AQ12 Spring 2015 Book Reviews
by Bryan R. Monte

Aquarium by Michael Conley. Flarestack Poets, ISBN 978-1-906480-37-0, 27 pages.
The Magician’s Daughter by Meryl Stratford.Yellow Jacket Press, No ISBN, 24 pages.
Reading the English by Bryna Hellmann. American Book Center Espresso Book Machine, ISBN 978-9491-03057-4, 290 pages.
Scouting for the Reaper by Jacob M. Appel. Black Lawrence Press, ISBN 978-1-937854-95-9, 186 pages.

Since last autumn, I have been receiving books to read and review for this issue of Amsterdam Quarterly. Most of these books have made their way to me personally via the authors, whilst a few have been sent through the post. I am happy to report that out of the dozen or so I have received, there are four I would very much like to share with my readers.

The first is Jacob M. Appel’s award-winning book of short stories, Scouting for the Reaper published by Black Lawrence Press and winner of the Hudson Prize. This book is so dark you’ll have to read it with a torch (Am. Eng.: flashlight) at midday to explore all of its shadowy corners. This collection is a fine example of postmodern, gothic American literature whose greatest exponent is Stephen King. In 186 pages Appel describes East Coast suburban America as a place where the creepiest, most unfortunate things happen to educated people who should know better.

In “Creve Coeur” men from two generations of the same family are drawn as the proverbial moths to a flame to do favours for a beautiful woman and her daughter. This attraction, however, ends in the electrocution of the father despite his wife’s warnings.

In “The Extinction of Fairy Tales” a single, female folklore researcher purchases a home in suburbia through an early inheritance due to her parents’ fatal automobile accident. Here she loses herself in her research, cut off from her neighbours, her only contact with the outside world, an African-American man, who mows her lawn. Decades later when he without notice suddenly fails to show up due to retirement, illness or death and her overgrown yard becomes a nuisance for her neighbours, the folklore researcher’s thin tether with reality is paradoxically cut leading to her quick demise. My particular favourite in this collection, however, is the title story, in which an undertaker makes his daughter wear a girlscout uniform to gain his potential customers’ sympathy and possibly more lucrative funeral arrangements.

In Scouting for the Reaper, Appel combines his knowledge of art, medicine, and East Coast American culture to weave tales that are frighteningly believable and which you will keep you reading to the very end.

Amsterdam resident Bryna Hellmann’s Reading the English, is an informative and entertaining book about the history of the English language written by the founder of the New School of Information Services, Amsterdam. In 275 pages of text, Hellmann describes the history of Western Europe starting with the last Ice Age and proceeding to the present day. She mentions the influence of the Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Christian monks on the first form of English spoken in the British Isles. Then, in simple, declarative phrases that don’t pull any punches (typical of those used in this book), Hellmann mentions the influence of the Viking invasions on English:

Around the 8th century, the first Danish Vikings landed on Britain’s Eastern shore. Crops were burned in the fields, books were ripped apart to get at the gold and jewels, and the monks protecting the churches treasures were murdered. Young women and children were taken as slaves, and men who didn’t get away in time were murdered.

In addition to an accessible text, Hellmann’s book is filled with maps, charts, and parallel translations, (for example, of an Old English Beowolf text, a middle English folksong or a King James Bible passage in modern English), which assist readers in understanding the geographical, historical and cultural as well as the linguistic development of English. Cultural elements include sidebars about the The Bayeux Tapestry, an excerpt from Sir Thomas Moore’s Utopia, and reproductions of the title pages of Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragicall Historie of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus and William Shakespeare’s Hamlet among others.

Hellmann pays especial attention to the Romantic poets and women novelists. She also covers the change in English literature, culture, fashion and women’s liberation in roaring 1920s from a refreshing London-based point of view rather than the usual New York, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Great Gatsby perspective. She explains the best way for her readers to familiar themselves with the changes in English literature in this period:

If you’re coming new to Joyce and Woolf, start with his story, The Dead and her novel, Mrs Dalloway. This works for Henry James too. His sentences and paragraphs and novels are all very long and need slow, thoughtful reading, so start with one of the novellas: Daisy Miller, Washington Square or The Turn of the Screw.

