The President’s Room by Ricardo Romero

-Reviewed by Joshua Lambert-

The President’s Room (Charco Press) is the tenth book by Argentinian writer Ricardo Romero, but there’s a good chance you won’t know that since this is the first one to be published in English, translated by Charlotte Coombe.

The novella, in truth, is more premise than story. In this unnamed town in an unnamed country, every house has a room set aside for the president, kept clean and filled with items he might find useful.

Sometimes the family plays games, imagining what the president will do with each object: the whisky decanter, the books, the magnifying glass, the revolver. Our protagonist, also unnamed, is an insightful, thoughtful schoolboy, who spends the duration of the novella rationalising his surroundings and writing about his house, his family, and the president. Mostly the president. Throughout, the border between strangeness and familiarity are kept so close as to be indistinguishable.

The book itself is short and sparse; pages show snippets and fragments, some only a line or two long, but more often a paragraph. Each fragment is more or less self-contained, and, even, self-sufficient. You could flick to any page at random and find something to mull over for a good few minutes. Every so often we are snapped into present tense, reminding us that our protagonist seems to be sitting at his desk, musing and writing. We’ll learn that he’s got a fever, or that his brother has gone missing again, and then go back to ruminations about blocks of flats, and the unknown things that happen there.

Given that the story’s world is described so sparingly, a lot of its power is in the unspoken and the barely implied. Where are we? What’s happened here? The country seems to be recovering from something.

Basements have been banned and boarded up, as “People say that terrible things used to happen before, in the basements.” What things? Before what? The school, a big school, doesn’t have enough children in the neighbourhood to fill it. Why not? And why does that one boy, who rumour says actually received a visit from the president, have “a worried look on his face, as if it’s suddenly become the face of an adult”?

These small mysteries work perfectly in The President’s Room, and the low page count leans into this. You get a feeling that the written words are the tip of the iceberg, and there’s a large, chilling something lying beneath the pages.

The prose is contemplative rather than poetic, which is a good thing. Our main character displays extraordinary clarity in his observations; his account of his house is more philosophical than poetic. Even at its most luscious, when the protagonist describes his fever, the prose is deeply layered with theme and thought:

“I touch my face and the skin of my face doesn’t recognise the skin of my hands. My skin is a wall and I don’t know what’s on one side and what’s on the other.”

It’s not the first or last time we see an alignment of body and house, an alignment that brings no small measure of anxiety:

“I think: houses shouldn’t be touching all the time I don’t know what shape our house is. I don’t know what shape my body is, my body that’s always touching something. As I think this, I shudder.”

It is particularly impressive that such precision of thought and language has made it so well through the translation, thanks to Coombe.

The book’s blurb tells us that Romero has been compared to Kafka, Calvino, and Cortázar and, even if such a comparison may be overdrawn, you can indeed see the similarities: an imaginative mundanity; the influence of a — perhaps malevolent — bureaucracy; a heady, conceptual leaning. There is an awful lot going on here. Philosophical, political, psychological.

The question is this: do you want to puzzle out the metaphors of the President’s room? The novella begs interpretation, but can be very open ended. I, for one, don’t know how to interpret the book’s closing pages, and what about the overarching idea, the President’s room itself? Should I read it as a comment on politics’ insidious presence in the domestic sphere? The danger of centralised, total power? A meditation on a post-war community? Or maybe it’s purely a psychological exercise, about the experiential possibilities of a house?

Without some form of interpretation, reading it solely on a literal level, it can be hard to know what to do with The President’s Room, leading to a sense of either ‘getting it’ or not.

There can be a certain frustration in a book that expects interpretation to such a large extent, whilst being open-ended, but then, depending on your leaning, it can also be thrilling.

Ultimately, The President’s Room made me feel curious, pensive, and vaguely unsettled in the best way. For an 82 page novella, that’s awfully impressive.

Flash Fiction Festival Two edited by Jude Higgins, Santino Prinzi and Diane Simmons

-Reviewed by Cath Barton-

It’s a moot point whether many people buy anthologies of flash fiction other than the writers whose work features in them. I think, though, that there is definitely a wider audience for the very short fiction in Flash Fiction Festival Two (Ad Hoc Fiction), the anthology published after the second literary festival devoted entirely to flash fiction, held in June 2018.

