The Lost Poems of Cangjie, by John Briscoe: A Review by Tom Christensen from right

By Tom Christensen, aka Xensen

Front cover of  The Lost Poems of Cangjie: Winter Blossom , 2011, by Hung Liu. Woodcut with acrylic; 23.25 x 23.5 in. Copyright © 2011 by Hung Liu

Front cover of The Lost Poems of Cangjie: Winter Blossom, 2011, by Hung Liu. Woodcut with acrylic; 23.25 x 23.5 in. Copyright © 2011 by Hung Liu

Subtle, sweet, subversive, and sly, The Lost Poems of Cangjie will leave many readers puzzled – and, equally, delighted. The core of the book consists of two series of lyrical, imagistic poems, both apparently made up of fragmented ancient Chinese verses somewhat in the style of the classic Book of Songs. Individual poems mostly are short, both in line length and in number of lines, and most explore themes of longing and forbidden love.

I’m not kidding when I say ancient. The two poem sequences, as explained in a sort of Borgesian prose frame that describes their origin and discovery, were preserved in scrolls concealed within one of the terra-cotta warriors of the First Emperor’s underground army. One, the “Beta Scroll,” was written near the time of their concealment, which is to say, around 210 BCE, when the Qin dynasty collapsed and was replaced with the Han. (That places these verses roughly contemporaneous with the poems of  Apollonius of Rhodes, author of the Argonautica, and a good century and a half before Vergil.)

But that’s nothing compared to the longer “Alpha Scroll,” which is attributed to Cangjie, the legendary founder of Chinese writing. He is supposed to have lived two and a half millennia earlier still, during the reign of the primogenitor of Chinese culture, the Yellow Emperor. In other words, he is more distant in the past from the author of the Beta Scroll than we are in the present. If these poems are indeed the work of Cangjie, that would make them the oldest extant poems in the world by a considerable margin.

Despite the vast time separation, the two scrolls are similar both stylistically and thematically. This may be attributable in part to the transcription (or translation) of the Cangjie poems by the later Chinese poet, known as “the Sculptor” because of his work as one of the creators of the First Emperor’s underground army. In addition, both poem series are translated into English by a mysterious figure known only as “E. O.” The translator also provides an afterword.

But the book begins with a foreword by John Briscoe, who identifies himself as “a lawyer whose practice takes me to East Asia.” There, we are told, he met E.O., who asked him “to act as agent to bring this work to publication.” Briscoe touches on the story of the poems’ creation and their journey into English, but this is explained most fully in the translator’s afterword. E. O.’s prose style is more florid than Briscoe’s (though this is not particularly evident in the poems). This is how he begins:

When words first pealed the ecstasy of sunrise, cried the ache of moonrise, sounded the desolation of this life, we don’t know. We don’t know when sounds first stood as words for we, for home. We don’t know whether a word for home existed before a word for returning home, or for the unutterable ache to return home. We do know, though, that like many words, like whole languages, those clusters of words we call poetry arc like meteors. They blaze brief, if at all. If it is particularly right, for its time, or all time, and if the people who spoke it are not all dead or, if written down, and the libraries holding it have not been put to the torch, then a poetry might persist longer, more like a comet than a meteor, a comet plying the night sky that in the end fades into the cosmos. A poetry that survives centuries, however, much less millennia, stands in the firmament like a constellation, wandering at seasons beyond the horizon, but in time returning to the night sky.

E. O.’s telling of the discovery of the scrolls is cloaked in circumspection for political reasons. “Vagueness,” he tells us, “is the better part of discretion, which is better here than any valor.” A young archaeologist, E. O. explains, chanced upon the scrolls within the torso of a terra-cotta soldier as he was working on the excavation of the underground army. To the First Emperor is traditionally attributed a great Burning of the Books, and these scrolls were apparently hidden to avoid that fate. Worried that the scrolls might even today be suppressed or destroyed for political reasons — because they are critical of political rulers and might be seen as seditious — the archaeologist concealed his discovery and removed the scrolls. Eventually the poems were translated by E. O. into English.

To continue reading, go to Christensen’s blog.

Beauty and Bolts of Eternal Insight in The Legend of La Diosa by Chuck Rosenthal

by Eireene Nealand

“This is not a story. This is truth; a few inspired lines brought forth by metaphor, by parable, by prayer, by trick, by fever, by example…” 

--Chuck Rosenthal

Michael Ventura, the publisher of Chuck Rosenthal’s The Legend of La Diosa, calls the book, “a fast drive around a tight curve powered by the momentum of love.” Indeed, The Legend of La Diosa unfurls via a bolts of poetic insight, discharged on a larger plane. Little phrases, like “sober as asphalt,” or “the tornado of his teens,” have a gut-level impact that, like the intensely lovely poetess La Diosa, who the book follows, could easily become ends in themselves, appreciable as mere objects of beauty. In the story, however, La Diosa is, in fact, always escaping obsessive lovers who see everything in her and upon reflection, one comes to see the book as beautiful not just for its insightful gems but also for the fluid emotional energy that washes back and forth opening each thing to every other as a part of the book’s philosophical stance. Take, for example, this funny exchange in La Diosa, where we’re told that the protagonist Lisa:

used to sit and play cards with one murderer named Jimmy Joe who looked a little like a squat Elvis Presley. He believed he was Jesus and that all the hits on the radio were stolen from him.
“Know that song, ‘Feelings’? said Jimmy Joe.
“Yes, I do,” said Lisa Hornstein.
“I wrote that.”
“It’s a lousy song,” Lisa said.
“Doesn’t change a thing about its origin,” Jimmy Joe said.

