Thursday, September 24, 2015

Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter (fiction)

Years ago I was obsessed with more general titles of mass fiction, particularly crime and detective novels. I didn't realize there was better reading to be found.  I admit that Jeffrey Deaver and Patricia Cornwell were favorites.  And while there is nothing wrong with mass market fiction, it seemed stale quite fast.  Authors also tried to up the shock value with each book in what inevitably was a series.  With life being hard, I realized I didn’t want to read such depressing and at times depraved reading.  That’s when I focused on lesser known authors and titles, with a draw towards translated fiction.

However, recently I was sent an ARC of Pretty Girls, a book that promised a deep mystery about a serial killer. I don’t know why, but I fell for it. One lazy afternoon, I curled up with it.  At first, the premise was intriguing.  A father of a missing daughter is writing a long letter to her, to let her know what she missed while absent. Not knowing whether she was dead or alive, he persisted.  From that we see the rest of the family and how they reacted to the loss. Two remaining daughters go in different directions, forever marked from the loss and the constant wondering about her whereabouts.

The sisters, Claire and Lydia, are as different as possible. One tough and able, moving forward despite addiction issues and violence.  The other, simply checking out of life to let her amazing husband make all decisions for her and spending her time as a socialite. Both women still seethe with rage but keep it hidden.

Now, stop if you are wary of spoilers. I won’t be too specific, but I will try and explain why this is one of the most appalling books I’ve ever read. Instead of giving up, I had to continue reading to see if it was truly as awful as I imagined.  It was.

After Claire’s husband dies, her life unravels quickly, and it’s discovered that her husband was not as he seemed.  She handles this by falling apart, finally reaching out to her distant sister Lydia (found urinating on his grave) to help her figure out what to do. From here the novel dissolves into a violence-soaked whodunit wherein both sisters fight and argue while at the same time trying to solve the problem and see if they can find their lost sister too.  Improbability becomes the underlying theme.

Claire is an especially bizarre character: smart but without a shred of emotion (except tennis-invoked rage).  She’s benign and boring, and her existence is pinned to her outrageous beauty. She’s unsympathetic and spoiled. Her beauty is mentioned endlessly, as Lydia's chubby body is as well.  I'll get back to this, it's important!

What ensues next is an urgently-paced effort to find the killer, one who rapes women with machetes and uses waterboarding as torture with his own urine.  Yes, you read that right.  Branding, dismembering, burning skin: ho hum. It becomes so common, nearly every page, that one stops being shocked.  And that’s what disturbed me the most.  I felt sick, like I was contributing to such violence just by reading this.  Was it giving potential serial killers ideas?  Was this misogyny intended to make us reflect on the wonderful sisterhood that tries to rid the planet of the monster? Or reflect simply on horrifying images?

Did the female author find it necessary to use this to fuel our interest?  To show that women are most often the victims of violent crime? Maybe she had a message, but it’s lost in the violence itself.
One thing I noted was that nearly all the women in the story face such brutality. They are graphically described by their body parts, what happens to them, and inventive ways to torture them. They are literally in pieces.  Unlike anything you think you’ve seen on Forensic Files or any number of horror films. And they are categorized with generic labels: either beautiful, or fat, or well-dressed, or frumpy, or rich, or poor. No further explanation or revelation. Labels.  From a female author, that was a surprise.

And yet, the men. The men in the story remain fully functional.  Their bodies are not chipped away at. They are not described in such helpless positions with no way of escape.  They remain whole, despite a whole bunch of women hanging from cattle hooks, disemboweled, and violated.  In fact, the only real comment the author makes about the men in the novel is a strange obsession with their mustaches, commenting on nearly every single one.  And they are not given superficial labels.

Of course, this “mystery” is of the “no one can be trusted” variety and yet very little makes it where you care. As it appears, beyond the suspension of disbelief, is that everyone is a criminal.  It’s too vast a conspiracy with little explanation for how it began.  Events in the first part are never tied to latter parts. Motive is what appears to be lacking.

The author then tries to solve it and tie it up in a few last improbable chapters that are actually laughable.  The sisters try and save each in other in a last ditch effort at unity but are so dazzlingly naïve that you want to smack them yourself. It is refreshing that the problem is solved by two women rather than the inevitable bored male detective who usually comes in to save the day. But that's not enough to salvage this gory mess.

And of course, everyone lives happily ever after.

I’m off mystery novels like this now for a good long time, if not forever.  A violent world surrounds us, so sinking into this sewer of ugliness is not going to make anyone feel good. Except perhaps a serial killer who is bored and looking to up his game  (for which this may serve as a "how to" manual.  It’s that awful.  I don’t know how popular this author is, probably very, but in my small little voice I have to say what she’s written is disturbing and hateful and as misogynistic as anyone could be accused of being.  She’s not done a service for women by creating characters that solve crime, she’s created women that are eternal victims, who even in their victory are disappointing and weak.  That itself is a crime.  

The author's last name? Slaughter.  Go figure that one out.  If it's a pseudonym, I can't imagine a more apt one.

Thanks, but no thanks, to Century Publishers for the Review Copy.

This novel releases September 29, 2015.

If you are in fact desirous of some good suspense novels that aren't this gory, I'd recommend a look at The Devotion of Suspect X by Higashino, any of the Benjamin Black "Quirke" series, Klausen by Maier, The News Where You Are by O'Flynn, or any of the other titles listed under the Fiction tab above, or leave a comment if you wish.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Super Better by Jane McGonigal (game theory, games for mental and physical improvement)

Originally published in the New York Journal of Books, September 14, 2015. 
 Releases September 15, 2015.

