That Rewak (The Orphan Bear, 2014, etc.) is a professor, a university chancellor, and a monk only makes the fact that he is also an accomplished poet more impressive.
It is difficult to talk about Jesuit poetry without invoking Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins was a monk, a spiritual seeker, and a poet responsible for some of the most moving, challenging English verse of the last two centuries. So it’s entirely fitting that Rewak—himself a Jesuit—calls out to his forebear in his new collection. “A New Task” is written in Hopkins’ memory, and in it, Rewak asks the poet, “Do you see, finally, after the dimness / that shadowed your black-robed walks / down lanes of half-opened eyes, / all the sentences left to be completed? / Is your pen busy with new, full-blown / wonders—stanzas that startle the saints?” Rewak’s own verse may not startle any saints, but it’s sure to please almost anyone else. But if Hopkins’ language is an ancient, gnarled oak, Rewak’s is a young birch, and his lines are smooth, white, and unbroken. Often flowing and conversational, his works are conceptually and emotionally ambitious but eminently readable. Take the humble, pristine “Rose”: “This little rose / is the best thing / I ever grew for you / on this small planet / you can take the dinosaurs / and mushrooms, the great / Himalayas, full of grandeur / (as an indication of My size) / but this thing I hold....” Here, the poet’s direct address and his coyly simple language remind us of the beauty of small things—even things so frequently praised as that red flower. Like Hopkins before him, Rewak addresses God less often than the beautiful, sublime world. But when he does turn his attention to religious matters, it’s with wit and insight. Here is “Verdict,” which is presumably about the trial of God: “They’ve put You on trial / I’m told: / it was whispered to me / proceedings are held tight / in a shuttered room… / but I notice the sun / still shines / because at heart You’re generous / and inclined to overlook petulance.”
Would that all poets could write with such tact and humor.
A performance accident leaves a ballet soloist fighting for her career and her life.
This follow-up to Rose’s first installment of the Ballet Theatre Chronicles (Off Balance, 2015) finds the author once again tackling a dancecentric family drama, this time spotlighting the bond between two sisters. Dena Lindgren is shocked to find herself promoted to soloist ahead of her older sister, Rebecca, by Anders Gunst, the omniscient and imperious director of the West Coast Ballet Theatre. “You lack your sister’s looks,” the always-sensitive Anders tells her, “but it’s that very omission that makes you a more interesting dancer to watch.” Of course, this makes her relationship with Rebecca tense, but there’s something else throwing her life off course, “a nameless, fuzzy disequilibrium” that seems to be causing slight deafness and, during a performance of Spirit Hour, causes her to trip and fall. Twice. Doctors confirm it: there’s a tumor locked onto her vestibulocochlear nerve, and it’s going to bring her career to a halt. Meanwhile, both sisters wrestle with surprising romances; social media brings some of the ballet world’s dark secrets to light; and readers finds themselves caught up in the way a close group of dancers can descend into “high school-level cattiness all over again.” Rose is marvelous at subverting her readers’ expectations: at first, they expect Rebecca to be unsympathetic and opportunistic, but she’s far more complex than that. In alternating chapters, readers learn as much about one sister as they do the other. And the siblings aren’t the only two fully rounded characters. Their father, Conrad; the loyal Lana; the whistleblower Tatum; and much of the company are brought believably and even poignantly to life. The quiet beauty of the prose rarely calls attention to itself but carries the reader smoothly through the tale with no bumps in the road (“It all starts and ends with the artistic director. Casting in ballets. Daily rehearsal schedules. Careers. One word from him, an index finger raised, a frown creasing his brow, could change everything”). And the glossary of dance terms at the end of the book proves a marvelous resource for the uninitiated. This is a novel both for ballet lovers and those new to the art.
A lovely and engaging tale of sibling rivalry in the high-stakes dance world.
This cycle of poems explores homelessness through one woman’s experience of falling from her privileged, educated status.
Heidish (Too Late to Be a Fortune Cookie Writer, 2013, etc.), an award-winning and well-published writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, found inspiration for this collection from working with homeless women. The stories are fictional but based on a notebook she kept over her 17 years of volunteering. Heidish chose a well-educated, upper-middle-class narrator “to show that homeless women, narrowly stereotyped, come from all strata of society”—always true but especially so in the current economy. This choice can make for unexpected, striking images, as when her narrator is glad for the poetry she memorized in college: “I sleep on lines of iambic pentameter, / waking to that music I thought I forgot.” Though the subject of homelessness may sound overearnest, Heidish’s powerful voice, often bolstered by rhyme and meter, makes this collection as tough and resilient as its subjects. But the poet locates far more than toughness in her homeless women; she makes the reader see their undeniable (but too often denied and thus tragic) humanity. The narrator resists feeling like a charity case, claiming what dignity she can, as in “A Donated Apple”: “Don’t pity me. Don’t you dare. / I own part of an orchard now.” The images are surprising and fresh, which makes an effective counterpart to the often somber tone. Wondering what corporeal laughter would look like, the speaker guesses: “A fountain speaking French in your backyard? // The sound of three knees knocking? / A dachshund as a tango partner?” The narrator’s openness to grace gives the wrenching collection its soul. In “Cracks,” the speaker considers sidewalk cracks, familiar from life on the street, and the unspoken stories of cares, hopes, and rage that have stamped across them. She wonders what the point was but concludes “children still dance here, / … / reveling in their patterns, / freeform, irreverent, illogical, / yet in their eccentric paths, / holy as a cathedral’s maze.”
A collection that beautifully finds the holy in the eccentric, the homeless, and the disregarded.