In this exchange, scorn for squat Elvis impersonators and disdainful feelings towards the song ‘Feelings,’ ‘doesn’t change a thing’ because none of these items are ends in themselves. Rather, as with all of the little stories in The Legend, they open out onto something larger: in this case, Jimmy Joe’s quest to ‘get somewhere’ with the lovely Lisa Hornstein, a quest, which ultimately becomes connected with things and diverse as madness, suicide, surfing, and veal. Rosenthal, after all, has four degrees, two in philosophy, and he believes in writing in gut-level ‘ficts.’ That is, personalized truths that use emotion and example to transcend simple judgments.  Take for example, this scene, where a love-story-turned-rape is rolled into a fucked-up-but-beautiful moment of feminist-identity-claiming:

[H]e tried to fuck her…then he tried to strangle her.
[She, Diosa’s friend]…had carved all the names of her ex-boyfriends into her thighs with a razor blade.

Whooshing this way and that way through a series of high-stakes legends, all of which invoke heightened emotions, the reader easily could fall into disoriented postmodernist despair. Yet, there’s something about the beauty of the lines, their rhythms and songs through which relations wash into one another, that makes one not mind the disorientation. Dramatic emotions around death, for example, find as apt an expression in the quiet “murring” of cows as in the harsh acts of a mother who drags her children to suicide. Indeed, when La Diosa moves to a veal farm, after having an abortion, the aptly ambiguous sadness about the loss of a possible child comes only after La Diosa opens “(opens) the wire fence and let [mother cows] rove on her land” and the mother cows “folded up and slept on her living room floor, murring gently to her when she petted their soft rubbery noses” and when she hears them “as if they had all been impregnated by a ghost…praying for their unborn children” in advance of the either La Diosa or the reader seeing the horrible fates these children will face.

Awash in the confusion of wanting, but not being able, to make binary judgments   one might ask of the book what Lisa Diosa asks of a painter she meets in a field, “Will it keep me from becoming a famous poet the way the world keeps a refrigerator from becoming an elephant The answer, clearly is no. Yet in its brave and beautiful task of facing the complexity The Legend of La Diosa manages to convince us that that is, at least in part, a good thing.



by Eireene Nealand

When it comes to expressing anything other than absolute adoration for one’s children – including the process of creating them – women, all too often, are shushed. Therefore, Micah Perks is navigating a dangerous territory in What Becomes Us, when she likens pregnancy to captivity, one that, moreover, frees the protagonist from the colonial life in which she’s been trapped. Spoiler Alert: Evie Rosen, the protagonist of What Becomes Us, is not opposed to motherhood. Rather, as an introvert, made insecure by an overcertain husband, she is hesitant about closeness: after carrying twins inside of her, she will never be able to express herself as anything other than a ‘we.’ Hesitancy about closeness too is taboo this is what makes Perks’ novel so interesting.  Like its protagonist What Becomes Us is a shy book, questioning established taboos through a series of formal elements, rather than defiant monologues. 

The ur-text of What Becomes Us is America’s first ever best seller: The Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. After escaping her husband, by jumping out of the second-story window of her house, Evie Rosen encounters the book in upstate New York, where she has been hired as a school teacher. The teacher she is to replace was fired for teaching The Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson as a Fundamentalist Christian text, even though his students seem to have enjoyed the book. As Evie reads, she becomes obsessed with the tale of the Massachusetts Bay colonist, captured by Narragansett Indians during King Phillips’ War. Like a pregnant woman, Rowlandson is perpetually hungry –  yet there’s also something more: the uncanny encounter with others labeled as savage that helps one to accept a taboo savagery in oneself. 

It’s mainly in her sleep that Evie identifies with Rowlandson (and Quinnipin and Weetamoo, the Narragansetts who purchase Rowlandson as a slave). Suspecting that she has been haunted by ghosts she dreams and sleepwalks and steals objects associated with the characters, unconsciously placing them in her own house. The slips between the occult and subconscious are subtle ways of expressing discomfort and fear about joining both the Upstate New York community and the tribal family community one enters when one has children.

That is not the only oddity of the book. Perhaps in order to make her taboo characterization of pregnancy more palatable, Perks has chosen Evie’s unborn twins to narrate the book. They allow readers to feel a bit safer when Evie expresses unloving thoughts about her husband, such as “she was the mortar and she was the pestle,” but more than that, in being twins, they express a closeness and community that Evie knows she is supposed to feel. Take for example, these lines:


Each an inch long, we are see-through things…the liquor we swim in, and the liquor [that] passes through us…How much did Scheherazade love the Sultan? Or Joseph love Pharaoh? Or Huck and Jim love their raft? How can we pry apart love and need? Three minutes without her and our hearts would stop. Mother is an agnostic but we know the three of us are not alone (8).


