sad mute mountains no one else will ever excavate or carve or climb. Continue reading
Because we were unable to give awards in 2011 and 2012, due to lack of qualifying entries, we decided to give two awards in 2013. The first award goes to The Double Life of Alfred Buber by David Schmahmann, which was reviewed by top DR reviewer Charles Holdefer. The second award goes to Cocoa Almond Darling by Jeffra Hays, which was reviewed by Peter Bollington, also a top DR reviewer, and VN Alexander, DR editor. Both authors receive a $1000 prize. Congratulations to David and Jeffra for their fine work.
Cocoa Almond Darling (Kindle, 126 pages), by Jeffra Hays, is a rather intense, deliberately-paced story about a tailor Mr. Benton, his assistant Milly, and their daughter Nicky. The main action seems to be set in the 1960s, give or take a decade, and the story is told entirely from Milly’s perspective. The novel’s limited first-person narration is masterfully rendered by Hays, who allows the reader to experience a degree of empathy not possible except through the lens of skillful realist fiction. The language of the novel is plain. The narrator is not a gifted poet, nor especially clever or funny. She is not given to much analysis, but she does pay attention to detail, and she is sometimes capable of rather admirable self-awareness and honesty. Continue reading