Super Better: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient—Powered by the Science of Games by Jane McGonigal

By Amy Henry

Jane McGonigal has been acclaimed for decades for her theories in gaming and the value of games in relation to positive psychology and problem solving; however, it wasn’t until 2009, when she suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) that she created the concept of Super Better.

Super Better is a very personal method of transforming the depression and anxiety related to injury into a successful mode for coping and actually getting better.
She goes from plain Jane to “Jane the Concussion Slayer,” a new identity used as “a way to start feeling heroic and determined instead of hopeless.” Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is examined in detail throughout the book, as she shows that there is a positive component, an alternative, called post-traumatic growth. In this she seeks to show how one can not only recover from TBI but also become better than ever before for the experience.

Her core strategy, or the rules of the SuperBetter game, are seven touchstones for each player to achieve. They are achieved simultaneously, not as individual steps. She does encourage one to start with the simplest, but ultimately wants her readers to focus on interacting with all seven features of the program. The first is “Challenge yourself,” and this is the most dramatic of the set: many injured or depressed people don’t feel up to another challenge than the one they are already battling. Instead, she shows how challenge is possible, necessary, and rewarding.

She starts with quests, some so simple as to seem silly; however, willingness to try these simple tasks is a way of opening up the mind to new achievements. And it’s the mind that controls much of the pain experiences and anxiety issues that trouble the entire person.

The book is filled with anecdotal evidence as well as serious scholarly references. For example, she discusses burn patients, who suffer excruciating pain when their wounds are cleansed. Yet a virtual reality game, set in a snow filled environment, was given to some patients to play during the process. Their focus on the game and the impression of the snow enabled a reduction in pain so great that some didn’t realize their wounds were being cleaned while they played. Why does it work? The mind was intensely distracted, and the benefits were enormous:

“In order to prevent pain signals from turning into a conscious awareness of pain, patients need to swing their spotlight of attention somewhere else—and keep it there.”

In this, it’s cognitive focus that provides the needed distraction to focus pain somewhere else. And much of this is as simple as playing a game of Tetris. Tetris, the old-school video game, employs a simple but fast paced strategy of matching tiles in specific ways. Created in 1984, it still commands huge benefits when one is discussing cognitive focus. More traditional games like Scrabble, crosswords, or puzzles simply don’t offer the speed and required attention to become sufficiently distracted. So McGonigal encourages readers to focus on digital games with color and speed to divert attention.

Some of the applications of such gaming benefits are still evolving to be used for maximum benefit. In one case, Oxford scientists found that people exposed to a horrific situation that would likely result in them suffering PTSD could alter that eventuality by playing Tetris within six hours of seeing or being involved in the triggering situation. 

Fascinating, yes. But in real life how does one predict a situation of such staggering proportions? And then, how would one possibly be able to ensure a Tetris game would be on hand? Further, would a victim even be willing (or able) to dispel their shock and pick up a video game? The benefits are intriguing, but the application is still impractical.

McGonigal also addresses the many stories in the media about how bad video games are and how they distance people from real life. She clarifies this by asking why people are playing these games for hours:

“If you typically play games to escape your real life—that is, to ignore your problems, to block unpleasant emotions, or to avoid confronting stressful situations—you will have a very difficult time translating your game skills to real life.”

Yes, gaming to escape is not beneficial. But if one is choosing to “play with purpose” as a form of quality family time, or to learn a new skill, or to relax after a rough day, then gaming can be a positive force. Viable applications are discussed throughout, mostly in cases of pain management. And specific Challenges, such as the Ninja Challenge, can aid any person in altering their minds, bodies, and relationships.

While McGonigal starts with her personal recovery story, she completes the book with a positive scope that widens out the possibility of anyone becoming SuperBetter via her tactics.

Special thanks to Penguin Press
 and Elizabeth Calamari for the Advance Review Copy.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

This is Your Life, Harriet Chance! by Jonathan Evison (fiction)