The twins are intimately comfortable with one another, although when it comes to their mother there’s a slight hesitancy, mentioned in the lines about ‘love and need’ and Joseph and the Pharaoh. Helpfully, this makes the love complex, more interesting than the wholesome all sacrificing love of the usual book on mothering.  

For Perks, mother love (and perhaps all love) is tribal. Indeed, my favorite part of What Becomes Us is having a chance to meet members of the Appalachian community Evie finds herself in. Delightful characters, such as Margaret, a middle-aged town gossip turned blogger, and River, a rebellious teen determined not to let education get in the way of learning don't make love easy, nor does the double bind Evie finds herself in when she befriends Joan, a peace activist-on-parole, who happens to be married to the book-loving mechanic that Evie eventually falls in love with. To find her place in this town Evie has to navigate the complicated set of alliances: Loving a man, hurting a friend, being a stern but friendly teacher/mentor to the children she sees in and out of school. Thus, while the twins swim about in the easy womb of ‘we,’ Evie introduces us to the figure of a tribal woman who is much more than the do-gooding, all loving sacrificial lamb we are led to believe mothers are meant to be. In the end, the book isn’t rebellious so much as realistic, reminding us that the exhilarating-horrify activity of throwing oneself in others, whether through friendship, love, or motherhood, is not something one can ever aspire to perfect or glow with.  Like any birth it's an ugly-beautiful glorious mess.

To Have Not: Involuntary-Voluntary Poverty in Frances Lefkowitz’s Memoir

Reviewed by Eireene Nealand

Frances Lefkowitz’s memoir, To Have Not is written in what is fast becoming a genre: the recounting of a childhood affected by the lifestyle experiments of the 1970’s. Many very good memoirs have been written about these times. Usually, however, they highlight the romantic nature of the 1970’s experiments, especially those connected with voluntary poverty, a turn away from money-making and consumerism that was popular at the time. And, of course, they do; the social and political results of these experiments are much more exciting to talk about than the mundane poverty that so obviously follows from giving up one’s attachments to money and things. Lefkowitz’s memoir is important because it willing to baldly discuss such a result. As she bravely writes in her introduction, “I have nothing to say about the politics of poverty, what causes it and…and how to make it go away. I can only tell you what poverty does to a person…It gets inside you…becomes you…shapes what you see and taste and dream…you must say no to yourself constantly.”

In drawing upon the involuntary nature of children’s participation in the movement, she points out the fact that many lifestyle experimenters were able to be “excited by art and literature and…peace and justice,” and unimpressed with money, precisely because they came from commodity-loving middle-class or wealthy families. While their children were meant to be free of the taints of such an upbringing, as Lefkowitz points out, however, once money – and the habits of attending to it -- have been lost, it’s lost. The children of the ‘hippies,’ or nearly-not-quite hippies, as Lefkowitz calls herself, were never quite so freedom-loving or idealistic or revolutionary as their parents precisely because they never had the privileges that would allow them to be so.

Paradoxically, however, this also means that they are, perhaps, more authentically able to sympathize with those whom their starry-eyed parents claimed to support. Indeed, Lefkowitz writes of what all of us who have not chosen poverty know quite well. “Poverty is not only a lack of money,” she writes. “It can also be a lack of love or choice, pleasure or safety, faith or confidence or possibility. It seeps into your cells and makes you believe you are not entitled to have the things that other people have; you are not even allowed to want them, except sometimes in your dreams.” While such knowledge is not glamorous, it’s important to have someone like Lefkowitz talk about poverty without the ‘poverty chic’ that occludes its actual unpleasantness. 

Messenger to the Stars: A Luis Omar Salinas New Selected Poems & Reader

Messenger to the Stars: A Luis Omar Salinas New Selected Poems & Reader

Edited by Christopher Buckley and Jon Veinberg

Published by Tebot Bach, © 2014


Reviewed by Jake Young


Last November, in an editorial for the Santa Cruz Sentinel titled “Why All Californians Are Mexican,” Stephen Kessler discusses the impracticality of closing off the Mexican-American boarder, and describes in brief the history of California: it’s annexation from Mexico in 1848, the spread of Catholic missions a century before, and the present-day multicultural state where half the population speaks Spanish. An accomplished poet, translator, and journalist, Kessler cites the famous Chicano slogan of the 1970s, “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us,” and notes that this refrain “precisely describes how, virtually overnight, Mexico was cut in half and California’s politics and demographics shifted from Latino toward Anglo-American.”

Despite this seismic shift, the influence of Mexican culture has continued to influence everything in California from architecture to music, cuisine, and literature. This cultural matrix is what Kessler emphasizes when he writes, “California remains as Mexican as it is American. […] every Californian, wherever they originated and however recently they arrived, is at least part Mexican by virtue of the history we continue to live on this profoundly Hispanic land.”

Kessler’s position is not shared by everyone in California, but it speaks to my own experience of growing up in Santa Cruz, a relatively small beach town that was the site of one of the early California Missions before it became a surf town, then a college town in 1965 with the expansion of the UC school system, and has long been an agricultural center for produce such as Brussels sprouts, artichokes, strawberries, and grapes. Though I studied Spanish in high school, most of what I’ve retained of the language came from Latino kids on my soccer team who would joke and shout insults at each other during practices, and in the kitchen of the bakery and restaurant where I worked when I was in high school.

