Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Marina DelVecchio Reviews Shiva's Arms

What Cheryl Snell does with Shiva’s Arms is quite captivating and inspirational. This is more than a book about the forced marriage of two estranged cultures, each one forced to coexist with the other despite their differences in customs and belief systems. It is about love and acceptance; it is about the need to belong and feel part of something that is bigger than you. It is the hunger that drives us to be seen and understood by those that share our paths in life. This is the narrative thread that embroiders itself around the story line of this book. Amma Shiva is a small and forceful Indian woman who holds on to her family and traditions with severity, with pride, and loyalty. Alice is a softer version of her — but just as fierce to defend her home, her love for Ramesh and their son, Sam. There is an intensely emotional mother-daughter narrative at play in Shiva‘s Arms, in which mother and daughter need to see one another not just as “mother” and “daughter,” but as women — two separate and independent entities sharing the same goal — the fulfillment of one’s son and the happiness of the other’s husband. There is absolute calm and redemption when each one succeeds in the mutual acceptance they both secretly seek. Because of the impassioned loyalty that resides within, each woman is able to push through the muck and mire of difference and possessiveness that governs their relationship to discover a braver, more forgiving and accepting version of herself. It is definitely highly recommended for your list of 2011 reading — the kind that lulls you towards self-enlightenment and acceptance. And if you have an affinity for Indian dishes, the back pages of the book are filled with delicacies discussed within the story line. Good reading, everyone!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Sheila Deeth Reviews Rescuing Ranu

“How can we tell whether a bird is being chased or leading?” asks Nela, trying to analyze the motion she sees in the sky. Author Cheryl Snell leads her readers to view the world through different eyes in this intricate novel, Rescuing Ranu, and her story is a delight to follow.
Flying home from India, Nela sits next to a westerner on the plane and muses on math and the importance of seeing someone’s eyes. Sitting together in a car, two mathematicians smile, “You iterate and I converge.” Mathematician that I am, I’m hooked. But lyrical descriptions of Indian tradition are equally enticing, and pages pass in a fire-fly dance of otherness, belonging and story.
The author conveys the passion of mathematical mystery just as beautifully as that of love, and opens the worlds of university, India and mathematics to delightful scrutiny. But Jackson and Nela don’t just come from different geographical places. The mystery of family ties and separation fuel their relationship too, and Nela’s relationships with her future, job and students.
Particularly impressive is the author’s ability to include Indian words and concepts without need for obvious explanation. Images flow naturally and vividly with powerful emotions. The scene shifts; one leads, one follows, and in India little Ranu flits, sometimes young, sometimes old, on a path that skirts disaster. Perhaps love plots the turning shape of the graph.
In the end, a story that starts on one part of a circle ends on another, but the circle’s the same, unbroken despite the distance it lies across. Nela completes her best work, and hope and story survive. Lyrical in scope, in symbolism, and in plot, Rescuing Ranu is like making sense of mystery without all the answers; a novel that feels balanced, right and new, with a delightful sense of the old.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Matthew Biberman, Reviews Prisoner's Dilemma

Despite the chattering masses insistence that we have left behind the shackles of monochromatic forms, most lovers of literature remain lodged within the confines of the printed word. No pictures, no mixed media, no audio, no textile experiences invade the high and lonely silence of the mind’s contemplation of the slashes and curves that from a certain distance resolve into letters, and then lines of words, marching across pages bound for they know not where: oblivion certainly, sooner or later.

How strange then that this absurd comedy continues when it is so easy for the imprisoned to step outside of these confines. No jailor prevents it, except, of course, for the jailor we call the mind. The doors are all open to the foreign world that lies beyond but inside we stay as if cowed by possibility itself.

It is against this backdrop that Janet and Cheryl Snell’s Prisoner’s Dilemma is best read.

“Beauty is as Beauty does, I suppose, and of course

all rivers are beautiful, not necessarily

with the untouched beauty

of a head cheerleader at her beginning of things”

(from “Fire of the Cuyahoga”)

The diction here, precise and yet off-hand, coupled with the unexpected coupling of ideas (beauty – rivers – the girl who knows all the boys desire her) places Snell on intimate relations with the main currents of twentieth century American poetry, a landscape marked by masters such as John Ashberry, Mark Strand, Louise Bogan and Louise Gluck, to name but a few poets associated with the style Alan Williamson (himself a fine poet) dubbed the new American surrealism. And yet Snell—or rather the Snells—for the ebook I am reviewing, The Prisoner’s Dilemma, is a collection that alternates between Cheryl’s short lyric poems and Janet’s pencil drawings -- stands apart.

