Book Review: City of Stairways: A Poet’s Field Guide to San Francisco

[Reviewed by Deborah Fruchey]

The first thing I noticed about this book was the good production values. It is pleasing to look at, to flip through, and to hold: the photos (taken by the students) are good, the artwork is fresh with great colors, the fonts are clear, the shiny, heavy paper is nice to turn in your hands. The 7 x 7 inch format is just the size and heft to be a bit more than a pocket book, but not too much. This is not a book that takes itself terribly seriously. It is meant to be a fun read.

City of Stairways is a brainchild of the WritersCorps Apprentice Program, which takes poetry to the high schools and offers an after school curriculum for advanced young writers, and the San Francisco Arts Commission and San Francisco Public Library, who sponsor WritersCorps. As such, it is as much  a tour guide to interesting San Francisco neighborhoods as it is a poetry book, and this serves the volume well.

The writers are each represented by little cartoon icons (by Hong Truong), which are engaging and add interest to the maps (uncluttered and attractive, by Adrienne Aquino). The book is organized around City field trips taken by the group, each with its own area map marked with stops and points of interest (given that these are teenagers, it’s no surprise that many of these spots are eateries!). For each trip, there is about one page of well-written description of what the group saw, did, and liked, and another page listing nearby public transport and “fun facts” about that part of the City. There are also a few source references and a quote or two about that locality by luminaries, such as Lemony Snicket, or some local notable.

The poems are generally no more than pleasant, good enough for relatives and friends to treasure, which is enough to expect out of high school students of any generation. There are two striking exceptions. Indiana Pehlivanova is vivid, insightful, surprising, and surprisingly sophisticated in both viewpoint and technique. She will clearly be a fine poet some day, and I will frankly be watching for her on the SF poetry scene in the next few years. The other winner is Robin Black, who tends a little toward the slam style, with an immediacy to his work which is refreshing.

All in all, a book to enjoy, and worth buying if you want to support the youth art programs of San Francisco. Some of their field trips unearthed city treasures I have overlooked; you may catch me poking around the SF neighborhoods sometime soon.

You can contact the reviewer, Deborah Fruchey, at lastlaughpro@gmail.com.

Poetry Review: A Dreamer in Egypt – The Poetry of Jaylan Salman

[Reviewed by Marla Porter]

A Dreamer in Egypt – The Poetry of Jaylan Salman

“If only I was not a virgin, / I’d shag the sphinx, twist & turn its lower body with force of a hundred bloody veins,” ring the words of Jaylan Salman, a young poetess from Egypt in her poem When Dreams are Just Paperwork. Her poems, which are featured mostly on her Facebook page, have a strong feminine voice, clawing for independence and freedom in the presence of a strong family presence. Her longer poems set up narratives and dreamscapes, showing a strong longing for a reality beyond the mundane.

As a poet, Salman falls into one of the pitfalls of a young poet, allowing clichés to creep into her work. This is especially apparent in her rhymed poems, such as Death on the Concrete Land, where rhymed pairs hand/land, see/me, pain/rain and belonged/longed pop up. Grabbing these overdone rhymes makes the poem read as juvenile and distracts the reader from following the poem’s story.

Some of her work also has a pedestrian quality, such as her poem Tears on her Guitar, “She plays the guitar /Her father talks about the tragedies of the world / She keeps playing /Her tears fall leaving burning marks in the mocha colored wood / Her father just keeps talking.” A greater variation of syntax and more surprises for the reader could push this poem, with its background in the news and the Arab Spring, to a very interesting place. Salman focuses on a young girl, stuck with her family to observe the changes and struggles of the world. If the poem moved further into the girl’s inner world or into a stranger description of daily life, it could have been a moving piece. Salman struggles to develop the kind of complexity of voice that is associated with a mature poet. She should push herself to explore the issues of her contemporary life from multiple angles in the same poem, and to ask questions she can’t answer.

Although Salman has not produced a compelling body of work to launch her onto the international poetry scene, I can see a kernel of a real poet in her work. Some of her imagery is incredibly fresh, albeit surrounded with other, less-surprising lines. A great example of this occurs in her poem Pavane pour une infante défunte, “No roses blossom, no birds chirp, no fertile women to plant their babies in the fields of Sodom / She watches as her people stare / She relishes the flare from the crocodiles, floating in the Nile /She throws her spears at ancestors and creepy crows looming in the sky / Silence…” Here, the overdone image of roses and birds is followed by babies being planted in Sodom’s fields; her best images can be lost because she doesn’t restrain those that aren’t new. Whenever she allows local color into her work, she is most successful at creating a memorable poem. Jaylan Salman, while not yet a strong poet, is someone to watch for as her voice and work matures.