The flash fiction community is one which mainly exists online, and while many of the writers of flash get to know one another virtually, opportunities for them to get together in real life – other than in local gatherings – are rare. The Flash Fiction Festival which was held for the first time in 2017 in Bath, and looks set now to be an annual event, brought together over 100 writers from around the world for its second gathering, this time in Bristol.

The Festival, directed by Jude Higgins, attracted many of the most prestigious writers of flash to give talks and lead workshops. The anthology is a selection of the work submitted by participants after the event. Unlike other anthologies, which may have a theme but otherwise no link between the contents, this is largely work specifically inspired by – and in some cases started in – workshops which their authors attended during the Festival.

The anthology is divided into chapters according to the workshops which inspired them, including Prose Poetry (Carrie Etter), Historical Flash Fiction (Nuala O’Connor), Short and Weird (Calum Kerr) and other intriguing topics such as Move, Meditate and Create (Alison Powell). There is also a chapter of stories which emerged elsewhere.

Dipping into the stories I found lyricism, humour, mystery, horror, poignancy, experimentation and, throughout, strong voices. There are fine examples in the anthology of how the condensed form of flash fiction can convey emotion very powerfully.

Here’s the visceral experience of loss in ‘Dad‘ by Richard Toon:

“You’re taking walks with an invisible cane you can hear tapping on the pavement. You can taste the movement of the curtains in the room where you are sitting, and people are pouring into you from the wallpaper.”

Again, in the final lines of Ali McGrane’s ‘The Last Sheep‘:

“The ewe shuddered from head to tail as her fleece pooled and we released her.

She flew through that doorway into the light, and something in me broke. I looked into my father’s eyes, watched him slump with the pain of knowing.”

The range of imaginative word painting is wonderful, from well-known and fledgling authors alike. From Clare Marsh’s ‘Turned Upside Down‘ we have- “The twin-tub shudders under the burden of my flannelette sheets”, and from Michael Loveday’s ‘The Pond‘ – “A dragonfly rips madly over the water like a ball of flaming magnesium.”

Those submitting pieces prompted by the workshop sessions were invited say something about how they were inspired. I was particularly struck by Anna Nazarova-Evans’ comment about the workshop Extraordinary Points of View (John Brantingham and Grant Hier): ‘By the end of the workshop I felt almost proud of my unique writing voice and let go of the fear that most wouldn’t be able to relate to my stories.’

It’s so good to read of writers feeling empowered in this way. Nazarova-Evans’ story in the anthology, ‘Cucumbers’, is a wonderful example of how so much can be conveyed in the short form:

“Svetlana paid me no attention, instead she stared into the fibres of the carpet. She carried on eating, slowly, methodically dunking each bit of cucumber into salt and raising it to her lips.”

Deborah Tomkins, whose micro ‘The Summer We Turn Four and Three‘ is powered up by a change from present to past tense for the final line, was inspired in Ken Elkes’ workshop Make it Sing, and she comments on the fact that he encouraged writers to do things like changing tense or point of view so as ‘to go into your discomfort zone, to take risks. You are more likely to fail, and also more like to produce something good. Readers appreciate distinctiveness, boldness and new ideas’.

I found the writers’ comments on how they had been inspired during the Festival the most interesting aspect of the anthology, and I wanted to know more about what had gone on in all those the sessions. The positive side of this (intended or not by the editors) may be to encourage readers to sign up for the next Flash Fiction Festival!

Flash Fiction Festival Three has subsequently also been published by Ad Hoc Fiction (following the third festival which took place in Bristol in June 2019), and booking is open for the fourth Flash Fiction Festival which takes place at Bristol Trinity College from Friday 19 – Sunday 21 June 2020.

Milk: An Anthology of Eroticism edited by Sophie Essex

-Reviewed by Charlie Baylis-

“The sexual act is in time what the tiger is in space”

These words from Georges Bataille hover above editor Sophie Essex’s introduction to Milk: An Anthology of Eroticism. The quote is pleasingly detached from reality: What is the tiger doing in space? How did it get there? How is a tiger in space actually similar to sex?

