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Book Review: A Belgian Assortment: Brussels Short Stories

A Belgian Assortment: Brussels Short Stories. T.D. Arkenberg. Outskirts Press, Fall 2018. Hardcover, Trade Paperback, and E-book, 219 pages.

Reviewed by Terrell Isselhard.

“Assuming a carnival atmosphere, the afternoon market at Chatelain was a feast for the eyes, ears, nose, and palate.”

In “Chatelain Market,” Arkenberg’s opening story, Marian visits the market each evening after work looking for romance. Her latest crush is a man who sells Moroccan savories; she’s nicknamed him “the Moroccan.” She comes to the market each day hoping to work up the courage to flirt with him but watches as other women find the courage instead. When a stranger stumbles into the situation, he reveals new depths to a place Marian believes she knows so well.

Reading Arkenberg’s outstanding collection is like a tour through a Chatelain market, or selecting from an assortment of delectable Belgian chocolates: it’s a feast, one that in some ways inverts a classic model.Short story collections centered in one town or city have a long tradition. Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, for exampleand Joyce’s Dubliners, are probably the most famous. Joyce was a notorious expat, but his collection described his home. Arkenberg’s collection features stories of expats in a city that is not home, although, as the introduction states, he did live in Brussels at one time. This unique perspective allows for moments of vulnerability and self-discovery. 

One of the wonderful aspects of Arkenberg’s stories is the diversity of perspectives. In “Lockdown,” Lebanese brothers struggle to find acceptance in Brussels, and one brother struggles to accept his own sexuality. Arkenberg tells another uniquely touching tale in “In Bruges...Again,” in which a son hosts his mother in Brussels and finds himself taking her to Bruges—a place he normally loathes going with guests—to hide his lifestyle from her, only to realize she’s known all along. The story “Recycled Promises” is about an American expat who discovers that after laying roots in Brussels, her husband has arranged to have them return stateside, and in realizing this, she decides to strike out and make a new life for herself. Arkenberg renders each of these characters and their worlds with empathy and skill, creating unique and entertaining tales about sympathetic characters you can’t help rooting for. 

The book is a true assortment, diverse not only in its subject matter, but also the types of stories. Some stories end light-heartedly, and most leave the reader hopeful. There’s humor, heartbreak, and genuine self-discovery in this collection. Arkenberg’s love of Brussels is apparent, and his sympathetic telling of each story shows a writer with a genuine interest in people. These aren’t flashy, overbearing stories, yet each one ends with some soul-sucking gut punch. They’re a pleasure to read, and with each successive story, I found myself getting more immersed in Brussels. 

Recommended for people who love well-written and compelling short fiction. A Belgian Assortment by T.D. Arkenberg is a skillfully written collection by an author with command of his craft. One word of warning, however: be prepared to finish the book and have a burning desire to renew your passport. Arkenberg’s Brussels is a city I could not bear to leave. 



Book Review: The Clubhouse Thief

The Clubhouse ThiefJames Janko. New Issues Poetry & Prose, January 16, 2018, Trade Paperback, 308 pages.

Reviewed by Charles Kuner.

Reading The Clubhouse Thief is akin to listening to a Gustav Mahler symphony. Mahler’s symphonies have broad parallels to real life in the world; they meditate on nature, politics, religion, joy, death, suffering, identity, poetry, and literature. Mr. Janko’s novel has the same type of broad parallels, using baseball as his modus operandi.

Baseball is seen by some as a metaphor for life. The game deals with character, resilience, team chemistry, courage, and discipline. It also deals with confronting defeat and learning to overcome frustration, to be confident and remain optimistic, and that with hard work and effort one can eventually become a winner. Since baseball was called the national pastime as early as 1856, it has been connected to all that is great and glorious in the American character. However, the nation’s affinity for the game hasn’t always been good for the nation.