The difference is hard to explain, so lets be blunt: in the best of Cheryl’s work, the style regains its vigor, enlivened by the poet’s deep sense of what it means to be caught up in life. A digression on Freud may help here because we are on the subject of digressions. Freud could never stop being fascinated by the notion that it is life that is the interruption. Not death. The immortal is the natural state. But somehow we find ourselves shunted and routed out of the immortal and into the detour of the mortal for a brief go round before flowing back into the immortal, back into death, and the beyond of death. Cheryl Snell’s poetry, and Janet’s art, together illuminate this insight: that the detour into life is a circular whirlpool. It has limitations that each experiences, and there is no fairness to those limitations, they just are, but every life will be lived within its formal constrictions. And then those constrictions end. But in between, how many of us take the time to convey a deep sense of the go-round? Not many, and certainly not with the depth and richness that you encounter when reading Cheryl Snell’s poetry and looking at Janet’s art.

"There is nothing

To be learned from this, no lesson,

Just as there is no reason

Why you should turn inside out

Over a pair of gloves at the bottom

Of a box earmarked for the trash."

(from “Lost”)

Lots of MFA trained poets can crank out lines sort of like this stretch. The diction is precise and bracing, like cold ocean water. The repetition, first at the level of idea (no learning, no lesson) and then at the level of refrain (there is no, there is no . . . ) reflects exposure to the severe music of Wallace Stevens (even if the exposure is second hand, that is no matter). My mentor, the wonderful poet Tom Sleigh called these devices symbol clashes because those gloves explode in the attentive reader’s mind. Most of the time, in most poetry, the effect is cheap: it hasn’t been earned. The poet doesn’t know why reality should suddenly come undone there, in those lines. They just bang symbols together because that is what they have been taught good poetry does. But Cheryl, on the other hand, knows. Her insight is hard won; the conveyance of knowledge from her to me as I read her is one that fills me with both respect for and gratitude to this team of artists.

In “Indigo Hour” Cheryl writes,

"I run my palms

Along the edges of the headboard

As if a boundary can prove

That the past is not present here."

The metaphysical complexity of this image is to be taken seriously. The past is present—more than that, the future is present here too. Outside or within the eddy that is the mortal there is always the immortal. That conflation is Cheryl’s true subject. Her lyrics capture various aspects of it, of the real as “a zipper tired of meshing” (from “Tear”). The tonalities of her poems go far beyond the little snippets I have typed here. The reader will find laughter and love and everything else. Prisoner’s Dilemma is a book that repays repeated readings. Art is not a contest. But if asked to name my favorite poets working today, I would place Cheryl Snell very high up on my list.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Tim Buck Reviews Words in Edgewise

While offline for several weeks, I did quite a bit of reading. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Here's some of my impressions:

“Bad Blood” is delightful. An American woman, married to a relocated Indian, must suffer the cultural condescension of his visiting relatives. Subtle psychological combat between our protagonist and her antagonist, Jaya, moves us humorously to the story's end. And that ending sounds an unexpected, wistful note.

Of course, the exotic (to me) element adds flavor and interest, but I couldn't resist thinking that a similar friction among relatives could just have easily occurred between two Americans. What we have, basically, is a main character who is self-conscious and self-possessed. Those others, whether in person or as revealed in letters, lack those characteristics. For them, tradition and egoism have displaced the functions of a self-critical faculty.

It would be silly of me or others to read too broadly into this phenomenon. Though India still clings to many worn-out behavioral modes, I know some Indians whose minds belong to themselves. Having said that, I do think this story should be pitched to a TV exec. It would make a wonderful, sophisticated sit-com in the right hands.