Today, my Spanish is pretty rusty, but I still occasionally order my food in Spanish at taquerias, and chat with a gringo accent with the Hispanic cellar and field hands at the winery where I now work. There are certainly some people today who agree with Kessler and me that to some extent “All Californians Are Mexican,” a position that has its roots in the political movements of the 60s and 70s. Those times saw the formation of the United Farm Workers of America by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta; President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law; the Berkeley riots of the 1960s influenced the national counterculture movement of the time; and in Fresno, California, amidst an environment fraught with racial and cultural antipathies, and the air of revolution, poets Philip Levine and Peter Everwine were helping to create a climate ripe for poetry. They gathered around them young writers who saw poetry as a life force, and who would establish the foundation of what would become recognized as the Fresno School of Poetry.

Among the many students whose talent the late Levine helped to cultivate was the young Luis Omar Salinas. A politically charged youth, Salinas would soon become a voice for the Chicano movement with the publication of his first book Crazy Gypsy in 1970. In his most anthologized poem from the collection, “Aztec Angel,” the reader encounters a socio-cultural critique of a compassionless society. The poem is in five sections, and in the third section Salinas writes:

            I am the Aztec angel

fraternal partner

of an orthodox


where pachuco children

hurl stones

through poetry rooms

and end up in a cop car

their bones itching

and their hearts

busted from malnutrition

The speaker in the poem criticizes society through observation and astute awareness rather than overt condemnation. Salinas interweaves personal narrative with inventive imagery to achieve a sense of alienation and frustration with a culture that he is at once a part of and yet is also separate from. Despite the success of his first book, it would be ten years before the publication of his next book, Afternoon of the Unreal. Between these publications Salinas struggled with depression while continually improving his craft.

As a Chicano, Salinas straddled two words, and this duality found its way into his poetry, drawing inspiration as much from Hispanic and Spanish writers such as Vallejo, Neruda, Hernández and Jiménez, as he did from the English Romantics such as Byron, Shelly and Keats. Though inspired by two vastly different poetic traditions, Salinas never lost his own voice in imitation; rather, he internalized both—the mystical, metaphysical, and surreal imagery of the poets writing in his native tongue, and the pensive, philosophical, and lyrical nature of the Romantics—and as his style matured, he became something of a combination, a self-proclaimed Latino English Romantic.

In the newly published Messenger to the Stars: A Luis Omar Salinas New Selected Poems and Reader, edited by the author’s friends, one-time housemates, and fellow poets Christopher Buckley and John Veinberg, we get a rare glimpse into the evolution of Salinas’s work over thirty-five years. The poems are thoughtfully selected, and represent Salinas not only at his very best, but at his most honest and profound as well. Included in the edition are interviews with Salinas in addition to essays about Salinas by other writers—friends and colleagues—that add an extra dimension to Salinas’s work, and a depth to the reader’s understanding about Salinas the man as well as Salinas the poet.

To date, of Salinas’s eight books of poetry only his last, Elegy for Desire, still remains in print. The scarcity of his work makes this new reader all the more important, not just to those interested in Chicano literary and cultural scholarship, but to the entire contemporary poetry community. This collection of Salinas’s work not only serves to preserve his poetry, but also extends it to a new readership, who will undoubtedly benefit from his visionary verse that is at once profound, humble, and courageous.

Dripping with creative energy as a young man, Salinas literally had poems falling out of his pockets. Jotted down on bits of paper at a café or park during his days at Fresno State, he was known early on for his imaginative use of metaphor, and the ease with which he could free associate. After his more political first book, Salinas turned ever more inward, writing about his own life and dreams but at the same time touching on universal themes ranging from solitude and loneliness in the world, to the joy and beauty that appears if one is only willing to look for it. His poems urge the reader to stay positive and maintain hope despite the loneliness and disappointments in life that often seem to be unbearable burdens.

Frequently at emotional odds with the world, Salinas finds a way to learn through his poetry, and to use it as a tool for survival. Poetry sustains him, and allows him to move through despair, and beyond it, entering a realm of praise, gratitude, and acceptance. In the title poem of his 1987 collection The Sadness of Days: Selected and New Poems, Salinas begins:

I’ve been sad for days.

Not with the sadness of being born,

or the sadness of a torn romance.

But with the sadness of a poor man smiling.

Honestly, I would like to feel compassion

for those without luck.

I would like to touch their suffering

and say that I understand.

These days in November are obscure,

almost silver, and given to the heavens.

Honestly I want to find myself,

to sit under a tree with its dusty fruit

of salvation. I will take my place,

listen up, and have faith in all things.

The speaker hopes to find relief from a melancholia that has almost destroyed his sense of self. There is a tense shift in the final lines, and it’s with the declaration “I will” that we witness the speaker overcoming his sadness, for as the poem ends, the reader realizes that the speaker of the poem has indeed ‘taken his place’, has ‘listened up’, and that the poem itself is a declaration of ‘faith in all things’.