The best poems and stories in Milk shimmer on a similarly slanted, enchanted frequency. They shift gravity like Sarra Said-Wardell in ‘Body of Water’: ‘I look up/ as I am being flipped onto my back: /miles & miles of sky’, they linger with Francesca Kritikos in the chambers of her dazzlingly decadent ‘[In my] Jean-Luc Godard wet dream’:

I lay on a soft pile of money on a red velvet sofa in
the brightly-lit living room of a 1960s Mediterranean
villa with demonic black-eyed Modigliani nudes hung
on the walls.

And they float like Nina Ward in ‘fontanelle’ – undressed and uninhibited in happy hard core:

close your eyes into blue
& black fists plucked
nipples slick but please

kiss it like the dent in
newborn skull lick it you’ve got
to get at least 2 fingers in

The best poems and short stories in Milk take sex to an unexpected place (remember the tiger in space). A place free of shame and embarrassment about our clumsy human forms. The message is sex positive with a liberated, catholic attitude to fucking, the body and fantasy.

One of my favourite poems in Milk is Rosie Quattromini’s ‘Millennial Pink’, which on first sigh seems as soft as candyfloss, with shades from cheap and cheerful 90s party smash Barbie Girl. The poem sings:

i dye my hair rose pink
take pictures with my rose
gold iphone in its pink glitter case
join me in this pink and plastic world
it is a cute and sexy world

The vapidity of these lines parodies the vapidity of consumer culture. Quattromini’s pink and plastic world reminds me of the wonderfully disposable ‘Life in plastic – it’s fantastic’ hook in Barbie Girl. Somewhere behind the lines is a tinge of sadness, though the surfaces of Quattromini’s poem are slick and shiny, the sadness cannot be escaped, it is as if the poem knows its destiny is to be thrown away.

One minor quibble I have with Milk is that there is a lack of diversity in writing style. Though the writers focus on different things, the majority approach sex similarly: a style that recalls Kim Addonizio, Ada Limón and other trailblazing writers of the babyboomer generation. Though this is a style I enjoy, perhaps Milk is missing is something new. Post-internet, are we really going to be shocked by content? No matter how debauched or graphic, I feel the answer is no. The space tiger needs to be blasted into a different dimension, a new galaxy must be discovered. Interestingly, on reading the contributor’s bio notes I notice many of them are based in and around Norwich, perhaps Sophie Essex could have cast the net wider for variety’s sake, a greater diversity would have been gratifying.

I deeply enjoyed reading Milk, there are hits and misses in any anthology but I was delighted to find more hits. Milk has opened my mind to a fresh constellation of young and piquant voices. I will read more work from the poets I’ve quoted from plus the excellent Fred Spollar and Jared Pollen. The sexual act is in time what the tiger is in space: No I don’t get it but I like to think the tiger is having the time of its life.

Calls to Distant Places by Peter Jordan

-Reviewed by Sally Shaw-

Calls to Distant Places (Kingston University Press) is the debut short story collection of author and journalist, Peter Jordan. The forty stories written over an eleven-year period shape a world atlas. Jordan’s stories pinpoint the places: America, Australia, Africa, County Donegal, India, the Middle East, New Mexico and the United Kingdom.

Jordan’s writing enables the reader to visualize each story as a differently coloured pin pressed into a map of the world, with a cotton thread connecting the pins in the order of the collection. The thread zigzags across the map as Jordan returns to India, to the War zones of the Middle East and then onto America. There is no linear path to this themed collection but planning has been undertaken to place the right stories together.

Alcoholism, drug addiction, bullying, criminal activities, war zones and mental illness may not be considered must-read subjects for the casual reader – take ‘A Picture Of You’, a gentle story of the death of a father and a son’s inability to remember his face before the cancer until an event prompts a memory, or ‘Three Days Of Rain’, a story about a brother’s love for his alcoholic brother – but the rewards are in there. Jordan’s route to the collection is being human.

He writes with care and understanding about how diverse humans are and about the cause and effect of their actions. The stories depict the emotions and outcomes, good and bad, of what we humans can have on each other and the world.