Blacks did not get their chance to play in the major leagues until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. Janko incorporates current political and civil rights issues into his story with the character of Khadijah Jamil, a Muslim woman from Chicago’s South Side who is running against a Donald Trump-like Republican, President Michael J. Trent, who’s campaigning for re-election. Being Muslim and black, she runs into anti-Muslim and anti-black hate groups who are encouraged by Trent and his minions. Another character is Hector Jesus Mijango Cruz, an openly gay slugger who runs into problems due to his sexual orientation.

Then there are the major stars of the Cubs, Johnny Stompiano, Azzy Azzam, and Jesus Mijango Cruz who, for various reasons, support Jamil’s candidacy, which intrigues and troubles the bench coach, manager, and team management. In reality, the melding of sports and politics is not a new development. Presently, we have seen this melding become part of the national conversation yet again, in the form of professional football players who have taken a knee during the national anthem to protest a pattern of police shootings of unarmed black individuals. Janko gives some historical perspective on these ongoing protests by citing the 1960’s decision by Muhammad Ali not to fight in the Vietnam War, and Tommie Smith and John Carlos with their black power salutes at the Olympics.

The novel revolves around an aging coach, Billy Donachio, who works for a fictionalized version of the 2018 Chicago Cubs who go on to win the National League pennant and play the Boston Red Sox in the World Series. Donachio feels like a loser who tried but failed to make it as a player in the major leagues. He thinks that he’s been bad luck to every team he’s been affiliated with. This pessimistic attitude is also reflected in his personal life, as he’s alone and finds himself aimlessly drifting towards retirement and irrelevance.

In reading a novel, one can evaluate its effectiveness based on how well the plot moves—a rhythm or flow that keeps your attention to the point where you don’t want to put the book down. Given that high criteria, Clubhouse Thief easily meets that goal. Part of the reason for this effectiveness is Janko’s use of language. His prose is thoughtful and very lyrical as he merges together many voices from the Hamlet-like inner monologues of the neurotic Donachio to the Red Sox announcers with their sarcastic and sometimes cruel radio play-by-play and, of course, the continuous roar of the Wrigley Field fans.

There is also a symmetrical aspect to the story as it alternates between the World Series games and the Mahlerian broad sweep of political events, history, religion, psychology, civil rights, and identity issues taking place around it; everything impacts the characters and their environment.

As the games progress, Donachio, who, among other things, is a kleptomaniac, begins stealing letters and notes from the players’ lockers and pockets. By doing this, he learns more about them—the people they are rather than cardboard stereotypes. It’s his way of metaphorically stealing or “borrowing” parts of their lives that he would like to have for himself. This leads to yet another aspect of this broad novel: the introduction of poetry. It’s the lyrical words found in the stolen notes which nicely ties together sports and poetry, adding a serious note to the story.

This is not just a baseball story, as explained earlier. Mr. Janko is making serious commentaries about baseball as an institution and national game, as well as about life in general. As the reader follows the story, he or she should keep in mind the quotations by Czeslaw Milosz, Arsham Azzam, and Bill Russell in the very front of the book. What happens in the plot of the story and the characters goes back to those three key quotations. 

Each character has his own authenticity, his own voice. Their actions throughout the plot are, for the most part, believable. We also have good character development, especially in the washed-up coach, Billy Donachio. At first, he’s a very unsympathetic character due to his prejudices fueled by false stereotypes. Donachio doesn’t trust Azzy Azzam because he’s Muslim, and he doesn’t trust the openly gay Jesus Mijango Cruz either. As for Johnny Stompiano, Donachio doesn’t like his political activism, his strong confidence in himself, and his willingness to take chances with a devil-may-care attitude. However, near the end of the story, Donachio slowly begins to find purpose outside the ballpark, no longer feels like a loser and, most importantly, begins to understand and respect Stompiano, Azzam, and Mijango Cruz.

I highly recommend this book. Again, it’s not just a baseball story or genre book. It’s an “everyman” morality play chock full of poetry, philosophy, psychology, and politics. As Kirkus Reviews states, it’s “a spirited vision of America and its national game.”



Book Review: A Glance at My Other

A Glance at My OtherBruce Randal WilkersonRoundfire Books, September 29, 2017, Trade Paper and E-book326 pages.