You can contact the reviewer, Marla Porter, at feverorforgottenwings@gmail.com.

Fabric and Quilt Art at the Cinema Place Gallery in Hayward, CA

[Article by Bruce Roberts]

The Quiltessential Event

The quilt my grandmother made was warm. I could cuddle under it with my dog on cold nights, reading aloud to him until we both fell asleep. It had squares, I think, and pale colors in different designs, but I loved it for function, not design.

Not so the quilts at “Fabric Art plus Art Quilts: The Quiltessential Event,” an exhibit running until November 12 at the Cinema Place Gallery in Hayward, California. Sponsored by the Hayward Arts Council, the quilts here almost defy description for their beauty and imagination.

My grandmother, I am told, stitched by hand, of course, and also by foot, using her treadle powered—not electric–White Sewing Machine to stitch straight lines around each square, maintaining a consistent foot motion to ensure even stitches. The focus and exertion required, I’m told, were difficult.

However, technology today has changed the game. Electric sewing machines have dominated the craft for decades now, and I had to learn a new term—‘DROP THE FEED DOG”—to understand the artistry displayed by today’s quilters. Dropping said dog—a part on sewing machines– allows modern quilters the ability to do “free hand stitching.” No longer bound by right angles and forward and backward,  “free hand stitching” with machine enables a quilter the same freedom of movement as a paint artist with a brush: THREAD-PAINTING! Some even have quilting machines, which allow work with pieces up to 30 inches wide.

Bruce Roberts is a poet and ongoing contributor to Synchronized Chaos Magazine. Roberts may be reached by at brobe60491@sbcglobal.net.

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Whose Brain Is It? [Nov 2011 – Leena Prasad]

Whose Brain Is It?
by Leena Prasad

Banks got bailed out
We got sold out!

Banks got bailed out
We got sold out!

Banks got bailed out
We got sold out!

Frida rolls down her car window. Hundreds of people are chanting, moving towards her. Not exactly towards her but she’s in a car going east on Mission Street and they are walking in the opposite lane. Motor vehicle traffic is at a standstill.

Ah, the Wall Street occupation of New York City has moved here, she thinks.

Whose streets?
Our Streets!

Whose streets?
Our Streets!

Whose streets?
Our Streets!

The people in the street chant, as if responding to her thoughts. She meets the gaze of one of the protestors. Suddenly she feels uncomfortable in her black 2011 BMW.

She panics. Frida is reacting to what she perceives as a threat to her current lifestyle, as if the people protesting on the street are going to take away what she has worked hard to achieve.

Her mind flashes back to a decade ago. Her college scholarship funding has fallen through. Her single mom works two jobs and does not have the money to pay the high tuition and expenses for the private college that she plans to attend. Frida spends the next two years working and taking out a loan to pay for college. Life at college is difficult. She is older than the other students and doesn’t have the free-flowing funds that they seem to have. Her social life is limited. Instead of enjoying college life, she is anxious to graduate with a business degree and start a new life, hopefully with one of the top business-consulting firms.

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Book Review: The Saint of Florenville: A Love Story, by Alfred J. Garrotto

[Reviewed by Bruce Roberts]

Imagine the most horrific treatment one human being could inflict upon another. Then skew the moral compass even farther from the norm by having the victims be a nun and a priest. This is the springboard situation on which Alfred J. Garrotto’s novel, The Saint of Florenville, a love story,” is based.  And in spite of the horror,  the book–as the title suggests—really is a love story.

The horror in this book comes through flashback, occasioned by the death in prison of the monster who committed the crimes—even killing Father Jensen, the priest. A young Brussells reporter, Celeste de Smet, has been assigned to write a story about this notorious twenty year old crime. To this end, she travels to Florenville, Belgium, to interview Mother Superior Marie Therese of the Servant Sisters of Mary and Joseph, now the only survivor of this terrifying event. And this is where the actual plot takes off.