A man haunted by the early death of his mother, infatuated with the sea, tormented by bouts of manic depression, and in love with language and with ladies, Salinas proclaims in his final book Elegy for Desire, “I […] love life with an awkward loneliness.” (p. 129). Though perhaps his loneliness appears awkward to himself, it is a loneliness we all share, the crippling solitude of an individual existence. Filled with a sobering honesty about the duality of a contemplative life, of the pleasure and the solitude he struggled to reconcile, Salinas allows us to glimpse the world through his eyes. In his poem “Dreaming under the Clouds” from his last book, Salinas writes, “life comes like the swift rain, / and is gone…amid the storm, life’s bliss / and brooding buoyancy begin.” (p. 125).

His body of work speaks to the struggle of Chicanos, of the working class, but even more to the struggles of any life, regardless of ethnicity or socio-economic status. As Donald Wolff notes in his review of Sometimes Mysteriously, “Salinas occupies a liminal world, between Anglo and Mexican culture, but also somewhere between our daily awareness and something deeper that disturbs the surface of the mundane.” He is at once a Chicano poet, but also an American poet, a voice for all those who have felt lost in their own lives. This, I think, is why his work is still so important to so many readers: though his shared experiences are not universal, his reactions to them are, and he helps readers to discover a love of life regardless of the tumult it inevitably plunges us into. Salinas is a poet who writes for all of us buffeted by life’s tormenting storm.


Jake Young lives in Santa Cruz, California, and received his MFA from North Carolina State University. His most recent work appears or is forthcoming in Miramar, Fjords Review, Windfall: A Journal of Poetry of Place, Poecology, pacificREVIEW, TheCommonline Journal and Cloudbank. Last year he attended the 2014 Djerassi Resident Artists Program. Jake is also the poetry editor for the Chicago Quarterly Review.


Into the Wild: A Terrible Beauty - The Wilderness of American Literature by Jonah Raskin

Review by Eric Weinblatt

The word “wilderness” is constantly evolving and shaping the minds of writers. For some it is a setting of great mystery and adventure, for others it serves as a theme of inner peace and a rich connection with the very land they use as a backdrop. The influence of the unexplored and uncultivated shapes each writer differently, and the very definition of the term wilderness makes radical shifts from generation to generation. Jonah Raskin observes this word and successfully traces the influence it has as on the canonized writers of North America in his latest book A Terrible Beauty – The Wilderness of American Literature. Mastering literary theory and history, Raskin takes his readers beyond America’s literary canon to immerse them in a world that never fails to inspire and delight.

Before colonists revolted for independence, Europeans came to the continent of North America to explore a new wilderness to unsuccessfully attempt to cohabitate with the already prosperous native populous. While Native Americans had no formally written records of their own, European explorers documented their encounters, including vast details of the world they had been sent discover. These early records are filled with  inspirations they felt in the wondrous new world, and this would captivate  the more literary minded generations to follow. Some popular names that appear in the pre-colonial period include John Smith and William Bradford. Raskin reads these authors along with their European contemporaries including the infamous Daniel Defoe; to explore the power the wilderness had over the mind of the writers of the time. Many of these early documents have been stricken from the history books to preserve a more pristine image of the colonists. Fortunately, Jonah Raskin uncovers these with ease and uses them to introduce his readers to the wonderful natural world as well as canonically accurate plateau to embark on the understanding of the American literary canon. 

Continuing on through the American Revolution, Jonah Raskin traces the instances of wilderness in both fictional and nonfictional writing of the emerging decades. He contrasts early frontier writers such as Noah Webster and Washington Irving with the historical documentation of Lewis and Clark as they embark on their President-appointed quest of discovery. Jonah Raskin binds these narratives together while using contemporary theory to underscore and illuminate the various ways the open world of United States has influenced generations of writers. To some, the open world is a territory of danger and fear due to the implicit savagery they see in it. To others, however, the open world is an unknown frontier, an adventure to be conquered and a resource to be cultivated for personal and political gain. Raskin keeps all opinions chronological and balanced, offering up a richness that is found within the outside world.

As the white colonists expand westward, and the decades progress through the Civil War and into the present day, so too do those who embrace and shy away from the vast wilderness of the North American continent continue to emerge. Jonah Raskin colorfully exemplifies the experimentation and development of the great literary minds throughout American history, linking Melville and Emerson as well as Hawthorne and Thoreu to the land, and pointing out the impressions they continue to leave on readers today. Raskin works in a way as poetic as Whitman and as eloquent as Fitzgerald as he pieces together the canon of American writers paired with their contemporary theorists and how the world of nature reflects in each highly regarded piece.

Above all else, Jonah Raskin’s A Terrible Beauty – The Wilderness of American Literature serves as a field guide to the great outdoors and the canon that it breathes through. Raskin’s creative nonfiction tightly binds together the voices of several generations so that they too sing wilderness in America. A Terrible Beauty exemplifies the evolution of prose and poetry as the timeline ticks forward. Raskin reminds his readers that the world around them has many wonders to offer, and that in spite of fear or in the face of adventure, the natural world is place of inspiration and eclectic development. From John Smith to Gary Snyder, Jonah Raskin collects an epic of America nature writers, and explicates the beauty of their enduring canon. 