Originally posted in the New York Journal of Books, September 10, 2015

This is Your Life was a popular television show in the 1960s and 1970s, an early reality show that delighted many audiences. Each episode introduced an unsuspecting guest to their past through previous friends, coworkers, and acquaintances. But who is it who decided which people were important or at least significant in our lives?
It’s with this format that Jonathan Evison examines the life story of an elderly widow in This is Your Life, Harriet Chance. Starting at age zero up to seventy-eight, we see the truth and consequences of Harriet’s tumultuous life. As Evison speaks to his protagonist directly, he reminds her that life is like “a pinball, pitching and careening, rebounding off anything it makes contact with.” Harriet is going to be forced to examine past choices that make up her identity and discover what she thought was an option was never even a choice.
As the story begins, Harriet is ambivalent about taking an unexpected cruise to Alaska, a gift from her late husband. His ghost visits her, making her children believe she’s losing her mind. They try to ban her from taking the trip, but she’s determined to go, even if it means going alone. While the random appearances of her late husband continues onboard, as if he’s trying to tell her something, all she’s getting are memories of how unpleasant he was, leaving her to wonder why she misses him so much in the first place.
Bernard is a blue-collar worker who catches Harriet’s eye, despite her being a society girl. It seems muscles can say more than trust funds. They marry quickly, and soon two children join them. The years slip by with Harriet increasingly conscious of how much she gave up for that idealized nuclear family. Then there’s the fact that after the initial thrill of Bernard’s manly persona fades, she’s left with a cranky old man:
“Conversing with Bernard reminds you of talking to your golden retriever. . . . A tilt of the head, a wag of a tail, a snarl—it’s about all you can reasonably expect.”
With these details, Evison takes Harriet back and forth through flashbacks that reveal how modern she was for her time, and how events from the past shape her beyond what she’s willing to admit. At age twenty-five, he asks her:
“Have you released your independence at long last? Have you finally stopped tracking the progress of that other incarnation of yourself. . . . Or have you simply lowered your standards?”
Ouch. Is that what is troubling her, that other self that may have taken a different and better course? One that wouldn’t involve changing her husband’s diapers or watching her daughter steal from her purse? Was there ever a choice?
Before the ship has left the dock, Harriet gets the shock of her life, and it’s not just her dead husband climbing over the railing. She’s shaken by a sudden revelation that knocks her flat, and coping with that can only involve a great deal of wine. Suddenly, Harriet isn’t exactly who she seemed just pages earlier.
Evison teases out the details by flashbacks, reminding Harriet directly that maybe she is not the only one with disappointments. This changeup sets the tone for her cruise off kilter, and she finds it difficult to recover. It doesn’t help that a sudden visitor joins her for the remainder of the trip. The pinball flippers are snapping wildly now. Her future has become a game of chance, and one can only hope Harriet doesn’t end up down the drain or tilting out.
The novel itself is intriguing. Of the frequent flashbacks, Evison handles these well, portraying a lifetime in relatively few chapters. And he shines at describing the awkward moments of life, the minutiae that can trouble us—fat ankles, visits to rest homes, the nature of boxed wine—and shows how these reveal more about us than any autobiography. He suggests our identity isn’t made of grand gestures but how we handle the irritating little things in our life when no one is looking.
The way Evison (the author) handles the direct observations and questioning of Harriet (his character) at the beginning seems fresh and innovative, but becomes a bit tiresome after many chapters. Sometimes the way he speaks to her is annoying:
“Ring-a-ding-ding, it’s your thirtieth birthday, Harriet Chance, let the party begin!”  
“So c’mon, birthday girl, turn that frown upside down, and start counting your blessings!”
Another troublesome part of the novel is Bernard’s visits to his after-life handler. Is this heaven? Hell? Maybe it’s purgatory. In any case, Bernard is in trouble for contacting Harriet. But the purpose of these interruptions are never really clear.
author Jonathan Evison
That said, the questions Harriet faces are universal and all the more compelling for this reason. Would knowing the outcome of our potential life choices make life happier? Or would we be immobilized with hesitation? Do choices really exist? As in his previous novel, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, Evison demonstrates a gift for dissecting past and present, and revealing the hope we all have not just to win, but to stay in the game.
- See more at:

Released 9/8/15 from Algonquin Books.
Review copy provided by the New York Journal of Books.
Special thanks to Brooke Czuka at Algonquin Books.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

In the Language of Miracles by Rajia Hassib

The writing in this is so subtle. While it's a family drama, it reads like a mystery because the author holds her cards to her chest and doesn't reveal everything all at once. We know that two teenagers have died but the circumstances are shrouded in mystery.

Add to that the cultural differences: an Egyptian family living in suburbia that is essentially exiled after the deaths. Their Muslim faith is in tatters because their new country and the hostility from the deaths has made them outcasts. I doubt many Americans realize the harsh treatment and degree of extra scrutiny a Muslim family has to deal with everyday, much less after a tragedy. I enjoyed hearing about their traditions regarding faith and hope.

What I find most intriguing was the grandmother who comes from Alexandria to visit. I want one of her at my house. She's so comforting, wise, and calm. I think every house should have one! At one point she makes an Egyptian pastry --shoreik -- that is traditional to eat in remembrance of the lost. Others find it annoying that she makes a huge amount to take to the cemetery and then shares with everyone she meets. That was kindness and loveliness combined...true comfort food.
shoreik or shoreek

The father, Samir, annoyed me to no end. I know his type of man and he's so insecure that he feels he must impress people but ends up embarrassing his family. He cannot see his flaws. To me he was the antagonist in the story, even though the real antagonist seems to be mental illness. Nagla, the mother, seemed most real to me as she grasped with the loss of a child and the loss of her comfort in the US.

Yes, mental illness is an issue but it is brought into the story later. Hidden, like it is in many families. And that is the key to the story. The author never goes off on a tangent to become a psychologist to explain it away, she just explains how others are affected. I hate when authors try and psycho-babble their way through the plot as if to enlighten the reader. Most readers are well aware. Instead, hearing how day after day the other family members coped was far more intriguing.

Newly released August 11, 2015.

Advance Review Copy provided by Viking via Amazon Vine.

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Good Shufu: Finding Love, Self, and Home on the Far Side of the World by Tracy Slater (memoir)

This memoir took me awhile to get interested in. Reviewing a memoir is always tough, as you really don't want to appear to say, "I didn't like the book, your life is dull".  So I tend to be a bit more forgiving in reading one because they are putting themselves out there for all to see (and review!).

As it begins, Tracy has an ideal Boston life, surviving her family drama but in style: writing, teaching, shoe purchasing.  She has friends, a home, and all is well.  At this point, in her descriptions I found her a little annoying, condescending almost, just in her tone.  I'm not sure what set off that alarm in me but I hit a point where I thought, "Should I bother continuing?"

Yes, I needed to. Because in an impeccable work of writing, she manages to show us how she changes once she starts her new job.  This job involves working as a sort of business liaison/etiquette expert for Asian businessmen on the brink of going global. They already know English, but the particular social cues and protocols still need some working out.  In a dull classroom, she tries to explain the differences in conversational approaches and other things that are so different in the US from Asia.