Celeste is young, in her twenties. Heading away from home to get her story, she has little idea what to expect. The daunting concept of a Mother Superior, of nuns in general, of life in a convent, of the victim of a terrible crime—all of this leaves her apprehensive. But when she meets Tess—as Sister Marie Therese says to call her—she must stop and reevaluate. “Her high forehead and prominent cheekbones promised intelligence. Gray eyes, gentle and wise, invited trust. . . . A hint of dimple at the corners of her mouth created the gateway to a ready smile. I sensed I was in the presence of a woman who had come to terms with any demons from her past.”  (p. 32)

Bruce Roberts is a poet and ongoing contributor to Synchronized Chaos Magazine. Roberts may be reached by at brobe60491@sbcglobal.net.

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Book Review: You Deserve Nothing: A novel, by Alexander Maksik

[Reviewed by Christopher Bernard]

You Deserve This Book

I’m a notoriously slow reader – but I swept through this lengthy, idea-packed volume in a little more than 24 hours. My friend put me on notice “to put that blessed book when I’m talking to you. Or else . . . !”

As the author’s existentialism-obsessed protagonists would have been the first to remind me, I had a choice . . .

For Alexander Maksik’s debut novel is that fine and rare thing, at least on these shores: a compulsively readable novel of ideas, both stimulating and addictive; it is also a major contribution to the renaissance of existentialism that has emerged since 9/11.

In an ambience steeped in the romance of the Left Bank and Baron Haussmann’s boulevards, we follow a year in the life of a charismatic teacher, William Silver, at an elite high school in Paris during the period just before and during the American invasion of Iraq. He runs a seminar for seniors where they explore the moral paradoxes of Sartre, Nietzsche and Camus, only to find those paradoxes searing his own and his students’ lives with a precision and ferocity that perhaps should not have shocked either teacher or students but that enlightens the reader as only certain shocks can.

We watch the emotional conflicts inflicted by existentialist questions, and some of the most provocative answers given to them, on young people at their most impressionable and vulnerable – conflicts that then explode the most well-considered ideas like so many landmines.


Christopher Bernard is a novelist (A Spy in the Ruins), critic and poet, and co-founder of Caveat Lector magazine.

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Writing by Blanca Jones

How Can There Possibly Be a God!?

How can there possibly be a God, One who people say sent his one and only son that we may be saved, when we live in a world of decay, a world of such chaos and turmoil?

Destruction and death fills the air, incurable diseases and illnesses devouring mankind supposedly so “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Psalm 139:14 Lives of people are buried and swept away through the destruction of natural disasters within this world.

The deaths of young children tear at the hearts of parents who helplessly stand by.  Tears fall and cries arise from the depths of their souls as they watch their beloved young die, for reasons that run the gamut from disease, to the violence of the streets!

The cries of innocent children go unheard, overwhelmed and ashamed over what has befallen them, at no fault of their own but by the hands of those they were born to love and trust as they are neglected and abused!

Death comes to men and women fighting side by side in honor of defending their country and what they believe in.

Man persuaded and brainwashed to believe in evil disguised as the goodness of truth, dying for what they believe will unite them with the redeemer while bringing with them terror to those in their paths.

Hunger and thirst befall those unfortunate enough to be born in third world countries outside of wealth and prosperity, or the homeless living in the streets of the wealthiest cities. Hands reach out to passersby for a morsel; hearts reach out for love, for the ray of hope!

People succumbing to powers seemingly beyond their ability to control, beloved brothers and sisters who are “born” that way, unable to change that who they say they are, taking them away from what is supposedly morally right. And they ask, “why does it makes it morally wrong!?”

A mother fights with all her power, loving her children with all her heart, both young and old, doing all that is scribed in the “Holy Book” in raising her children so that they follow the path of righteousness only to live in heartache as one or more fall out of her reach.

Eyes and ears are turned and decisions by those governing are obscured by the influence of wealth and corruption, depleting the world of its richness and depriving the people of trust.

Oh how can there be a God when we are daily bombarded with the heart ache and immorality of this world supposedly made in 6 days by the One who said his creation was good!  So good that on the 7th day he rested and blessed it, making it Holy! Referencing Genisis 1:31,  2:2-3

How Can There Be a God!?

Blanca Jones may be reached at blancaejones@gmail.com.

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