Barlow’s (Between the Eagle or the Dragon, 2013, etc.) debut novel provides a farcical look at the pursuit of junk science in the hallowed halls of the academy.
Sandra Hidecock, a distinguished legal professor at Harvard, plunges to her death from a campus window. Her demise is ruled a suicide and followed by a celebration of the central theme of her work: the tyranny constituted by the immutable laws of nature, the chief barrier to the achievement of human autonomy. Harvard scientist Duronimus Karlof generally considers her work to be faddish nonsense based on a puerile misunderstanding of even the most basic science. But Hidecock left him a letter imploring him to consider her research, a solicitation he finds surprisingly moving. As a result, Karlof decides to put together a team of underachieving academics—he calls them “gloominaries”—to pursue an ambitious project inspired by Hidecock, the contravention of the laws of nature. After the consideration of utterly outrageous possibilities, the “Harvard Six” decide to create a machine—the “Ooala Reactor”—which can slow an object down even after it becomes stationary, achieving a condition they call “sub-stationary.” Of course, this is scientifically meaningless, but apparently that’s an unimportant concern. When one of the scientists expresses anxiety over the coherence of the project, Amelia, the group’s legal adviser and a devotee of Hidecock, responds: “You mustn’t worry about that. If people understood modern physics, nobody would ever fund it. Our greatest advantage will be that nobody understands what we’re doing—not even us.” They manage to raise over a billion dollars in funding commitments and attract the enthusiastic attention of academic and governmental organizations alike. A gifted satirist, Barlow impressively lampoons higher education’s obsession with novelty at the expense of rigor and common sense. The dialogue is memorably funny, and the author avoids the most common trap of satire, which is to adopt a sententiously knowing tone. The story intelligently raises provocative questions about the historically stormy relationship between science and public opinion, and it wryly exposes the vanity and ideological blindness of even the most heralded intellectuals. This is a rare book—hilarious, thoughtful, and culturally relevant all at once.
A cheekily ironic takedown of academic adventures in absurdity.
A new middle-grade fantasy series focuses on the Fair Ones, who watch over Earth children from afar.
In Hadley Beach, California, 13-year-old Tenley Tylwyth wants to appear on the TV show America’s Next Most Inspirational Teen. At Hadley Middle School, she hands out fliers so classmates will vote for her nomination. Suddenly, a Frisbee zooms toward her head. From his skateboard, Holden Wonderbolt yells, “Watch out!” He tries to intercept the Frisbee and crashes. The Frisbee somehow zips off in another direction. Meanwhile, far above the Earth in Fair City, Fair One Lara B3 uses his 3rdi-All viewing device to witness the calamity. Just as he acknowledges that his client, Holden, is a klutz, the Fair Force arrests him and orders him to City Hall. At the other end of Fair City, the same thing happens to Fair One Penn 1 as she watches over Tenley. Eventually, Pennie and Laraby face Lord and Lady Fairships, who accuse the two of using Renegade Weather—wind, of course—to interfere in the lives of Tenley and Holden. When Pennie admits that Tenley can manipulate winds, the Fairships threaten to erase the teen from existence so that Mother Nature can’t absorb her power and harm her further. In this madcap opening volume of her new series, Hummer (Girl Unmoored, 2013) invites readers of all ages into a world where the bureaucratic descendants of fairies watch teens from a drab asteroid belt, use propellers instead of wings (they fell off), and battle a cranky Mother Nature, who wants humans wiped out. With insightful characterization and superior comedic timing, Hummer sculpts a bright pink brick of silliness into a deeply heartfelt narrative. When Pennie lands on Earth to help the insufferable, vote-obsessed Tenley, she’s stuck with “no instructions, no tools, no pants.” As readers learn that Tenley’s single-mindedness stems from hoping to reconnect with her estranged dad, Pennie’s mission earns a grounded nobility. At one point, Pennie confesses: “I think she’s determined to get famous so her father will see her on TV.” A lovely ending should encourage fantasy fans to return to see the protagonists grow.
This irresistible tale about the descendants of fairies should have readers smiling from the first page to the last.
In fragments of memory and description, Fletcher (Descanso for My Father, 2012) recalls his mother’s life, his family history, and a New Mexico that’s disappearing.
In this unusual work of creative nonfiction, the author’s memories spill out like newly discovered treasures. In a narrative framed by his visit to his aging mother in his native New Mexico, Fletcher provides a series of prose poems—some short, some essay-length—inspired by artifacts that his artist mother “rescued” from the desert and his own explorations of places he heard about in childhood stories. The book lacks a strictly linear plot and is instead organized into eight thematic sections with titles that evoke their moods, including “homing,” “root,” and “nostalgia.” Fletcher’s prose vividly depicts the New Mexican landscape; for example, he describes a valley as “the small of a woman’s back, an earthen hollow beneath the shoulder blades,” and a river as a “mud-brown tapeworm.” When he arrives at his mother’s house during a storm, he realizes how little he knows “of her life—and how it came to be,” so he delves back in time, uncovering stories of his grandparents, his great-grandparents, and other ancestors, which border on folklore. Along the way, he pieces together a family history, with memories overlapping one another through multiple generations. In these stories, a complete picture of his mother gradually emerges—as a young girl, as a wife, as a widow, and as an artist. The tales sometimes evoke the supernatural, including “presentimientos,” or visions of loved ones at their deaths, which he says once “happened all the time.” These hints of magical realism complement the dreamlike writing and the prominence of the natural world in it. “We live in a world of miracles,” his mother says at one point. Fletcher’s book is a chronicle of all the quiet miracles that make a life.
A lovingly crafted portrait of a person and a place.