She immediately falls for Toru, a Japanese businessman, and he is similarly smitten with her. Their relationship starts fast and grows exponentially.  The art of this is we see her transform in her words: just simple word choices and phrases are different from the pre-trip Tracy.  So instead of her describing herself as having changed, we see it evolving already without being told.  I was really impressed with this: usually you have the memoir writer explaining their transition verbally.  She doesn't.  The explanation is visible as she simply talks about who she and Toru have become.

The biggest problem to meet them isn't their affection, but the division of society's lifestyles between her home place and his.  Knowing they are in this for the long haul, she has to imagine if she can leave her beloved Boston or if he should move with her.  It's not as simple as thinking "love conquers all".  There is more than geographical change: the culture change is much greater.  Japanese society often (not always) features women that are more passive and submissive than the upper-class, college-educated independent academic that Tracy is.  They are well-educated too, but the social niceties are more subtle- less forthrightness, less group activities, and even a way of keeping their eyes downcast in submission.  I could see how huge this variance would be for me, and I'm a mild person. Many women I know would be about as welcome as Godzilla with their American manners and abrupt and forceful personalities.

Fortunately, Tracy and Toru are willing to try and work it out.  Give and take. All those self-help book advice mantras are suddenly put in play.  Can they find a way to honor his family and retain her love of American culture? All or nothing?

As I read this, I wish it had pictures. Toru sounds so handsome, and Tracy (I saw her picture) is lovely.  I'd like to see them together.  So few memoirs feature pictures!   In any case, I really enjoyed exploring the ups and downs of their relationship. At one point, as they're sleeping, she realizes for once she can relax and simply "be".  That's something hard to find, that everyone wants.  Someone with whom they can "be".

And for emphasis, I have to repeat that the way she writes is so compelling regarding the personal transformation in her beliefs and attitudes. I can't wait to see if she writes more: I'd like to see her do this with a character and show us (not tell) how they change and grow.  It's a beautiful skill and one I don't notice often in a memoir.  The last few I've read were overbearing in their author's explaining themselves, as if they were defensive and being interviewed on Dr. Phil. This one flows much more naturally and more intensely simply by her use of events and actions rather than exposition.

Review copy provided to Amazon Vine
by GP Putnam's Sons, and releases today, June 30, 2015.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Bastards by Mary Anna King (memoir)

This is the year of the memoir. Really.  I've never noticed so many.  A few I started to get bored with, as they seemed like a lot of navel gazing.    (Except Bettyville by George Hodgman. GO READ BETTYVILLE!!!!!)

Now I knew from the back blurb this wasn't a happy story (the title was a clue too).  What I didn't know was how a memoir could take such a breathtaking pace from sadness to tragedy and back without feeling overwrought.  Mary Anna King tells her story with no pity: she just tells it like it happened, and there was a great deal that happened. From a child's perspective, and without a child's knowledge of how things are supposed to be (only perhaps an intuition), her and her siblings deal with loss after loss. Indignity, shame, addiction, and loneliness.  In the world they live in, pretty much the bad side of various towns in what would be considered the projects, most of the neighbor kids shared similar lives. Mothers with feathered hair and Journey playing solidly placed this in the 1980s.

But the kids:  That they went on to play and forge loyalties and simply exist is a testament to how tough these kids were.  I hate it when people say children are resilient, as it seems a cop-out to excuse unforgivable actions, and because my studies in childhood trauma disagree with that notion.  But these children truly are, even if their lives are forever marked.  They will deal with this childhood forever, no matter how much therapy or blocking out they can attain.

I had tremendous pain for the mother, a foster youth who ended up marrying early and having too many kids way too soon.  She was still a child and had no role model to teach her how to live.  I had no such feeling for Mary's father, a man who seemed devoid of compassion and responsibility.  But Mary, Jacob, and Rebecca earned my admiration for how they existed dependent on each other as there was no one else. They intuitively knew that they could be taken into the juvenile protection system at any time, and so were cautious and watched each other's back. At the same time, they resisted any charity thrown their way as they still were trying to develop self-respect.

The writing is crisp and spare: nothing embellished to enhance the horror.  Simple details reveal far more.  There's even a mini-script for an imagined play that Mary imagines between her parents, and she casts Michael Keaton and Sally Field in the three page script.  An unusual little bit, but a creative offshoot that was not pretentious or overdone.  It's also very fast: I couldn't put it down because so much was happening on every page.

The themes of family and poverty run throughout, as in many memoirs, but the finding of lost siblings is a different dimension. No spoilers, but these children had a bigger family than imagined.

And then there's Mimi, stepmother supreme. I would hope that I would be Mimi if in such a situation.  A composed classy woman who survived the Depression and knew what struggle was.  Sure, she had some big flaws, but the first part of the book I found her to be possibly the one thing that kept these kids going. Until they moved to Oklahoma with her.  I didn't want to be Mimi anymore.

 There's so much to say, and so much to admire, but as this author becomes known, I can't wait to read something fictional from her to see if that pace and spare style continues.

Special thanks to Amazon for sending this Review Copy.
Review by Amy Henry.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Oliver de la Paz Reading Challenge 2015: here's my list

His idea, his rules. Sounds like a good kick to start reading this summer.  His website is

The Oliver De La Paz
Summer Reading Challenge Rules:
1) Pick 15 books that you would like to finish this summer--any genre, any size. This list doesn't have to be at 15 right from the start. It will grow as the summer continues.
2) Of the 15 books, designate 3 that you recommend to co-participants. (After you've read them, of course).
3) Of the 15 books, 3 of the books must be from recommendations by other participants.
4) Post your 15 book list somewhere with a link so that co-participants can link you on their webpages, tumblr pages, or blogs.
5) Hold yourself accountable by posting commentary about a book you've just read. Commentary can also take the form of something creative or artistic.
6) The Challenge Ends August 31st. Have fun.