In the first story, ‘In Magazines’, which is set in Afghanistan, a teenage boy has been shot and a photographer has to get the photograph. The story reveals the normalisation of war and what value is placed on human life.

“I needed something I could sell. Something human. Before lunch, a white Hilux pulled up at the British checkpoint. In the open back of the vehicle was a young man who’d been shot in the stomach.”

The photographer takes the photographs of the injured boy and he feels uneasy at the reaction of the boy.

“The interpreter looked to me and spoke softly. He’d like to know where the photographs will be shown.”

Jordan’s clear writing places the reader right in the story, so they care about the teenage boy and what has influenced him and society. All this is achieved in two hundred and seventy words. These words maybe few but are thought-provoking long after the last word has been read.

Throughout this collection Jordan brings together humans and animals in several of the stories and his skill of placing them within the context of cultural beliefs while providing a real sense of place is compelling.

For example in ‘Untouchable‘:

“Both parents had heard the noise of the approaching vehicle; they stood together at the entrance to their home: a small two-roomed hut of mud and cow dung with a sloped corrugated iron roof.

The parents invited Dr Dhoni into their home. It was not possible for Mangus, a Dalit, to enter the dwelling. He sat outside near the entrance on the hessian sack; his back resting against the mud wall of the hut, sipping from a fresh bottle of arak.”

In ‘Untouchable’, the story expresses the relationships between Mangus, a Dalit (untouchable), and grieving parents. It tells of how the untouchable helps the parents, who themselves become outsiders through grief, and the impact on them and Mangus.

Mangus has beeen brought to the village to find a Cobra following the death of a child:

“He reached down picked up a pair of children’s sandals. They were small but intricately designed, with bamboo leaf for the toe, and little amber beads sewn into the bamboo leaf for decoration. When he was a child, Mangus had worn a similar pair of sandals made by his mother.

Both of the men then heard a low growl – it wasn’t a hiss – it sounded more like a dog. Dr Dhoni instantly backed away, falling over a nest of bamboo leaves. To their left, a King Cobra had risen up to a full five feet off the ground.”

In ‘Six In Total’ a young man needs to be believed by the Inn Keeper and remote community and an overweight, aging police sergeant has something to prove as well as a mystery to solve. The story has the tone of a Grimm fairy tale set deep in a forest and featuring a hunt for wolves.

“A young man by the name of Zahafian had reported the killing of his older brother by wolves. Normally, Sergeant Hamad would assign the case to one of his juniors, but he decided to investigate this one himself. It would prove to the men he was still more than capable of doing the hard miles.”

“Looking at that black wolf was like looking at the devil himself.”

Love Is’ tells the story of a man who suffers from a mental illness and forms a relationship with the sister of the previous tenant of the flat he has moved into. Something is playing on his mind though. This may be about a person with a mental disorder but by the end of the story all readers will be able to relate to the concerns identified in this story. Jordan’s ability to write about mental health enables the reader to empathise with the character. He writes in the voice of the protagonist which has the effect of bringing the reader closer to the condition and the character’s challenges.

“Sometimes, when I get an overload of information, I get a taste of copper in my mouth and I see snow falling.”

This is a powerful image to understanding the effect of mental illness on the protagonist and demonstrates Jordan’s simplistic form of writing that goes deeper than the words.

Jordan creates circumstances, settings and places in the world that have a cause and effect on the characters and in turn their impact on people and the world they come into contact with. ‘Basic Training’, which is difficult to read as its theme is bullying, looks at loyalty – and how circumstance can break it – and the protagonist’s self-control, as well as the tragic consequences of the bullying.

Not all cause and effect is dark. After a tidal surge something has been washed up and young Declan Moone, runs to Quinn’s Public House and soon a crowd gathers around the ‘thing’ to decide what to do with it. ‘Latin, Olde English, Celtic And Horseshit’ is a bright, light story, alive with characters such as Seamus McSheffrey who works for the council and can get a digger to help put up a fence and members of the local Alcoholics Anonymous who arrive at the pub wanting a drink. This fun story delivers an important message with humour.