Reviewed by David Steven Rappoport.

A Glance at My Other is a compelling page turner about a young American student who is murdered and finds himself thrust into the body of a French immigrant teenager.

The taking over of one body by another—in whole or in part—is a common literary trope. In a strict literary classification, Bruce Randall Wilkerson’s rich novel is a fantasy. It shares its metaphysical conceit with many ancestors from Frankenstein to Freaky Friday. However, in this story, there are no surgically constructed monsters or hapless moms to be found—nor elves, princesses, or gold rings. A Glance at My Otheris a contemporary thriller with a twist.

An American secular Jewish exchange student, Josh Cohn, is studying in Paris. In a café, he notices a beautiful Algerian teenager, Neila. Just minutes later, he witnesses Neila drowning. As Josh pulls Neila's unconscious body from the water, he is killed by a man in a grey sweatshirt. This is when Neila’s consciousness leaves her body while Josh’s consciousness enters it. 

Josh struggles with an unfamiliar body and life without Neila’s memories to aid him. He fights for Neila's dignity as she is abused by her fundamentalist family. She is treated as though she was insane, and is a prisoner of her violent eldest brother and cold, unsympathetic mother. Desperate questions arise in Josh’s mind. Was Neila’s father murdered in Algeria and did Neila kill him? Is someone trying to kill Neila in retaliation and if so, who? Who is the man in the grey sweatshirt and what is his role in these and other events? Eventually, in a series of murderous confrontations, the ugly answers are revealed.

A Glance at My Other is Wilkerson’s first published novel, and it is accomplished in important ways. Wilkerson draws on his own experience as a young American expatriate in Paris to vividly describe the cultural dislocation of Arab immigrants in contemporary France. The characters are nuanced and convincing. Neila, in particular, is a complex composite of a religious Arab girl, a would-be Western teenager, and a tormented soul inhabited by another person. The plot is quick and active, and it adroitly rushes from danger to danger—as all good thrillers must. The novel is plotted so effectively that the metaphysics, as well as the political themes that arise inescapably, disappear into the background.

It seems clear that Wilkerson has the capacity to illuminate characters who find themselves lost in alien psychological and physical space. He also has the ability to probe fully the many related questions of dislocation. Perhaps in the future he will provide us with more insights about these complicated topics in subsequent books. 

A Glance at My Other is a first-class debut effort. Whatever Wilkerson writes next—and after that—I look forward to reading it!



Book Review: My Lullaby of You

My Lullaby of YouAlia Rose. Plum Anchor Press, June 16, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 277 pages.

Reviewed by Stephanie Tilton.

My Lullaby of You,by Alia Rose, is an intense tale of young love. Rose takes readers on an emotional journey of love, loss, and passion. The two main characters, Seth and Amy, meet in the most unlikely way. Their love blossoms quickly, but will it last?

When we first meet Seth, he’s a college student who left the orchestra to find his father and make peace with his past. Before connecting with his father, Seth decides to learn more about the beachside town where he'll be living that summer. This is when he meets Amy.

Amy has just finished her senior year of high school and was accepted into an arts-based college. The only problem: the school is located in Chicago. Her mother had no idea about the application and becomes furious with Amy, completely shutting her out for months. Amy’s only place of solace from the harsh treatment is the sea. 

While going for a midnight swim, she saves Seth’s life. Their romance doesn't begin right away. Through much begging on Seth’s part, Amy reluctantly agrees to lunch. The two meet at the ocean to talk and swim, almost daily. During one of their dates on the beach, Seth mentions to Amy that he is a musician. He leaves her with one of his recordings.

Not impressed with his taste in music, Amy suggests he take a gentle approach with his songs. Seth decides to write a few ballads of his own. Weeks later, while working at a local club, Seth is asked to sing for the crowd. His first song is about a girl he loves: Amy. 

What Amy doesn’t know is that Seth’s past is her present. Tough decisions are made. We find out just how strong the bonds of love are in this novel.