My list of 12 (with the intention of picking three from other lists):

Master and the Margarita-Bulgakov    (for an online salon)

Zombie Wars - Hemon

Fishbowl - Somer

Kitchens of the Great Midwest - Stradal ****disappointing, a bit unrealistic for me to relate to

The Good Shufu - Slater**** really good memoir

The Eye Stone - Tiraboschi

Blackbird - Tom Wright

Imperium - Kracht

Bright Dead Things - Limon

Watchmen - Moore (for a class)

Bastards - King  ****excellent memoir, heartbreaking but worthwhile

Bootstrapper - Link

Monday, May 4, 2015

Burning Down George Orwell's House by Andrew Ervin

Review by Amy Henry

I think everyone has held the “cottage by the sea” dream aloft in our imagination, thinking at times it to be the ideal solution for when life gets messy or our decisions turn out to be disasters.  I can see my cottage so clearly that I wonder where I saw it; what gave me the definite image of the white shutters on the gray siding, the crisp brick chimney placed just so? Climbing roses tumbling down around a small fence, with the ubiquitous Adirondack chair (painted bright turquoise) facing a lovely calm bay? Was it described in a book?  A dubious Hallmark movie? 

Or, maybe… was it in an advertisement?  Someone selling paint? Easy-Gro plants?  Detergent?  You may find yourself questioning the origin of your dream cottage (admit it…you have one, if not by the sea, by a lake) when you get submerged in Andrew Ervin’s new novel, Burning Down George Orwell’s House.

Isle of Jura
Sure, we know that such a fantasy, were it to happen, would be full of inconveniences. It would be completely worth going without electricity, internet, and Amazon just to be able to think and get away from other humans.  And this is the plan that Ray Welter makes a reality when he heads to the island of Jura, just off the Scottish mainland, fleeing both a failing marriage and a dubious job decision as an advertising executive at the cutting-edge firm, Logos. Cutting off all ties to his life, he packs a few books and sets out to find the time and space to think.

“Ray wanted to know again, to be able to delineate right and wrong in an un-deconstructed world of certainty. He wanted to feel the security of binary opposition. Good and bad.”

To be sure, Ray’s cottage is far different from ours in its providence: it was once the home of George Orwell, writer of one of the most readable books on the required reading list of any high school. I studied 1984 in 1984, and everyone in our age bracket immediately understood the significance of Doublespeak and Big Brother.  It seemed extreme, but possible. In the thirty years since, it isn't inevitable, it simply is.

Getting a cold and bumpy start, Welter finds that many inconveniences are eased by drinking whisky and napping. Lots of whisky.  In fact, it appears to be the only thing that keeps Jura functional, and the good stuff is distilled right on the island. The rain is endless, and the few residents he meets are an odd and cantankerous bunch that makes me fear Gerard Butler may be as bizarre and scary as them.  That thought alone should garner a dram of whisky.

While intending to study Orwell and get a sense of what inspired his most original and frightening vision of the future, Welter offends nearly everyone in his journey, until he’s finally alone at the cottage (more like a palace but I've committed myself to a cottage).  And then, with the dream a complete reality, and the nasty world behind him, and the cottage fire going, Welter is surprised to find himself a bit lost, maybe even bored.  Having time to think may not be in his best interests:

“As long as Ray could remember, since he was a little kid running amok in the endless rows of corn, his mind had contained partitioned rooms he knew not to enter; in them were countless self-perceptions better left un-thought about and which generated moods that later in life –particularly after his career at Logos took off – his personal safety required him to avoid. But left by himself for days on end, half-dozing next to a dying fire, with the large amounts of whisky unable to fight off the constant din of the rain, he couldn't help himself from picking open those locks and peering inside.”

Strange parallels of his life twist into irony that is Orwellian.  The first week there, he feels watched, as if every movement is being observed by a nefarious unknown.  And while he wanted to observe that gorgeous and refreshing seascape, the rain blots out any vision: he’s blind to what he’s looking for. Death pays a visit too, as he’s being gifted with disemboweled animals on his porch, attributed quite simply to one of the islander’s being a werewolf. 

As werewolves go, this one is pretty wise. He tells Welter, “remember that the difference between myth and reality isn’t quite as distinct here on Jura as you might believe.” This dichotomy plays out in both the scenery and his interactions with the island’s residents in scenes that are often tense but sometimes very funny. 

Welter’s study of Orwell is distracted by an abused young woman (of the jailbait variety) and her villainous father who hates all intruders into what he considers the old and traditional life Jura holds (tourists be damned). Change is feared by all on the island, but Welter comes with the mindset of an advertiser, where change is encouraged and necessary to remain profitable, and thus to exist. Strange neighbors, endless sheep, torture by bagpipe, and the arduous terrain keeps him from ever finding a comfort zone, and this is probably the point that Ervin is directing us towards. 
Andrew Ervin

This is most telling in a particularly revelatory tour of the Jura distillery, where Welter learns that the process of aging whiskey to perfection has a distinct subtext of living life to the full, in the present:

“The size of the cask and the location, that’s how every malt gets its distinct flavors. And from the geographical location of the distillery and the tiniest variations of coastline and altitude too.”

Whiskey as metaphor.  Of course.  The collision between stasis and change form a battle that goes beyond the novel.  It reels in Welter’s reflections from his time on Jura to his pre-Jura meltdown, even to the times of his childhood where Ervin sneaks in some tiny details that are revealing later.  It extends across economic, geographic, and family connections and surprises with an unexpected lightness rather than despondence. 

