really short reviews

Welcome to Rain Taxi’s Really Short Reviews! Here we present short pieces by staff members past and present. RSRs will post occasionally on this page throughout the year. For eclectic assortments from the previous years, visit these links:

2013 Really Short Reviews
2014 Really Short Reviews
2015 Really Short Reviews

The Folly of Loving Life

Monica Drake
Future Tense Books ($15)

The Folly of Loving Life, Monica Drake’s book of interconnected short stories, bears an earnest title that might make a certain reader roll their eyes, but its darkly funny tone and sharply drawn characters are anything but obvious. The collection follows the lives of sisters Vanessa and Lucia, a binary star with the city of Portland, Oregon as its contrarian core. Place and sense of self are intimately tied here; in the early story “The Arboretum,” for example, Drake describes how Vanessa and Lucia’s mother suffers a psychotic breakdown after they leave the city for a house at its periphery. Sections called “Neighborhood Notes” help pull the camera outward, repeatedly demonstrating how Portland—like the sisters themselves—has become more crowded with reference and opportunity for delirium. The freely associative prose can occasionally muddy the narratives, but sudden jerks into lucid insight or observation suggest a larger strategy on Drake’s part, one that emphasizes how hurling ourselves heedlessly into the world may be a means of counterbalancing our own sad, vivid mythologies. Any heavy-handedness is also buoyed by a comedic sensibility (one of the longer stories is called “S.T.D. Demon”) that is satirical but rarely self-satisfied. These first-person voices negotiate absurdity with admirable self-awareness, in fact—always flirting with their own destruction in push-pull orbits around Portland and the world.

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2017 Really Short Review. Return to Really Short Reviews

Great River Road: Memoir and Memory

greatriverroadMadelon Sprengnether
New Rivers Press ($17)

Madelon Sprengnether is a student of memory. Throughout her new memoir, Great River Road, she calls on some of the heavy hitters of the subject—Freud, Proust, neuroscientists—to bolster what she knows from self-study: that past, present, and even future are a flux of experience. In the book’s insightful preface, she describes her book as “an extended meditation on how we make our way through our later lives, incorporating bits and pieces of the ones we’ve already lived, how the remembered past suffuses and enriches the present moment, and how we might imagine a life as an ongoing creation that aims toward a vision of something meaningfully integrated if not whole.” The value placed on integration here isn’t just theoretical but alludes to the trauma of the author’s father’s drowning when she was a girl, which interrupted her sense of being a coherent self and ultimately shaped her interest in this field. The book proves most moving when the reader is able to appreciate how sincere and profound the search for a coherent self-history is for Sprengnether, but too often the reader remains at a remove from the power and significance of the events themselves. Still, Sprengnether is a natural memoirist; she seeks meaning in the stuff of her life (travel, romantic relationships, family) and attempts to build a sturdy self from what she finds.

2016 Really Short Review. Return to Really Short Reviews

The University of Pennsylvania

univpennCaren Beilin
Noemi Press ($15)

Caren Beilin’s novel The University of Pennsylvania is a delightful affront to phallocentric sensibilities. Subversive, challenging, and oftentimes surreal, Beilin’s transgressive account of “womb duplication”—an affliction of continual menstruation that strikes University of Pennsylvania undergrad Olivia Knox—defies narrative expectations down to its very use of language. A multitude of vague, viscerally haunting plot lines and images converge—the relationship between William Penn and George Fox, a slaughterhouse of horse carcasses and animal bones, and Olivia’s menstruating blood that fills the halls and dormitories of the school. There are sexual encounters with statues, a scene of rape, and not a small amount of cocaine (or is it horse gelatin?). The University of Pennsylvania is concerned with what has been historically suppressed and hidden, in particular the female body. Olivia’s unceasing menstruation never lacks for fantastic imagery: “It is not just blood! It is full of marbles and beans, sometimes thick enough to be black, sometimes sick enough to be brown, sometimes wild, almost violet again.” Beilin’s prose assaults the senses, at times demanding to be read aloud. Her Joycean turns of phrase—“moonbutterous blackbread” to describe the asphalt at a convenience store at night, “rubydung” and “robinbattle” as the color of blood—only heighten the level of surreality that dominates the text. The University of Pennsylvania is uncomfortable, weird, and radical in all the best ways—readers interested in an unabashedly feminist novel that pushes the boundaries of taboo should look no further.