Jonah Raskin was born in New York and raised on Long Island. He attended Columbia College and the University of Manchester, England where he received his Ph.D. He has taught at Winston-Salem State College, The State University of New York at Stony Brook, and Sonoma State University (SSU). He moved to California in 1975 and began to teach in the English department at SSU in 1981. From 1988 to 2012 he was the chair of the communication studies department at SSU, where he taught media law, reporting and media marketing. He is now a professor emeritus. As a Fulbright Professor, he taught American literature at the University of Antwerp and the University of Ghent. From 1985-2005 he was the book critic for The Santa Rosa Press Democrat. He reviews books for The San Francisco Chronicle and writes for the Rag Blog and Swans. He is the author of fourteen books, including most recently James McGrath: in A Class By HimselfMarijuanaland: Dispatches from an American War, and Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California. He has published six poetry chapbooks among them Rock ‘n’ Roll Women: Portraits of a Generation. You can learn more about Jonah Raskin here.

A Terrible Beauty - The Wilderness of American Literature is available on Amazon.

Welcome to the Jungle-Gym: Swing Sets by Adriana Erin Rivera

Review by Eric Weinblatt

            Growing up, getting on, and moving out are often easier said than done, especially when you are someone who has been commuting to an Ivy League college from the home you’ve spent the last twenty-one years maturing in. Adriana Erin Rivera taps into this coming-of-age conflict and reflects on the trials and tribulations of post-graduation life in her debut novel Swing Sets. This heart-felt tale of transitions from small-town New Jersey to life in the Big Apple intermingled with the hustle and bustle of transitioning from studies to a career path in marketing and design is sure to captivate readers from the opening paragraph.

            Rivera’s Swing Sets captures the mindset of the millennial generation and works it through the development of the protagonist, Josefina Ruiz who embarks on the newest leg of her journey into the world of adulthood. Fortunately, Josefina is not restricted to her devices alone, and is joined by a colorful cast, which includes her loving and supportive, though infrequently pushy parents, and her best friend of the last four years, Bethany. This rich ensemble helps stabilize and propel Josefina forward as she exits the nest and prepares to take on the responsibilities of adulthood. Of course, growing up isn’t only about leaving home to embark on the quest of self-discovery; it often involves a little romance. Josefina gets a little help embarking on this portion of her journey from the kind and consistently steadfast Malcolm.

            Swept up in excitement and lustrous opportunity, Josefina never fails to look back and remember the simplicity that comes along with being a forever-kid. Constantly mapping her way back to the swing-set-jungle-gym-apparatus, Josefina captivates all those who tail her adventures into adulthood, and successfully helps construct a map to a very special kind of Neverland for the children in all of us. Rivera’s prose offers not only comfort and a distinguished sense of security in this state, but also lives in vivacity of shedding the security as protagonist Josefina enters into the world of an independent adult.

            For all of those looking for a coming-of-age story that stands out amongst the rest, they need look no further than Swing Sets. Debut author Adriana Erin Rivera captures hearts and imaginations with a brush of confidence and narrative ease. From front to back, Swing Sets reminds readers that it is never too late to grow up, and that all the potential fears that come along with age also come with a grasping sense of responsibility and accomplishments. Sprinkled with profound philosophies, Rivera has constructed a true-to-life adulthood emergence of a novel.

Adriana Erin Rivera is a writer of many genres. Journalism has lead her to celebrity interviews and exclusive stories with major publications such as the NY Metro newspaper, Latina Magazine,, and the Conde Nast publication Footwear News. You can learn more about Adriana here.

Swing Sets can be purchased from Amazon.

Who Can Float With This Pull?: Gravity by Elizabeth Rosner

Review by Eric Weinblatt

The walk of life is no simple stroll; rather it is a ballad that Elizabeth Rosner can strike all the chords to. In her latest collection, Gravity, Rosner recounts the life of her mother and father as they endure the horrors of the holocaust and reflects on growing up in their home. Paired with the incredible original artwork of Lola Fraknoi, Rosner’s words transcend time and space and speak to the brisk reality of human struggle. Elizabeth Rosner gently slips stones into her reader’s pockets and tips them into a sea of emotion. Each of these emotions is as tried and true as the history Rosner defines and illuminates with deeply personal anecdotes. While being an emotional rollercoaster of pain, perseverance, as well as dry and often very dark humor, Gravity is a collection that will resonate with readers for years to come.

Inheriting an unspeakablecomplex pain, Elizabeth Rosner instead composes a collection of poetry and prose poems,. The collection itself is divided out into three sections that collect poetry and longer prose poems. The works within Gravity tell the story of Elizabeth Rosner growing up in Jewish home, as well as the story of her parents. Both her mother and father endured the atrocities of the extermination camps during the holocaust and went on to lead a very a different life together in the United States. As a result, Rosner garners a seemingly unique perspective on the world and its historical accuracy, allowing her to color over the grayness with her poetic prowess. Gravity pulls at the heartstrings while boasting a song of identity. This song resonates through mother, father, daughter and sister as Rosner binds the family together in a collection that speaks volumes between each line of each stanza.

Furthermore, in a collection that is deeply personal, Elizabeth Rosner finds a language that is universal. While she resurrects the turmoil and desperation of her parents as they endure life in Europe, again in her own experiences, and clashing with her father as she attempts to take him back to Germany, Rosner speaks to the difficulty of fending off the demons brought on by genocide and allows herself and her readers to walk in her father’s shoes. Rosner also resurrects her mother as she delves into the complexities of tradition after the holocaust. This allows readers to become intimately connected to both her and her mother as the years progress, and feel the sharp pains of loss as Rosner recounts her mother’s funeral.