Well-paced, I had a hard time putting it down to attend to real life. It also occurred to me to check my Jura coffee maker to see if there was a whiskey dispenser I hadn't noticed (there isn't).  You will get thirsty, and if you can muster up a fire in a fireplace, you'll be set.  

Releases today, May 5, 2015.

Special thanks to Soho Books for the Review Copy.

Fun fact: how much is a dram? In other words, how are Ervin's characters able to remain standing with all this whiskey?  According to, it's about 1/8 of a fluid ounce, give or take 8 ounces or so, depending on your location and mood:

"For personal use, a dram is just the right amount of whisky that you feel comfortable with at a given moment. The size of a dram can be further specified with descriptors ranging from wee over healthy to stiff. Depending on the disposition, mood of the day as well as level of inebriation of the pourer, these specifications may show a tendency to converge at the stiff end of the scale."

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Sea of Storms by Stuart B. Schwartz (Hurricanes in Caribbean)

A History of Hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean from Columbus to Katrina

Hurricanes have the power to fascinate us, as do earthquakes and tornadoes, in their total power and seeming randomness (and in a small way to an epically bad final episode of Dexter).  Every hurricane season takes a toll on some region of the US or elsewhere, and while the news reports can be disturbing and frightening, it’s in the handling of these natural disasters that political policy, social attitudes, and scientific ignorance is most seen and least commented upon.

Stuart B. Schwartz has created a history of Hurricanes in the region that seems them the most…the Caribbean.  Scores have occurred that usually stay above the midline of South America and further up the East Coast of the US, centering mainly on the Caribbean from Mexico to the Bahamas and other islands. When my parents lived in Belize, I heard stories of people tying themselves into palm trees to survive the occasional hurricane. I didn’t believe it, but apparently, it’s not a rare plan when you are faced with a mighty storm, flooding, and no shelter.

Schwartz begins with one of the earliest recorded hurricanes and the written histories available from it, and goes on to explore the scientific basis for the cause of them.  Sailors often could tell when something was awry, but how that knowledge was dispersed was unlikely to help many people.  Starting with this hurricane in Veracruz, he weaves together the human and scientific elements that inevitably alter our history.

The first storm described was one that hit Veracruz in 1552, one described by the author as a “sixteenth-century Katrina”. The aftermath led many to conclude it was God’s punishment that led to such devastation: “they were set in a social, political, and conceptual frame that made an understanding of this catastrophe a moment for reflection on human sin and moral failure as the cause of God’s anger” (3). Despite scientific evidence to the contrary, increasing in every century since, this opinion is still widely shared and proposed as the reason for modern day hurricanes and similar storms.

Since hurricanes were not well-known meteorological behavior in many climates, when information about them reached Europe and other Northern regions, many of the details were converted into object lessons regarding good and evil.  It took a great deal of time for research into changes in weather, ocean conditions, and even animal behavior to be undertaken to prevent such disasters.

One chapter discusses early European forays into the Caribbean, with a somewhat ironic tale of two enemies whose fate was determined by such weather.  Columbus’ enemy Francisco de Bobadilla was the investigator who chained up Columbus and returned him to Spain with a very unfavorable report.  Years later, they meet again in Santo Domingo, where Bobadilla is heading out with a fleet of gold.  One of those ships held gold that belonged to Columbus that was being carried to Seville. Columbus warned both him and the governor that a huge storm was coming, but neither wanted advice from him.  He was even refused entry into the port. So Columbus found a small port to shelter in temporarily, and held out during the storm, while the others headed out.

Unfortunately for them, the prophecy of Columbus, who used his experience with observation of weather changes and water behavior, came true. Only the ship carrying Columbus’ gold survived. The rest, some twenty six boats, went down in the storm.  Sadly, five hundred plus sailors and the remaining gold sank.  Columbus may have felt vindicated, but he then suffered rumors of being “in concert with the Devil and that he had actually called down the storm upon his enemy” (11).  I’m not a big fan of Columbus, but wow. Major burn.

When scientists set about trying to predict and prevent hurricanes, their ideas ranged from ridiculous to somewhat on target, but always at a cost.

Whatever the scientific value of such attempts at weather modification, these hurricane projects and those to increase or decrease rainfall were always politically controversial, since changing the course of a hurricane or changing areas of rainfall might save one area from injury, but place another in danger. Fidel Castro claimed the United States was carrying out environmental warfare by trying to divert rainfall from Cuba to ruin its agriculture (274).

Interestingly, it was Castro as a leader who was the one most interested in responding successfully to the next hurricane, Flora, where “all of the institutions of the regime were mobilized for the relief effort – militias, the army…the Red Cross and police “(288). He interacted with victims and played a visible role in the country by seeking out more information about the storms and relief available. This was in sharp contrast to the nearby regions of Haiti and the Dominican Republic,hit brutally and where the dictator Duvalier appeared to care not at all by the damage or his people’s losses.

Throughout the centuries since the hurricane in Veracruz, the responses are strangely the same.  Not all take advantage of warnings given (which are not always clear), and when the damage is done, blame is given to the people themselves for abandoning God or living a lifestyle deserving of such disaster. An example of this, outrageous as it is, is Hurricane Katrina.  The failures on so many levels is sobering and obscene.