2016 Really Short Review. Return to Really Short Reviews

The Obscure Side of the Night

obscureNorberto Luis Romero
Translated by H.E. Francis
Otis Books/Seismicity Editions ($12.95)

At only ninety-three pages, half of which are in the original Spanish, Norberto Luis Romero’s The Obscure Side of the Night packs a challenging amount of images in its brief, obscure narrative. Romero’s sparse plot accentuates its symbolic ambiguity; to enter these pages is to slip into a Kafkaesque nightmare where the bizarre and illogical rule. In this world, sadistically governed by the “fat man” and his manipulative “gloves,” the unnamed narrator stands outside of the action, preparing for a war without an enemy and a Great Fair in which the winner is already known. While the masses are subjugated by a religious devotion to the commodity—useless, colorful objects exchanged at the Fair—the elite succumb to their most base instincts, helpless in their desire for more power, sex, and wealth. It’s a nightmarish allegory for a fully commodified culture, where “giving is considered absurd” and bartering is filled with “beauty and mystery.” The Obscure Side of the Night’s strengths lay in its impactful brevity and haunting symbolism—here, readers will leave bewildered and hopefully, a little disturbed.

2016 Really Short Review. Return to Really Short Reviews

The Uncanny Reader: Stories from the Shadows

uncannyreaderEdited by Marjorie Sandor
St. Martin’s Griffin ($19.99)

Editor Marjorie Sandor defines “the uncanny” not as a literary genre, exactly, but rather as a “genre buster, a kind of viral strain”; she acknowledges that the word itself is slippery and “uncertain.” It’s an intriguing, if precarious, concept on which to base a short story collection, especially one as wide-ranging and ambitious as this: The Uncanny Reader spans two centuries, several continents, and a multiplicity of genres. This variety is both a selling point and a fault—with such numerous viewpoints, there’s bound to be something for everyone and readers are unlikely to be bored; however, with its loose overarching concept, the book can’t help but feel somewhat scattered. The collection opens with E.T.A. Hoffman’s “The Sandman,” originally published in 1817. In its forty pages, the tale oscillates from epistolary to third-person narration, from domestic drama to science fiction, and from horror to social satire. This variety of genres and moods in the opening story sets the tone nicely for the collection itself: diverse, entertaining, and alternately chilling and frustrating. Sandor uses narrative themes such as automatons, the defamiliarization of the domestic setting, and the monstrous feminine, incorporating them into many of her selections and creating recurrences that make the book satisfying and whole. However, occasionally the reader is left scratching her head as to exactly why a story has been included. The Uncanny Reader’s strength lies in its breadth, but it would have been even stronger with a firmer uniting focus to give it depth.

2016 Really Short Review. Return to Really Short Reviews

Above the Dreamless Dead

abovedreamlessdeadWorld War I in Poetry and Comics
Edited by Chris Duffy
First Second ($24.99)

A master class in the formidable strengths of the comics medium, this compilation bring unlikely source material—poetry about the first World War—to vivid life. The editor has drawn impressively from the ranks of today’s indie comics practitioners to insure that the metrical vocabulary of a century ago finds a contemporary voice; Sammy Harkham, Kevin Huizenga, and Anders Nilsen all turn their smart, postmodern inventiveness to making truly moving pieces. Expressionists such as Peter Kuper and George Pratt are expectedly riveting, as is horror master Stephen R. Bissette (who does a simple two-page spread on a line of Kipling’s); all echo what Patrick MacGill writes in his Eddie Campbell-drawn excerpt: “That is what it means, this war: destruction, decay, degradation.” It’s an inspired choice to have Pratt illustrate several pieces by the great Wilfred Owen, and to have Hunt Emerson, whose exuberant style might not otherwise fit, render a few rowdy soldiers’ songs of the era. If the poetry is necessarily by an all-male contingent, not so the comics, for women cartoonists are well represented; Sarah Glidden, Lilli Carre, and Danica Novgorodoff do especially fine work, as does Carol Tyler, who makes her Robert Graves adaptation a loving extension of her landmark autobiographical work about her soldier father. The book ends with deft notes by each cartoonist explaining their approaches and short biographies honoring the poets, virtually all of whom experienced the war firsthand. Hats off to Chris Duffy for an expertly curated and produced anthology.