Overall, Gravity is a lavish collection that will go on to capture and pull at the hearts of each of its readers. Elizabeth Rosner is immensely talented, and refuses to hold back on the emotional rollercoaster of a family that is struck with tragedy after tragedy. While opening the table to discussion of horror, Rosner refuses to intimidate her audience, and rather delights and depresses equally with her pragmatic poetry. Few works can as adequately exhume such a sense of universal self as Gravity, which allows the collection to be a treasure that fails to missskip a beat. Fans of Jack Kerouac, Gary Young, and other prose-poets will tearfully rejoice as Rosner spins a tale through poetry that no reader will be able to forget.



Gravity is currently available on from Atelier26  

Elizabeth Rosner currently lives in Berkeley, California and is the author of three other titles: Blue Nude, Electric City, and The Speed of Light. More information about her can be found here.

Lola Fraknoi has worked as Director of Art with Elders and as the Director of Holocaust Survivors. She played a crucial role in the development of Salud! the largest mural in San Francisco and is responsible for the art found in Gravity. You can learn more about her here.



Crossing Off A List With Care: Lisette's List by Susan Vreeland

Review by Eric Weinblatt

In 1937, Europe is recovering from the Great War, peace is viable but tensions are high, and Lisette Roux relocates to Roussillon with her recent husband, André, to take care of his ill father Pascal. This is mildly unsettling for Lisette, as a town without a gallery is no place for her. She instead wishes the two of them could remain in Paris forever. Fortunately, Pascal takes quickly to Lisette and welcomes her to Roussillon with open arms that in turn aid in opening her mind. This begins with the mutual love of art, culture, and of course André. As time progresses, Lisette learns to weather harsh mistrals of winter and begins to think of Roussillon as home.

Quickly following the demise of Pascal, however, André is also taken from Lisette as he is recruited along with his life-long friend, Maxime, to battle to German army. With the Second World War on the rise, everything Lisette loves about France is placed in peril, which includes André, Maxime, and beautiful paintings, which she considers a staple of French society and culture. As the danger in Roussillon increases, Lisette is entrusted with the paintings she holds in highest esteem; that is, until they go missing. As Maxime and André face the perils of the Nazi invasion on the front lines, Lisette must do the same at home by breaking the social conventions of the town to keep herself and the other women informed of the war while she meticulously seeks out her lost treasures.

To illustrate this captivating conflict, Susan Vreeland has broken the barriers of time and space with her prose. Narrating in beautiful “picture words,” Vreeland successfully relocates her readers to Roussillon, a town that at first seems so backwards the natives greet each other by saying adieu. This, along with the imagery found in most every paragraph of Lisette’s List create the chaotic, and yet charming setting for Lisette’s journey that readers will find above all else, rather vivid.

Much like the artists she writes about, Susan Vreeland puts together things that don’t exist together in real life, and does so with style and heart. Her entire cast of characters are thoroughly rendered. Regardless if they are fictional characters or historical figures from the 1870's and 80's as well as 1930’s and 40’s, they are undoubtedly human, which causes the line of fiction to be blurred. As Susan’s fictional character Maxime says in the book,  “A great painting encourages us to feel some connection with the truth”, so too does Lisette’s List. Vreeland flirts vivaciously with truth and fiction, and allows her fiction to become a new form of truth.

Above all, Lisette’s List is an emotionally evocative and thoroughly touching piece of art. As Maxime so delicately puts it, “Art alone can’t tell the whole story. We need words to explain… It requires context to be understood fully”.  Susan Vreeland is gifted with this very language and context, and fortunately for her readers, she is willing to share her gifts. Her prose flows flawlessly from beginning to end, causing as much emotional unrest with each page turn as the impending mistrals of Roussillon. Fans of historical fiction, art, and spectacular narratives will rejoice as they make their way through the trials and tribulations of Lisette’s List, and may soon be making lists of their own. As a new fan, this reviewer has done just that:

Read Lisette’s List once more, and share its beauty with the world.


Lisette’s List is published by Random House and can be purchased from

Susan Vreeland is the author of nine works to date, including Girl in Hyacinth Blue, Luncheon of the Boating Party, and Clara and Mr. Tiffany. You can find more about her and her work here

Contemporary Translations in a Classic Voice: Shipwrecked on a Traffic Island and Other Previously Untranslated Gems by Colette, translation by Zack Rogow and Renée Morel

Review by Eric Weinblatt

Living from 1873 to 1954, French writer Colette penned countless articles, short stories, and novels such as Gigi and Cheri, both of which were turned into popular movies. Most recently, translators Zack Rogow and Renée Morel have combed through journals and past editions of French publications to collect a series of previously untranslated material. Fans of the French writer will rejoice at these treasures and newcomers will be captivated by the tenacity and poetics of this wonderful translation. Shipwrecked on a Traffic Island and Other Previously Untranslated Gems truly captures the voice and style put forth by Colette and is a welcome addition to English language literature.