First, despite Hurricane Andrew that hit Florida in 1992, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was gutted after the election of George W. Bush. Bush’s campaign manager called it “an oversized entitlement program” and its level of preparedness was diminished (entitlement being the code word for helping the poor).  After all, after 9/11 there were less funds allotted to it, and then it came under the direction of Homeland Security with a focus more on “anti-terrorist activities”.  Good intentions may have led to very poor decisions, but it appears there was a more sinister attitude in play.  One journalist, Eric Holderman, is quoted in the book as warning via the Washington Post that “hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, floods, windstorms, fires and flu were destined to be a national concern on a weekly or daily basis.  They are coming for sure, sooner or later, even as we are, to an unconscionable degree, weakening our ability to respond to them” (318).

He makes a valid point.  Reducing protection across the board in case of a natural disaster weakens the US as a whole, as a terrorist act garners more of a reaction. And never can this been seen more than in Hurricane Katrina.  When it occurred, I was on a rafting trip in Northern California.  Away from news, even radio, for a week, made coming home to the disaster seem as if Armageddon had arrived in New Orleans.  For many, it might as well have been.

New Orleans reeling from a hurricane is no surprise. First, the location. Dangerous levees, a low ground point in comparison to Lake Ponchartrain, and the levels of the Mississippi all contribute to a region surrounded by water (so much so that graves are raised on concrete platforms in the city cemeteries rather than in the ground).  In addition, about a quarter of the city lived below the poverty line, and was 67% African American. This demographic was not considered politically valuable and thus efforts to help Louisiana were largely pushed aside, despite credible warnings.
We can all picture the Superdome and its intense overcrowding, but less known is the more insidious wrongs that took place:

Doctors were turned away from aiding victims because they did not have state licenses; buses were not mobilized [for evacuation] because they lacked air-conditioning or toilets; bus drivers were not allowed to serve until they had the required sexual harassment training; the governor’s request for national aid was delayed for five days because it had not been made in writing (324).

It’s hard not to quote this entire chapter as it is so shocking.  I had no idea that FEMA tried to suppress photos of the dead or of those trapped on roofs or hanging on to flimsy floating boards.  Were they worried about bad PR? Food was not provided to Superdome evacuees.  While 80% of the city had been evacuated, those that remained were blamed in the press for not leaving in a timely way, despite that many of these were the poor and elderly that did not have the means to escape (remember the lack of buses?).  The fact that not ALL could escape was already predicted by expert projection made no difference:  no plan was implemented to change that, so this television visibility “drove home a message of social and racial inequalities”. 

Now, all of this is tragic, and yet many people still feel that the situation was impossible to prevent and thus impossible to prepare for. Yet, attitudes of leaders and TV buffoons illuminate a further, racially biased attitude that had to contribute to the disaster, either in beliefs about it or towards its victims.  While you may have the TV pundits say dumb things, like Bill O’Reilly, who “suggested that those who had not evacuated were drug addicts unwilling to leave their suppliers”, it’s more troubling when the political leadership in the US and especially that region (people in a position to change and improve policy) also speak ignorantly of the disaster.  Robert Baker, a Baton Rouge congressman, stated “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”  Rick Santorum (fun to google him), a Republican candidate for President, felt that those who didn’t evacuate should be penalized.  As if they weren’t already by the sub-human conditions.

Additionally, many TV outlets emphasized and exaggerated the occurrences of crime and looting. In fact, many of the looters were taking only food, milk, toilet paper and bread. 

And of course, there were the interpreters, such as many ministers who suggested, just like in Veracruz centuries before, that an angry God was in punishment mode. Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans, “said in his reelection campaign that God had punished New Orleans for the war in Iraq”.  Such blame was attributed widely in many circles, namely Republican and Fundamental.
As Schwartz states so elegantly near the end of the book, “Providentialism was, as it has usually been, employed to support existing political convictions rather than as a catalyst for new interpretations or changes of heart (335)”.

The book concludes with an overview of Hurricane Sandy and the political clout that was banked upon in the aftermath, as well as the unnecessary damage and suffering to New Jersey residents.

There is no sense of this being a complete downer, but more an example of how attitudes (religious, secular, and political) often ignore the scientific basis for how things occur, and even avoid learning more about what science can tell us about hurricanes and other natural disasters.  Much of the science behind hurricanes is discussed in the book, and knowledge of such is possible, not so much to prevent but to prepare.

Hurricane season starts June 1, 2015.

Review copy provided by Princeton University Press.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

You Will Never Find Me by Robert Wilson (Europa World Noir)

I was so disappointed with this novel. I normally love Europa Edition's World Noir series, and I've read every single one of Wilson's novels, so I was primed for a great read. Which this was not. I am going to try and explain but it's tough to describe some of the issues with it:

1. Mercy and Charles are back, and while both are complicated individuals, they act with a distinct aloofness that even extends to their daughter. When she runs away, they don't seem realistic in their actions.

2. All the remaining characters are either all bad or all good: no moral ambiguities. El Osito is evil, yet, but not much more than that. The other cops, the inevitable Russian connections, the drug dealers and the fences are all just one-dimensional and don't change at all during the book. This makes for very little tension.

3. The plot is ALL over the place geographically, which is fine, but the connections between places seem tenuous. No one misses a plane, everything runs smoothly, surely Wilson knows that never happens. No one runs out of cash, everyone meets up as planned, there's not a single wrinkle in anyone's plans.

4. Besides the Columbian drug dealers and the UK dealers making a deal (with surprisingly financial savvy even for the lower tier sellers), we have a Russian side plot that makes no sense at all. Wilson is trying to drag in the poisoned Russian spy from real life into the novel and it's too much. A side kidnapping serves no purpose to the main story of the daughter running away. Maybe it was to appear complex, but it seems like when a novel has an open spot many authors toss in a Russian and a execution to make it appear topical. Instead, it was a yawn. The entire Russian portion of this did not further the plot at all.  Additionally, the behavior of the father of this other kidnapping is just off-the-hook: he truly calls the shots and makes the police look ridiculous. HE was interesting, the rest were laughable.