2016 Really Short Review. Return to Really Short Reviews

The Luminol Reels

Laura Ellen Joyce
Calamari Press ($13)

luminolreelsA deeply disturbing collection of experimental prose-poems, The Luminol Reels addresses topics which many would prefer went undiscussed. Set in a nightmarishly psychedelic landscape replete with hallucinogenic gore, the work is evocative of a horrifying dream. The loose narrative is comprised largely of violence committed against a pack of living-dead “imprisoned, hospitalized or housebound” girls, with events taking place in a maquiladora-cum-juvenile detention facility in which to be born female is to be born dead—the language used to describe menstruation, sex, and birth is indistinguishable from that of death, purification, and decay. The most painful aspect of this extraordinarily uncomfortable book is not its joyless Technicolor carnage, but its verisimilitude: from the degradation of the female body across time, place, and culture to Catholicism’s bizarre and destructive deification and demonization of women, all of misogyny’s crises are here. Moreover, the book lacks even the comfort of anger—there’s no call for social justice or feminist action to instill some modicum of hope that something can be done. The Luminol Reels is everything that political-experimental writing should be: challenging, visceral, timely, and uncompromising. However, as the global struggle over female bodily control appears to edge closer to a literal war each day, many will find the book’s ugliness too apropos to enjoy. Author Laura Ellen Joyce offers one outlet: “If you wish (for relief), you may scream.”

2016 Really Short Review. Return to Really Short Reviews

Who is Martha?

Marjana Gaponenko
Translated by Arabella Spencer
New Vessel Press ($15.99)

whoismarthaWhen 96-year-old misanthrope Luka Levadski comes face to face with a terminal illness, he decides to skip out on treatment and spend his last days in luxury at Vienna’s most prestigious hotel. Winner of the 2013 Adelbert von Chamisso Prize for a work whose author’s native-tongue is not German, Ukrainian author Marjana Gaponenko’s promising second novel Who is Martha? succeeds as a deeply compassionate meditation of one man’s life and its impending finality. Amusingly digressive and philosophically rich, Gaponenko uses her protagonist’s death sentence as a backdrop for a hallucinatory sojourn amidst Vienna’s finer pleasures. As Levadski, whose “social aptitude has been withering away for decades,” indulges himself in expensive clothing, fine dining, and beautiful music, he unexpectedly befriends his butler and another aging hotel guest. At times hilarious and others soberly introspective, Who is Martha? poetically balances its protagonist’s hardened misanthropic sensibility with a life-affirming optimism. Gaponenko’s comfort with the German language is on full display as she confidently narrates in free-indirect speech, seamlessly guiding the reader between the narrative and Levadki’s inner hallucinatory thoughts. It’s a strong second novel for Gaponenko, who at just thirty-four, remains a serious young talent and someone to keep an eye out for in the coming years.

2016 Really Short Review. Return to Really Short Reviews

Victory Over the Sun: The First Futurist Opera

Aleksei Kruchenykh
Translated by Larissa Shmailo
Edited and with an introduction by Eugene Ostashevsky
Červená Barva ($16)

VictoryOverTheSun157The confrontational Victory Over the Sun debuted in 1913 to the same jeers that “provided the ordinary soundtrack to avant-garde art” at the time (fellow Russian Igor Stravinsky’s famously divisive Rite of Spring premiered the same year). Eschewing representation in favor of a “millenarian” deconstruction of logic and meaning, Futurism’s core themes are all here: a blustering masculinist posture that doesn’t quite ring true; a flippant heroization of violence (so poignant and stupid on the eve of total war); and a ceaseless enthusiasm for an “extraordinary” present sans past, “dangerous but without penitence and memories . . . like a clean mirror.” This aggressive agenda of total deconstruction feels intoxicating and disconsolate—the liberation of words from meaning and now from then is both exhilarating and “pretty damn scary.” As Eugene Ostashevsky notes in his introduction, Futurist “victories” represent desperate, nonsensical losses: “The sun of alogism is a black sun.” Yet Kruchenykh’s nonsense is aphoristic, funny, and even sentimental; it can have as much meaning as the reader is able to imbue. Even those uninterested in the avant-garde may find something worthwhile in Victory Over the Sun—the work proves that there’s value in being provoked and (to paraphrase another great Futurist), a certain pleasure in being jeered and in being defied to jeer. Or, to put it more succinctly: “Can’t stand it? Follow that.”

2016 Really Short Review. Return to Really Short Reviews