Alia Rose started writing at a young age. She fell in love with creativity and hasn’t stopped writing. You can tell that the characters inMy Lullaby of Youare well thought out. Her love of traveling helped her create scenes that are true to the areas of inspiration.

I think this book is a great read for any young adult that struggles with love, life, and making big decisions. I felt like I was back in my early college years while reading the story of Amy and Seth. The battles they dealt with and feelings they felt were all too real. This book is full of emotional avenues young adults must face and gives positive examples for overcoming them. 



Book Review: Flashbulb Danger

Flashbulb Danger: Selected Poems 1988-2018. Jack Phillips Lowe. Middle Island Press, April 20, 2018, Trade Paperback, 224 pages. 

Reviewed by Elizabeth Melvin.

Flashbulb Dangeris a collection of poems capturing the modern day miasma in clear accessible language. Author Jack Phillips Lowe provides a general sense of disdain with a low swell of humor. Whether you are a poetry aficionado or a total novice, the reader can engage with these quippy narratives, letting the deeper meaning of the poems resonate off the eloquently painted images. JPL’s work achieves the depth of poetry in an understandable language with accessibility to the work. It is quintessentially American—invasive and snarky.

The selected poems in this collection create a visceral experience exploring Americana and the characters within. The work is segmented into three periods based on year. The author finds narrative poetry liberating, and refers to the classical tradition of Bukowski; he finds the flourish in the end of the poems. “I didn’t have to just say what I felt; I could illustrate it.” He allows the reader to marvel at the backstory and fill in the blanks. 

The collection is chronological but there is a sense of channel surfing in exploring a vast tableau of the human condition in digestible segments. While narrative poetry is a classical form, JPL avoids many of the modern poetic conceits that usually alienate readers from the experience of poetry. His work is a modern homage to ballad tales and epic poetry yet his heroes are mundane, foolish, small, and human. Taking cultural paragons like James Dean, Jim Morrison, and Charles Bukowski, he cracks the veneer of the public persona and taps the vein of humanity. The icons become vulnerable, much like the Greek gods on their polished Olympus. 

JPL’s characters are subtle yet expressive. A great example is the character of Buchman, who appears in four poems of this collection, in the second and third sections of the book. Buchman appears first in the poem “snapped,”filling out “what felt like his 433rdonline job application,” and quickly, “Like a dead branch in a winter storm/Buchman snapped.” From the first poem, Buchman presents himself as the American everyman in dire straits, living in his parents’ basement. His situation is one usually glossed over or minimized but, in the poem, we feel the tremulous pain running under the surface of his existence. He appears again in the poem “Coo-Coo-Cachew” where, finally employed, Buchman uses humor to insulate himself against an outraged customer. JPL emulates the use of humor as a mask, a barrier, and in minimizing daily troubles, just another human feature of getting through the world. It’s easy to laugh right along with Buchman. We get another shorter poem reflecting his parents through his own eyes. By now, Buchman is like a lost friend, resurfacing in “The Sky Cried” and we spend our final moment with Buchman lamenting the passing of Tom Petty.

Petty is a mere mention in that poem but other poems find themselves dedicated to cultural icons like Jim Morrison, Charles Bukowski, and Jack Kerouac. JPL approaches these characters on a human level with the familiarity of a friend allowing us to come to the table with fictional moments of humanity. He takes them off the pedestal and brings them to the table for a beer. Some of the most impactful poems read like letters to influential figures, such as “Amelia Earhart Pancake.” The most moving piece appears in the final section of the book, a poem called “My Backhanded Reward,” which JPL frames as a letter to author Joe Bolton, who was a great influence. His tone reflects love, respect, and the wounded anger that only comes from true friendship. The ability to reach these intimate moments so quickly is a great joy in the collected works. 

Over a 30+ year career, JPL has abandoned the pretensions of poets that can isolate the work from readership. His examination of pop culture and modern American mythology is precise and humorous yet appears like a crack in the foundation of the culture, allowing readers to explore and expand conceptually in the work. The poems are easy on the surface but shake loose deeper thoughts, so they are good for a quick read and a long think.