BLUE SUMMER (2020)
by Jim Nichols, Islandport Press, 268 pages, $17.95
Jim Nichols’ striking new novel opens with 40-year-old Cal Shaw settling in to tell his life story during a stint at Bolduc Correctional Facility. We don’t know what’s put him behind bars, but it isn’t his first trip up the river. Then we flash back to a trailer park in Florida two years earlier, where Cal’s playing his trombone and pondering a musical composition while getting ready for a shift driving a taxi. And then it’s 30 years earlier, in Maine, when Cal is just 10 years old, and his father dies.
Everything is now in place for a layered coming-of-age novel about family tragedy and trauma, grief, abuse, creative ambition, and the inescapable present — in which Cal must confront his past.
Blue Summer was published by a small press that specializes in books set in New England, but the novel deserves much wider recognition. Nichols consistently sets up tense situations to pique the reader’s interest and keep the pages turning, and he deftly captures essential facets of a child’s experience of loss. “It was strange … because you could never stare at him without his feeling it and looking around with a grin,” he writes of Cal seeing his father in his casket at the funeral. “Only this time, he just lay there, he didn’t sit up or grin, and finally I made myself leave and walk stiffly back to the pew. My steps echoed in the open space of the church and left a dark resonance in my mind, a new feeling that added to the strangeness.”
DESERT THRENODY (2020)
by John Macker, auxarczen press, 135 pages, $18
The American Southwest is home to the poetic lineage of Outlaw writers — men who eschew the metered breath of the ivory tower in favor of the erratic pacing of streets. Poet John Macker came of age in this scene in the late 1970s and ’80s. He read in Denver cafés and eventually made his way to Santa Fe, under the shadow and mentorship of Beat poets, who functioned as sort of spiritual elders to the Outlaws. In his most recent collection, Desert Threnody, Macker offers decidedly nonacademic essays that honor and deconstruct the work of some of these writers (some whom embodied the ethos of the Beats and Outlaws, but eschewed labels), many of whom he knew personally, including Edward Dorn, Stuart Z. Perkoff, and Tony Moffeit.
“One of the first times I heard [Moffeit] up close was at some third floor converted minimalist red brick Kerouac-esque warehouse space in downtown Denver,” Macker writes. “I was wondering who this cat was, from Pueblo, Colorado, dressed in shiny black leather, accompanying himself on the bongos in some incantatory, skinny white shadow. He had his voice down and it was a good sound. I remember walking away perplexed.”
Desert Threnody also features a one-act play, Coyote Acid, and an array of short fiction, all of which embody the Outlaw aesthetic of hard living, moral flexibility, and street smarts that can only be accrued through whole seasons spent drinking in arroyos.
GETTING TO CENTER: PATHWAYS TO FINDING YOURSELF WITHIN THE GREAT UNKNOWN (2020)
by Marlee Grace, William Morrow, 225 pages, $17.99
Marlee Grace isn’t a trained psychotherapist or self-anointed guru. She’s a dancer and teacher in her early 30s who has advice for readers who are striving for self-improvement. But she doesn’t promise that her new book, Getting to Center, will deliver perfect mental health or spiritual enlightenment. Getting to Center is about developing one’s “practice” — which could be creative, physical, or even financial — in order to become more fulfilled and grounded. Grace’s previous book, How to Not Always Be Working: A Toolkit for Creativity and Radical Self-Care (2018) explored connections and divisions between work and personhood. In Getting to Center, she encourages readers to encounter life as a process rife with successes, failures, and lessons, and to never be afraid to reevaluate choices, even ones that seem set in stone.
Despite the title of her first book, in Getting to Center, Grace embraces concepts of “self-care” and “mindfulness” but writes for a broad, not-necessarily-New Age audience, and avoids these sorts of overused buzzwords in favor of a more practical approach to wholeness. “When we look at practice, we look at commitment,” she writes. “A lot of what I have been thinking about, writing about, and am presenting to you is about breaking commitments. How to do so with ease and grace, how to do so while still being in love with yourself and the world around you.”
LAUGHING IN THE LIGHT (2020)
by Jimmy Santiago Baca, Museum of New Mexico Press, 192 pages, $17.95
New Mexicans know Jimmy Santiago Baca as a homegrown poet who came into his creativity while serving a prison sentence when he was in his early 20s. He learned to read and write behind bars, and produced an award-winning book of poetry, Immigrants in Our Own Land (1979). Since then, he’s written almost two dozen books of poetry and prose, often focusing on themes of social justice and Chicano culture. His newest essay collection, Laughing in the Light, covers the last few decades and follows Baca to Hollywood, where he worked on a feature film and learned some hard truths about the way the world works. He did lots of drugs, had lots of sex, and kept writing. For all of his success and acclaim, however, Baca often seems to be wrestling with his ego in this book, trying to prove something to the criminals who wanted to suck him into the underworld forever but whom he ultimately resisted, and to the “celebrity poets,” who he says wanted to save him from his past but feared where his writing actually came from.
“Even as they went on to important university posts and awards for their work, I knew I was a much more gifted poet, and it was proven in example after example, where they stood embarrassed after crowds of poetry lovers had come to hear me read,” he writes. “And though the literary establishment had hailed these other poets as great, had fondled them with kid gloves and supported them with grants and fellowships and company acclaim, they sat and listened to me read poetry and, against all their efforts, loved me.”
POPPY REDFERN AND THE FATAL FLYERS: A WOMAN OF WORLD WAR II MYSTERY (2020)
by Tessa Arlen, Berkley, 213 pages, $16
Technically, World War II took place between the first and second waves of feminism, but it was wartime in the mid-20th century when middle- and upper-class women really took to the workforce in the United States and Europe — joining their working-class peers in factories and government offices. Historical mystery author Tessa Arlen celebrates these women in her Woman of World War II Mystery series, which is set in England and features the plucky yet refreshingly jaded Poppy Redfern. In the second installment, Poppy Redfern and the Fatal Flyers, our intrepid amateur detective has taken an entry-level position as a scriptwriter for the London Crown Film Unit, making short films about ordinary people performing acts of patriotic valor. For her first assignment, she interviews members of the Air Transport Auxiliary, female pilots (known as “Attagirls”) who fly unarmed at low altitudes to deliver airplanes from factories to airfields. But, on the first day of filming, a pilot suddenly plummets from the sky. Poppy soon suspects that this accident was actually murder.
“The feminism of Poppy and the Attagirls is handled with a light touch,” Angie Barry writes at criminalelement.com. “Arlen makes it clear how frustrated they are by patriarchal attitudes — a universal, eternal female experience, sadly — but nothing comes across as out of place for the time. Poppy and the Attagirls are trailblazers moving into spheres once wholly dominated by men, yes, but they still feel like products of their age, and are characters who were inspired by actual heroines.” — Jennifer Levin