Monthly Archives: June 2015

A Time-Traveling Exploration of Spiritual Alternatives

CBR_Logo2Scroll Back: Travel in Time …
to Seek Eternal Life
A Novel
Jay Stamatis and Steven P. Stamatis

Billed as a thriller with Scriptural overtones and written by the father-and-son team of Illinoisans Steven and Jay Stamatis, the premise of Scroll Back is an intriguing one: a novel exploring honestly and without irony what most would call a conspiracy theory. Although the book could easily veer into kitsch, the sincerity with which it is written keeps it from being tacky.

The novel, which tackles “the relentless search for God,” delves into questions regarding the role of the individual in determining how history gets recorded and in what manner it is preserved. The historical dialogue in this novel is vast in scope—foci range from the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Bermuda Triangle. The plot moves through space—from the United States to Mexico to Belgium—and, most importantly, through time. Scroll Back’s time-traveling characters move between the present, the late twentieth century, and all the way back to the time of John the Baptist. Throughout these leaps scroll back FC9781503121270through time and space, the reader witnesses people governed by their own time and theories—religious or otherwise—preserving and discarding facts of their present. The effect this has is revealed when the novel is in what serves as its present day: History is contrived by those with power.

What the reader learns is that history is selective, and one is prompted to continue along this line of investigation: How does the selectivity of history affect the present and people looking back? The protagonists of the novel—Peter Mandes and Alex Mostovolov—provide a lens through which these historical questions can be explored.

Despite the avenue they create for the compelling lines of thought presented in the novel, however, the characters in this novel come across as tools rather than their own agents. They serve primarily as mouthpieces airing what seem to be unfounded opinions from an outside party. The characters are functionally effective, but are kept from being truly interesting due to their lack of development or personality. Motivations are clear in that they are explicitly stated rather than being illustrated through action or dialogue, but this does not keep the characters from coming off as mere shadows rather than real people. The lack of attention to character exploration is further underscored by unrealistic dialogue and unexplained mental leaps contrived to advance the plot.

The plot of Scroll Back is highly intentional and tightly structured. This is both a strength and a weakness: Although the novel is confident in how it wants to proceed, its rigidity keeps it from being believable, puts too many constraints upon characters, and makes the presentation of information awkward. For this reason, the novel often reads as a series of information dumps strung together with hard-to-follow lines of logic. Luckily, although the plot is hard to follow, it is redeemed slightly in that its focus and thematic scope are interesting.

Stylistically, outside of instances of compelling word choice, the writing itself is vague and non-descriptive. Its clumsiness and ambiguity, alongside issues of characterization, prove to cloud what was a premise with great potential. As a result, Scroll Back has a thought-provoking foundation, but it struggles to clearly or realistically articulate what it has set out prove.

One-Star Review

January 2015, GK Publishing
$17.95, paperback, 314 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1503121270

—Reviewed by Cassandra Verhaegen


Leave a comment

Filed under fiction

You Shall Uphold Him

CBR_Logo2The Waxen Poor
by J. D. Schraffenberger

In The Waxen Poor, J. D. Schraffenberger, associate professor of English at Northern Iowa University and associate editor of The North American Review, meditates on “Brother Tom,” apparently a semi-fictional version of his schizophrenic brother. The title of the collection comes from Leviticus 25:35: “And if thy brother be waxen poor, and fallen in decay with thee; then thou shalt relieve him: yea, though he be a stranger …” Schraffenberger explores this special obligation in skillfully crafted poems offering candid observations on the illness, brotherhood, and the parallels between “madness” and poetic creativity.

The poems in this book display grave equanimity in the face of nearly incomprehensible strangeness. It is not clear what one should make of the schizophrenic sibling. He is the loved brother and the paranoiac, the cheerful singer and messianic fanatic, playful child and deeply reticent young man. He both is, and is not, emotionally accessible. To exist in this way is

 To be the living marker of one’s own death…
Is to say to any who’ll listen: Here lies Brother Tom
Of two minds / Lost or won / And writ as water / In the night.

On occasion these forward slashes appear within the lines, which are then both whole and fractured. This device is no mere gimmick as it is used sparingly anthe waxen poord effectively. An uneasy duality appears in other guises as well, most memorably in the conflation of different consciousnesses. “We restless brothers, we unlikely two, recline side by side /…/ Not knowing which one we will be tonight, Him or Me,” the poet writes in “Sleep and his Brother Death.” The boundaries between sanity and insanity, love and aversion, self and other are traversed often enough that they begin to disintegrate.

“Brother Tom” also refers to John Keats’s brother, Thomas, who died of tuberculosis. Keats probably contracted the disease from his brother, and the poet alludes vaguely to the idea of contagion: “I fear my brother’s illness,” he confesses in “To My Brother.” He “[muses] on the unseen meanings in things…on the significance of smoke in the sky…the uneasy rhyme of this with that.” Is there something dangerous, or paranoid, in the way random literary associations shape a poem? In “Song,” Schraffenberger navigates the moment at which a longing to communicate with his brother through innocuous, playful language degenerates into something bleak, as a sort of nursery rhyme takes on a more sinister tone:

O meek dirt eater, you bogus little biddy,
You shabby-chic la-di-doddler,
Come hum the tune with us…
Look, the haystack’s burning, the sheep’s unshorn.
The cow’s gone mad, the boy’s unborn.
O please won’t you sing or whistle at least?