* * *

With “Prickly Heat,” Cheryl proves herself an exceptional prose stylist. There is something of Keats's “negative capability” revealed in this poignant story: it is a mystery to me how a female author can so perfectly inhabit the hurting corners of a middle-aged man's soul. And her striking turns of phrase bring delight to the reader, even as he squirms and winces in sympathy with Roger.

* * *

“Closure.” This tale is superbly rendered. Again, those fresh, stunning turns of phrase. The first time I read this, the tearful harmonica player Hank struck me as marvelously absurd, inexplicably sentimental. After a second reading, the truth came clear (I almost regret the truth, preferring non sequitur as a form of high art). The forlorn character Lily is brought vividly to life. And her moments of eventual determination are delivered to us with a palpable presence.

* * *

Read “Healing Louise” and take from it what you will. For me, the details recede. In the foreground, a general conception emerges: human beings are, each one of us, very strange creatures. Six billion brains. Six billion different psychological universes. That we communicate at all sometimes hits me with a force of incredulity. A nurse, an astronaut, a rodeo clown? What shall you choose to be to stay distracted from the crushing Absurd?

* * *

“Boomerang Avenue.” Another general conception: it is a form of magic how a writer can populate your brain with living characters and furnish it with objects that teem with verisimilitude. Setting that consideration aside, I'm not as pleased with this story as I am with the previous ones. Cathy's attitude reversal at the end – from a resentful belligerence to a sudden softening – strikes me a bathetic, a bit facile.

* * *


Dentists are a bit odd, wouldn't you say? They've always struck me that way. And I think I've read that, among professionals, dentists have the highest suicide rate. Hygienists and dental assistants also freak me out. They are preternaturally chipper. It's no act. To their cores, they are well-pleased to be existentially rooted in the vicinity of root canals. Like blithe gondoliers rowing the canals of Venice. Chipper people disconcert me. Happy people make me nervous.

OK, to the story. I don't know what to make of it. Is Zoe a programmed zombie, an idiot-savant? She is very odd, as are the others in her orbit. Is the man as strange as he seems, or has the Novocaine numbed Zoe's brain? Maybe he's not really even there! Read this yourself and see if you can gain traction on the fascinating, slippery surface.

* * *

“Safe House.”

Like “Bad Blood,” our main character is observant, self-possessed, put upon, and constrained by socials mores. The cleaning entrepreneur Karen is, like Jaya from the first story, just the opposite – she is expressionistic rather than impressionistic. In other words, crass and boorish. But as “Safe House” moves along, we begin to sympathize with her pathos (Jaya never stirred sympathy in me).

Cheryl is adroit in her ability to blend social absurdity with personal alienation. The protagonist's husband is, apparently, the bread-winning jerk. Karen's world is a sad, seedy, fractal kaleidoscope. Those societal topographies form the background. In the foreground is a perplexed woman inhabiting her own mind.

But sheesh! Who hires people to clean? Get real. Clean up your own freaking mess.

* * *

What I liked most about reading “Whet” is that it made me glad I'm not like those characters. I'm glad that artsy discotheques and empty sex hold no attraction for me. I'm glad I don't have to associate with somersaulting libertines. But maybe I'm being callous, uncharitable. Maybe the crises of a rejection and a weight problem create a tension and an isolation that naturally expresses itself in superficial activity. And the need to be accepted, to be acknowledged, to be known can, I think, send the human spirit on very basic, urgent missions. Aside from all that, Cheryl has given us another vivid, provocative slice of life.

* * *

“Wisdom” is a very well-crafted story about time and love's erosion...about the contradictions inherent in monogamy.

And of course for me – basically a hobo masquerading as a normal person – it's always interesting to read about the upper crust, about people who have real nice houses and who attend social events. Who wear silk smoking jackets and sapphire necklaces. Who are more interested in novel bed mates than Russian novels. Who are obsessed with illicit carnality, instead of chastely dreaming about an ideal soul-mate.

* * *

In conclusion, this book is aces! If you enjoy falling into strange, expertly realized worlds, you will love this little volume.

* * *

The book's cover painting is by Cheryl's sister Janet. She also contributes a painting for each of the nine stories. These images are not descriptive, do not illustrate the stories. Rather, they are expressionistic, formally loose gesturings. From them, a mood is evoked that carries over into each story. They are ambiguous, and that is their power."
-Tim Buck