Book Reviews

Here is a selection of short book reviews that I wrote for the Los Angeles Review.



Dreamweed/Traumkraut – poems by Yvan Goll, translated by Nan Watkins.  Black Lawrence, 2012

Reviewed by Stephanie Barbé Hammer

German-speaking countries have produced poets of enormous range and power for centuries.  Walter von der Vogelweide crafted beautiful love poems in the Middle Ages, while Paul Fleming and Gryphius gave meaning, wit and spiritual power to the sonnet during the Baroque period. Historian/philosopher Friedrich Schiller’s seminal “To Joy” is later set to music in Beethoven’s famous 9th Symphony.  Avant-garde poetry in particular gathers force with German speakers, Hugo Ball, Paul Celan, and the poet/visual artist Jean (also known as Hans) Arp are important contributors to poetic innovation.

Like Arp, Yvan Goll  (1891-1950) was bilingual  – he spoke and wrote both French and German. Also like Arp, Goll wrote increasingly in French.  Yet, at the end of his life, he re-discovered his love for German in exile: first in New York (where he had spent some of the war years) and then in Paris, where he died after a struggle with leukemia. During this period Goll composed the poems that make up Dreamweed (the translation of Traumkraut).

A ghostly linguistic longing haunts the poems of the collection – offered both in German and in Nan Watkins’ adept English translation.  Language is at once a canine hunter in the heart of the poet (“Bluthund/Bloodhound”), trees that attach to his limbs (“Die Kastanienhand/The Chestnut Hand,” “Die inneren Baume/The inner Trees”), and the call of an unnamed “brotherly” southern direction (“Süd/South”).  Watkins works to approximate the alliterative and surprising melodic capabilities of German, and she succeeds brilliantly in moments such as these:

South brotherly South

Brush the question from my brow

Thaw this loner free

From the grieving glaciers  (“Süd/South”)

Poems towards the end of the collection gesture towards Goll’s complicated identity/stance as a Jewish poet.

We had no house like the others on a safe mountain slope

We always had to keep wandering  (“Die Aschenhütte/The Ash Hut”)

Appropriately, the collection ends with the trees of the earlier poems becoming themselves a dangerous forest of dust, against which the poet pits his language and his love, which he will celebrate and transport to a desert that hints at a different geography altogether than that of cold Europe or cold America:

I’ll have our saga of our love preserved in quartz

The gold of our dreams buried in a desert 

(“Der Staubbaum/The Tree of Dust”). 


Through these translations, Watkins offers American readers and writers access to an important writer, whose work has been lost for too long in the dust forest of forgetting.

(LAR, Fall 2013)


The Girl with Brown Fur

Fiction by Stacey Levine

Starcherone Books, 2011
ISBN-13: 978-0984213344
$20.00, 175pp.
Reviewed by Stephanie Barbé Hammer


There is an abundance of beautiful strangeness in this collection of twenty-eight tales, as if Kafka, Beckett, Perec, and Pinter met George Saunders and Aimee Bender in some neglected American suburban center and they all decided to be- come neighbors and adopt cats. Some stories self-consciously employ the strata- gems of the fairy tale, riffing on Jack’s Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood’s fears of wolfish intruders. Other stories employ metafictional interjections to comment on their own creation and artificial structuring. A last group resemble prose-poem sketches, which focus predominantly on trembling, hurtling, and/or hysterically legalistic men.

The narrative language throughout The Girl with Brown Fur is crystalline and intensely elegant, often at comic odds with the terse speech of the characters themselves. But Levine’s invented people are always compelling, no matter how they talk. The most effective of these tales—and the most oddly uplifting—fea- ture two women of different ages. Janice-Katie and her former babysitter, Mrs. Beck, squabble as only women can, but in one sublime instance they achieve a surprising emotional (and physical) velocity. At such moments, Levine’s work is not only unique, but delivers a uniquely stirring narrative, providing us with ac- cess to feelings and possibilities we did not know we had.


(LAR, 12, Fall 2012)


Shampoo Horns
Flash Fiction by Aaron Teel
Rose Metal Press, 2012
ISBN-13: 978-0984616657
$12.00; 64pp.
Reviewed by Stephanie Barbé Hammer

One of the continuing pleasures of American fiction is its ability to focus on the small in the midst of the gargantuan space that constitutes the variegated U.S. landscape. Huckleberry Finn manages to be at once national and local—grounded, mired, one might even say, in a specific place. This ability to manifest the national while sinking toes into the local applies to such writers as Aimee Bender, Annie Proulx, Phillip Roth, and Richard Russo. They feel American to us, because they are enmeshed in a particular space that is so uniquely and clearly home to their characters.

The nested boxes of an empire that lies within the small that lies within the big is the subject of Aaron Teel’s flash fiction collection Shampoo Horns, which focuses on a trailer park in a good-for-nothing town in the sprawling state of Texas. Told from the point of view of a boy-narrator in what may or may not be an accurate reminiscence, the collection begins as a series of portraits. Teel’s collection then gradually travels from trailer to trailer, looking through miniscule doors, and open windows, in acts of surreptitious watching that grow increasingly dangerous and compelling. The danger comes to us, thanks to the arrival of Clay, an older boy, who may or may not be the narrator’s actual relative, and who brings a welcome tension to the proceedings. Oddly charismatic despite or because of his abilities as a bully, Clay ups the ante on the narrator’s childhood adventures, which culminate in an act of betrayal and an act of violence; Teel explains these belatedly by reversing the temporal order of the narrative presentation. Through this move, we discover only later that a particularly terrible scene of torture occurs right before the culminating events. All this is told with a terse, understated lyricism:

“You’re a thunofabitch,” he shouted, “just like your asshole brother.” I felt a white-hot rush of pride mixed with shame, but I couldn’t think of how to respond so I didn’t say anything.”

The relationship between the boys is complicated and rewarding to read about—fueled by abuse and an uncomfortable mutual fascination. This dark relationship drives the reader through the small stories of this collection, which erupts—literally—in a final, destructive tornado.



The Way We Sleep
Stories edited by C. James Bye and Jessica Bye
Curbside Splendor, 2012
ISBN-13: 978-1936747313
$15.95; 168pp.
Reviewed by Stephanie Barbé Hammer

At once a hybrid text and a compendium of tales related more or less loosely to the theme of sleep, this generously sized volume edited by C. James Bye and Jessica Bye offers flash-length tidbits and short stories by well-known and less well-known writers, interviews with movie and TV directors, and a healthy dose of comics. Stand out stories are those by Steve Himmer, Dakota Sexton, and Billy Lombardo, while the comics “Erika’s Dream,” and “Bed Man” leap off the page with pleasingly vibrant visual complexity. The comics section closes with the tantalizing and oddly poignant “Asleep.” While the individual stories do not always persuade, the volume displays an exciting interest in postmodern juxtapositions of textualities—which at their most powerful, co-create an intricate web of narratives.



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