There is risk in entering this world. Even the number 14 becomes troublingly significant. It is the age when Brother Tom had a major psychotic break, the number of years he lived, and also the number of lines in a sonnet. Schraffenberger’s sonnets stand out for their emotional acuity and unforced technical brilliance. The phrasing of “Errare” is hypnotic, tight and vivid, describing Brother Tom’s psychosis against the backdrop of rural Appalachia:

From the wander, the soy and cornfield wander,
To the barb and prick of wire fences rusted orange,
From the settling guiltless, cross-legged among the cows,
To the silent revelation of hoof and tail, mud and clay,
From the quiet coming of cops, hands hovering holsters,
To the rowdy ushering forth, the handcuffs and escort home,

 You rise, brawling, all scrum and froth, all tooth and nail,
Into the heady realm of metaphysical fragility, where
Thought becomes thought becomes thought becomes true,
Where no one can change the dreaming / but you.

The alliteration and ellipsis in “hands hovering holsters” captures the breathless despair of the bystander and witness. In the last line, the forward slash again creates a fissure, curbing an increasingly manic meter and rhyme, pressing back as reality against dream.

Schraffenberger finds inspiration in nature as well as in literature and art history, from John William Waterhouse, Walt Whitman, W. C. Williams, and the Bible, at times reaching across millennia for the perfect image. For instance, he precisely conveys a confusing mix of fascination and alienation by likening an archaic sculpture of a young, heroic warrior to “Mean Tommy with a stink, baseball cap pulled low over the eyes / … here is your lost / Archaic smile—flat, unnatural, timelessly amused.” In this seamless fusion of classical and contemporary themes, the image is both marvelous and disturbing.

Whether in traditional or invented forms or prose poetry, the language of The Waxen Poor is always fluid without a jot of slack, perhaps reminiscent of the work of David Ferry or Tom Sleigh. The collection has a thematic kinship with Sherod Santos’s The Pilot Star Elegies, which also is haunted by the mental instability and death of a sibling. But where Santos offers an anguished, forthright analysis of his sister’s suicide, Schraffenberger’s poems evoke the subtle pain of estrangement with a steady hand and a fine chisel.

There is no pretense of perfect understanding, no bid for closure. In the final poem, Schraffenberger embraces an ongoing vigil, writing of his “brother, born for adversity,” “I’ll need to mourn him more carefully”—yet that would be hard to imagine.

Four-Star Review

July 2014, Twelve Winters Press
$14.99, paperback, 63 pages
ISBN: 978-0989515153

—Reviewed by Vicky Albritton


Filed under fiction

CBR Celebrates 2 Years!

CBR_Logo2It’s our two-year anniversary today, and I’m feeling grateful and excited.

The idea for Chicago Book Review germinated a few years ago, and—long story short—it took a while to pull it all together: getting the URL, working with publishers to get the first batch of books to review, designing logos, and so on. CBR launched with ten book reviews of new titles from local publishers like Agate Publishing, Allium Press, Lake Claremont Press, Sourcebooks, University of Chicago Press—publishers whose books we continue (and will continue) to review.

During the past two years, we’ve published scores of reviews as well as numerous features, including our “Local Author Spotlight” pieces, which have featured the likes of Susanna Calkins, Robert Hellenga, and Rebecca Makkai. We’ve posted countless literary events going on in city and suburbs. And, we’ve welcomed more than a dozen volunteer reviewers—the folks who share their time, energy, and passion for books and reading so we can review more and more books.

Truly, Chicago Book Review wouldn’t be half of what it is today without the support of our reviewers, local authors, local publishers, and loyal readers. I am really very grateful for everyone who has become part of the CBR community. Four-Star Review

And, I’m excited about the future, as we continue to review more books and highlight various aspects of local and regional publishing. Our reviewers are working on the latest batch of books, and still more titles are awaiting review. Publishers and authors continue to share their work with us so we can share our thoughts about those books with you. We like to think of it as a virtuous circle, one that shines a spotlight on local authors, local publishers, and local subject matter.

With hundreds of thousands of books being published every year—and countless blogs and websites and tweets and posts—we know that your time is short and valuable. We hope that our reviews point you in the direction of good books that you might not otherwise discover, to new authors that you might not have heard of, and to new genres that you might not typically explore.

We might not like everything we read—and we’ll tell you if that’s the case—but we strive to be fair and honest, providing reviews that go beyond “I liked the book” or “the characters were interesting” to something a little more meaty, something you can sink your teeth into. Luckily, we’ve reviewed a lot of books we like, and some we really love. Maybe a few clunkers as well, but just because we might not like a book doesn’t mean you won’t. Either way, we continue to encourage you to check out the books coming from local authors and local publishers as well as books that look at local and regional subjects, whether fiction or nonfiction. There’s a lot of good stuff being published, right in your neck of the woods by people who just might live in your neighborhood. Thank-you

I could go on and on about publishing in general and publishing in Chicago. But I’ll be brief today, and just say this: Chicago is my kind of town, and I couldn’t be happier to be living here among such great people, working in an industry I love in the city I love. And if through Chicago Book Review I’m able to get just one more reader to Read Local, well, then, I’m a happy girl.

—Kelli Christiansen


Filed under feature