There‘s no need to read this collection in order as it is not reliant on a sequence – which is its strength. This provides freedom to start with the contents page and land yourself wherever. On first referring to the contents page a reader will be met by wonderful titles: ‘F is for fish’, ‘Plastic Jesus’, ‘White Goods’ and ‘The Butcher Bird’ … Some of these stories the reader may wish to read once, while others invite the reader to return for repeat visits. For me, the stories that I would return to are the ones that either I identified with on a personal level or the stories that had multiple meanings: ‘White Goods’ and ‘Luna’, and also the stories that need reading again to fully understand. There were only three stories in the whole collection that didn’t resonate with me. Jordan’s stories have a timeless feel while appearing relevant to the now, whenever the now may be.

Children of Grass Edited by B A Van Sise

-Reviewed by Simon Zonenblick-

The beautifully presented Children of Grass is described in its foreword by actor Mary-Louise Parker as “a revelatory testament to the legacy left by Walt Whitman.” The spirit of that great American poet is invoked in 156 pages of poetry and photography to coincide with the bicentenary of his birth. Edited by award-winning photographer and Whitman descendent,  B.A. Van Sise, whose images accompany poems by contemporary US writers on facing pages.

“These pairings speak to each other without polluting the mystery of the other or revoking the license to interpret that poetry gives us” writes Mary-Louise Parker. All the same, it is the assorted images that bring the book to life. While the sequencing of the poetry lacks a concrete theme, the enticing, sometimes spiritual, sensual or subversive images – such as characters in dressing rooms, on sidewalks, or staring into the Heavens, whose power lies in sideways glances, eyes cocked to the sky, the deafening silence of a typewriter abandoned in a room, a man’s face in the mirror as if upon a sea of wavy lines – play out like a montage.

“I like to touch your tattoos in complete / darkness, when I can’t see them,” begins Kim Addonizio’s ‘First Poem For You’ – opposite the black-and-white image of a woman holding hands with a scarecrow decked in long black coat and reptilian hand.  The narrator is sure of where they are, and knows 

by heart the neat
lines of lightening pulsing just above
your nipple, can find, as if by instinct, the blue
swirls of water on your shoulder here a serpent
twists, facing a dragon.

The poem evokes suggestions of permanence and deep, if liminal, connections between lives – a sense of reassuring familiarity. This is also evident in the brilliant ‘Becoming a Redwood’, by Dana Gioia:

Stand in a field long enough, and the sounds
start up again. The crickets and the invisible
toad who claims that change is possible,

And all the other life too small to name.
First one, then another, until innumerable
they merge into the single voice of a summer hill.

The poet is “paralyzed by the mystery of how a stone / can bear to be a stone, the pain / the grass endures breaking through the earth’s crust” and yet feels that a human being is “part of the moonlight as the moonlight falls / Part of the grass that answers the wind.”

In ‘Escape from the Old Country’ by Adrienne Su, the land occupies the person, while Dunya Mikhail dreams:

 I fell into a hole
and when I woke
I found a feather.
If only I’d put it under my pillow
before going to sleep:
I’d have dreamt I was a dove
and wouldn’t have fallen.

Other poems imagine bizarre scenarios, such as Jeffrey McDaniel’s ‘The Quiet World’, where:

In an effort to get people to look
into each other’s eyesmore,
and also to appease the mutes,
the government has decided
to allot each person exactly one hundred
and sixty-seven words per day.

The poem weaves through various surreal scenes, before culminating in a phone call from the poet to his long distance lover:

When she doesn’t respond,
I now she’s used up all her words,
so I slowly whisper I love you
thirty-two and a third times.

There are many poems I don’t really understand, with cultural references I don’t follow, or witty punchline-like endings, such as:

Bought a bag of frozen peas to numb my husband’s sore testicles after his vasectomy.
That night I cooked pea soup.

(from ‘Reduced Sentences’, by Beth Ann Fennelly)

or 

I love my son so much
I no longer call him my daughter

(‘On the Rocks’, by Leslie Anne Mcilroy)

but it’s the beguiling photographs that hold the book together and create a compelling narrative.