Hellmann has written a book that is both educational and entertaining and which will certainly help young readers better understand the English language and the literature that its various cultures, over more than the last millennium, have produced.

Michael Conley is a poet whose surrealistic poem, Aquarium, caught my attention in autumn 2013 in AQ8 in my review of the Flarestack Poets 2012 anthology, Sylvia is Missing. Aquarium is also the name of Conley’s own poetry chapbook published in 2014 by the same press. Based on this one poem, it does not surprise me that Mr Conley’s collection was chosen for publication. What did surprise me, however, was the sweep of his poetic themes and styles. Conley discusses themes such as the realistic description sex and death in the natural world and same sex partner relations in “A Romantic Picnic with my Lover, the Entomologist,” and “We Discover a Severed Thumb in the Woods,” the semi-surrealist “16.07.2003 After “The Death of Dr. David Kelly” by Dexter Dalwood” in which the narrator “pushes his palms against his eye sockets” to form “yellow spots” which later “turn white and float/towards the bridge of my nose to form/ a huge misshapen moon.” “Rising” with its scientifically entitled sub-parts: I. Oxygen, II. Lead and III. Anti-Gravity describes his grandmother’s final illness and death. These are just a few of the subjects and themes Conley explores in Aquarium. My favourites are “Gemella” in which Conley’s grandmother, eight months deceased, appears to him on the shore of Lake Como. “Gemella’s” lines also float down the page in four to eight syllable lines each a bit more indented then the one above which conveys both his grandmother’s state in the hereafter and her dementia before her death:

The question is/how she managed/to fool us with the illness/for so long. Ten years/since the day we caught her,//moon-eyed stashing butter/in an upstairs cupboard/accusing the neighbours/of stealing her slippers.

Another poem “The Greatest Joke Ever Told” charts the development of Conley’s surrealist wit at a young age. As a four-year-old, Conley asks “Mrs. Clegg’s husband” who’s identified a beech tree, if it is called that “because it goes to the beach/all the time.” In a more serious vain are the poems “Cartoonist” “We Are No Longer Interested in the Sea” “Body Double” and “Losing It” the first are about freedom of artistic expression (strangely prophetic post-Charlie Hebdo), the second about ecology and the last two about a son’s physical and psychological inheritance from his father. Aquarium is an inspiring, well-written chapbook. (I wrote two new poems—one for my multiple sclerosis series and another about my family—in pencil in its margins whilst reading it). I hope it also inspires you to take pen or brush to hand.

The second chapbook I’d like to mention is Meryl Stratford’s The Magician’s Daughter. It was the winner of the ninth annual YellowJacket Press Chapbook Contest for Florida Poets. Having been a third-grade school teacher for many years, Stratford knows how to write simple yet powerful and memorable lines. Her view of life, however, is far from simple. She addresses subjects such as the death of a parent and its affect on her students in “Goldengrove.”: “The lesson for today is grief/I write the word i before e/ on the board.” The children write poems about people or things they’ve lost and “After the last sentence, they look up/as if they’ve come back from far away,” an experience that most writers strive for: to be in the zone and out of themselves and time as they write about what is important and hopefully, eternal. Stratford continues her book with poems about childhood and adolescent development including young love in “How Knowledge Enters the World,” and “Green Lake” and “Nixie”, and she addresses the magic of the natural world in the book’s title poem. In “Mallory Square, Key West,” she explores the wonder of living in the moment: “o sun/melting/ filling the sky with yellow light/ drenching us in yellow fragrance/ we are here/we are all here.”

In “Lake Erie” and “When my Mother Died” she explores the consequences of her grandfather’s and her mother’s passing. In “We Could Use a Little Magic.” she presents world economic malaise in the metaphor of a “Magic Store…going out of business/unable to conjure customers.” and reasons that “We’d need Houdini himself/to get us out of this entanglement, /this short-sightedness, this smoke-and-mirrors/greed.”

Stratford’s poetry describes major life stages and wider social and economic issues with simple, metaphorical poetic language. As with Conley’s book, I started some of my own poems in its margins because I found it so inspiring. I’m sure you will also.