(Wood Works Press, Seattle) $8
For a long time, the Northwest literary community has batted around the notion of "Northwest writing" and the question of whether or not this region has a recognizable literary sensibility. There is, of course, no precise answer to this; or, the answer lies only in the disparate voices of the local literati, who swim like fleas in the dire broth of literary ambition and publishing prospects, hoping their work will matter. In any case, there's strength in steering clear of a conscious "Northwest" aesthetic, and instead building narrative from the inside out.
John Olson's Eggs & Mirrors achieves this, while, fascinatingly, firmly planted in a sort of daily Northwest experience. This chapbook, hand set with a hot-type press (circa 1904) on lovely ivory paper with maple-block woodcuts by Paul Hunter's Wood Works operation in North Seattle, is an off-the-wall, funny, tilted primer of life that just happens to occur in this part of the country. It consists of comic ruminations on food and clothing, but these are merely vehicles that create broader snapshots of experience, and with subterranean seriousness, set out to mark time and place for posterity.
Olson's tone is alternately down-to-earth and slightly self-mocking as he dispenses advice in these 11 pieces, with sentences like "Many people scoff at the idea of a hat. You can go without one, yes, but remember the head is a cloud, a hot and delicate exuberance of hair...." The narrative goes on to suggest wool as the product of choice for the reader, conveying a persona who sees very clearly what is immediately before him, a sort of nanny for the reader's soul. This work reflects a carefully thinking writer; it's interesting that his departure points are idea blocks revolving around the likes of yogurt, socks, and coffee. STACEY LEVINE
THE BALD-HEADED HERMIT & THE ARTICHOKE: AN EROTIC THESAURUS compiled by A. D. Peterkin
(Arsenal Pulp Press) $13.95
Alone, at home, I go to work in my garden, air the orchid a bit, when my shack man arrives. I hardly notice the old pot until he has his Alan Whickers, you know, his bum curtains, down around his ankles, his lamp of fire out and burning. My bun is buttered, so I wave my monkey man over to the bearded leisure center. I happen to be carrying the bass drum at present, and lordy, my kebab wallet is always full of gravy. The Doctor knows just what to do. He gets down on his knees and prepares to clean the kitchen. My papa gateau loves a bit of bog snorkeling.
We're doing our homework: shrimping, telling a French joke, a little Bombay roll. I'm about to have my ticket punched when the urge to shake my lettuce arises. I grab the Pointer Sisters with one hand, pick up my toolbox with the other, and run to drain my radiator.
After a quick bubble and squeak, I'm ready to rub bacon. My fancy man is keeping busy, faxing the Pope, so I part the Red Sea, get on all fours because I'm apron up, and turn my fife and drum to his blue-veined piccolo. (Rodeo sex easily accesses the bagged scupper's groceries.) Finally, the vestry-man charges past the bacon bomb doors and trombones up the skin chimney -- take Nebuchadnezzar out to grass! Ah, the daily mail. Before the yogurt truck crashes into velvet underground, he paddles my boy in the boat. I empty the trash. Send out the troops and free those tadpoles. I've swallowed a watermelon seed. ESTHER LARUE
THE KIND I'M LIKELY TO GET by Ken Foster
The trouble with most people is they're afraid of their feelings.
Take my freshman lit class in college. They hated Goethe's brilliant The Sorrows of Young Werther, a story of obsessive, unrequited love gone desperate and suicidal, because the narrator felt nearly an entire novel's worth of despair. The students decided midway through the reading that they were over it. Why? They couldn't handle it. One very happy idiot in the class was sensitive enough to ask, "Why doesn't Werther just get a job?"
Ken Foster is not one of these people. The Kind I'm Likely to Get is honest. Foster's vision is sharp and real, dissecting the uglier moments -- despair, low self-esteem, helplessness -- that people experience in periods of transition. These are stories of people who are letting go of relationships, jobs, cities, and even the lives of those they knew. They are coming to terms with their fears, questioning the paths they will choose, feeling very alone and picked over in the process.
My literature class would have disliked this book. They would have conceded that Foster's writing style is bold and original, the stories remarkably interwoven, making the collection itself a coherent body of work. But they would have disliked Foster's subject matter, which takes us to the scary places we all run from in our own lives. I mean, come on -- Foster's a writer. He's supposed to be giving us page-turning stories with complex, highly structured plots that we can compare to other great works in circle-jerk fashion. Why would we want to be dwelling on a bunch of confused and freaky people in transition?
When we're happy, we forget that we are these people. And Foster knows us -- knows himself -- very well. His sober prose allows for observation that's as jarringly insightful as it is painful to read. He delves deeply into his characters, with a fierce love and compassion, of which a great many of his contemporaries should be taking note. He even has a sense of humor that shows itself in the unlikeliest of places. All of this makes The Kind I'm Likely to Get both literary and accessible, a collection to be read by anyone who thinks or feels anything at all. Even that idiot from my lit class. I hope she hates her job and really feels it.
If so, she'd probably love this book.