The marvelous collection, spanning 195 pages, is broken down into ten sections. These sections vary based on period, form, and theme, flowing flawlessly between her advice columns and her short fiction. When the works were originally published in France, they were meshed together with such care that the bound collection reads from front to back with intent. Advice columns flow to memoirs which transition to anecdotes of pets and nature, rendering a binding that simply feels natural. Effortlessly, this encompasses essays critiquing wine, fashion, and of course the emerging roles of women as artists and performers in France during Colette’s time.

On the translation itself, the two authors do a stunning job of capturing the intent of the original work. Not being fluent in French myself, but having read a series of translated work by Colette,I’m familiar with the voice of Colette as it comes across in English. Rogow and Morel capture the whit and emotion fans will recognize from Gigi, when they read Shipwrecked on Traffic Island in which protagonist Hammond regretfully rescues his wife in a most dashing, yet remorseful way. Others will recognize the emotional outcries of Cheri as they read anecdotes like A Dream in which Colette speaks to a long-since-deceased pet whose name she cannot utter; as well as Colette Speaks to the Americans in which Colette herself broadcasts out to the United States, clamoring for assistance as France enters World War II.

Overall, new readers and fans alike will cherish this new collection as a stunning addition to any personal library. From beginning to end, readers will be captivated by Colette’s prose, poetry, memoir, and even the treat of one-act that up until now were separated and remained in their native tongue. Fans of Colette in translation will rave about Zack Rogow and Renée Morel as they offer up a truly poetic and charming translation that maintains the authority and voice put out by Colette. Fans of short fiction, nonfiction, and poetry all will not want to miss this edition, that sings in a voice worth remembering. 

Shipwrecked on a Traffic Island and Other Previously Untranslated Gems is published by Excelsior Editions and can be purchased on

You can learn more about Zack Rogow here 

Living Through Snapshots: My Life as Julia Roberts

Review by Eric Weinblatt

Growing up in Hollywood Hills is no simple task, particularly when one is balancing a modeling and acting career while being constantly mistaken for the infamous Julia Roberts. Liane Langford drives this, as well as the struggle of living with Crohn’s Disease from the late 1980’s to the foreground in her novella My Life As Julia Roberts: Snapshots of a Life. As the title promises, Liane offers anecdotal evidence as she develops each photo into a witty short story. Surrounded by a lively cast of characters, Liane Langford expresses the adventure that comes along with being discovered as a modeling talent in junior high school and progressing into an acting career.

As Julia Roberts, Liane Langford finds that love is ever fleeting and that beauty is only skin deep, but that is something to laugh at when you are wearing celebrity skin. Mingling anecdotes that showcase her unique sense of humor with tales of a more melancholy tone, Liane Langford shares the highs and lows of her adventures around the world, acting and struggling to maintain romantic relationships. Fortunately, for every bad romance Liane has a humorous tale of deceit, entrapment, or simply shoes and makeup. Behind every chuckle her collection has to offer, lay words of wisdom on finding love, escaping lust, and how to dress to impress in the entertainment industry.

Being highly imaginative, and very much in touch with her own narrative voice, Liane Langford is sure to impress anyone looking to peer through the foggy windows upon the inner-workings of Hollywood’s acting and modeling scene. More personal stories cushion the gritty interior as Liane informs her readers of her misadventures with family, ex-lovers, pets, and doctors who are adamantly unhelpful, or at the very most, offer the poorest of bedside manner. Liane Langford perseveres through each trial and does so with her own sense of flare and each anecdote will tug readers closer to Liane’s inner-circle. Anyone looking for a light summer read, or a quick tour-de-force of the inner-workings of a Hollywood actress need look no further than My Life As Julia Roberts: Snapshots of a Life.
Liane Langford’s work is available on

For more information, check out My Life As Julia Roberts on Facebook.

Book Review Guidelines

Welcome to Catamaran Literary Reader’s column for book reviews. Here at Catamaran we are dedicated to the pursuit of the arts past and present and are consistently on the lookout for new material. If you have published a piece and would like to garner some exposure, we encourage you to submit it to us for exactly that. However, we are aware that new work is created every second, and being a small non-profit publication, we do not have enough time or manpower to read every published work that comes to our door. To help us alleviate the weight of our already hefty inbox, we request that the work to be considered follow these guidelines:

1)   Please submit your request with a cover letter.

A) Your cover letter should give a brief summary of your work, informing us of your chosen genre, and stylistic choices, as well as the availability of your publication.

B) A strong argument as to why you feel your work should be reviewed by Catamaran.


2)   Please confirm that your work is a fit for Catamaran.

A)  At Catamaran Literary Reader we specialize in publishing poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction.

B) Catamaran Literary Reader focuses on West Coast themes, the arts, and nature and environment. This opens the door to memoir, all forms of poetry, and driven fiction.

C)  Our published works encompass a large array of formal and experimental forms. This is why we ask that you argue why you feel your work would be a welcomed part of the Catamaran book review archives.

3)   Please insure you can submit a physical copy of your work. A physical copy is the easiest way to make sure that each of our staff members are able to enjoy your work.

4)  To submit your cover letter for consideration, please contact our senior book reviewer Eric Weinblatt at

 Thank you all for your continued interest and creative input. We at Catamaran Literary Reader look forward to relishing in your creativity and assisting you in your artistic endeavors.

Happy writing,

Catamaran Literary Reader Staff