5. Peripheral characters like Esme and Isabel and the Spanish detective were interesting but unexplored. I suspect the Spaniard may appear in his own series in the future.

6. Hugely emotional moments regarding life or death matters are treated with an "okay, then"reaction rather than real human behaviors.

7. Without spoilers, I have to say the final scene was completely ridiculous. It made me laugh it was so implausible and yes, corny. To the point of cheesy. It suddenly felt like a Hugh Grant movie ending.

8. Finally, most people who have watched any crime show on television know the rules: always look behind you, never leave an assumed dead body with a weapon nearby, and never stop to chat while being chased.  Yet most of the characters commit these silly mistakes repeatedly.  Gah!

Aside from this, Wilson's other novels are FAR superior.

Review copy received from Europa Editions.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Adeline by Norah Vincent

Norah Vincent is trying to recreate the days leading up to Virginia Woolf's suicide, when she put stones in her pockets and waded into the Thames. To do this Vincent had to get into the mind-set of Woolf, to put herself in her position in relation to her husband, her house, her memories, et al. At first I was intrigued. Woolf never had an easy life, and people were much tougher then.

What got to me was once in Woolf's mind, I didn't really want to stay there. I'm not sure how much of this is imaginary thought process is based on fact, surely some is. But for the most part, assuming to understand someone's mind, especially someone who clearly has a mental illness, is problematic. The author does reference bits and pieces of Woolf's work (she's clearly done her homework), but much of it felt generic. Generic depression symptoms, when depression really is never generic. To be frank, I got bored. I realize this was fiction, a novel that isn't supposed to be real. Yet the premise has to connect somehow with real life, or why read it? I'm not sure it could stand apart as a novel of any woman, it's clearly tied to Woolf. Yet taking that liberty means we have to assume it's somewhat accurate.

In some scenes, she takes perhaps a five-minute action and extends it into ten or more pages of Woolf's thought processes.  Intriguing to consider, but it makes for a very slow read that doesn't feel cohesive because such little actions are expanding upon so greatly. 

I did notice that some parts are written much in the same style as Woolf's work, as if her thought process was exactly the same as Mrs. Dalloway, for example. (The flowers, the flowers!) But Dalloway was a character, not Woolf herself. Right? I can't picture all of Woolf's women characters being a version of herself, as they were all so unique. Except that one in To the Lighthouse who annoyed the heck out of me.

I normally quote lines in my reviews that I think are engaging or telling to the style. I found none to mark in the book that struck me as exceptional, except for a few zzzzz's scattered about.

In any case, for a Woolf devotee, this might be a delicious way to curl up and imagine more.  Maybe it's guilt: as a teenager I was forbidden to read Sylvia Plath OR Virginia Woolf by my mom. 

Review copy provided by Amazon Vine.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Bettyville by George Hodgman

"Nor is she sentimental. Inside a silver locket she has worn for years, a gift from my father, are the stock photographs of strangers it came with."Inside those two sentences George Hodgman has created an instant picture of his mother, Elizabeth. A writer, he's returned home to care for Betty as she begins that slow, desperate decline. To say she's eccentric isn't enough, so Hodgwell shows us via the visual. To say she's a spitfire doesn't even begin to describe her....she's a tortured soul who he finds moaning in anxiety in the afternoons but cracking jokes at dawn. The disparity between the humor and loneliness is familiar. But her loneliness is not one to be solved but to be reckoned with...just because he's come to town isn't going to change her nor the course of that lonely path.

Hodgman's own life is fascinating; how he interacts with her in her rural Missouri, far from his home in New York, is a testament to family duty combined with family love. Even while that family love may not be of the Hallmark movie-style. Small town life sounds really good in this, described faithfully, even in his loathing of Walmart.  I really liked how Hodgman describes events and people,  especially in this setting, and especially of his mother:

"By the time my mother realized that she was smart or saw she had the kind of looks that open doors, she had already closed too many to go back."

I loved that line. As a writer and a reader, it's perfect. Many, many like them appear in this book.

Between their conversations and recognition of themselves in each other, they find a new closeness different from his early years as an only child. Burnishing that relationship is a landscape many of us can't relate to: rural hills, church suppers, and the existence of "bric a brac". The times they drive together are poignant. On one eventful night, they accidentally hit a deer whom Hodgman describes as "... deranged. It hated its life",  while driving fast in the dark to get her to a bathroom. "This is a woman who can treat the transmission of a common cold as a tragic twist of fate, but crash into a creature who you fear is Bambi's papa and you will encounter a soldier prepared the storms of Normandy."

And yet, despite her decline, it's not terribly sad.

Oh, actually it is. It is sad. The loneliness she feels that he expresses is piercing. With a parent in the same position (and being a caregiver child myself), I ache at some of the familiar scenes. I read it fairly soon after reading "The Long Goodbye" by Meghan O'Rourke, another gorgeous and thoughtful memoir of the loss of a mother. Both underline the very seed of our lives, the child grieving the parent, occurring often long before their actual death.

But it goes beyond the idea of caregiving for a into a more intimate path of caring for ourselves.  Hodgman gives up a great deal to be with her, yet he also gains.  He sees the small town life from a different place than when he was a child.  Additionally, it touches on his struggles as a gay man whose parents don't really accept his identity.  Rather than anger, he reaches another point of acceptance tempered with disappointment. Who he is becomes the subject just as much as who Betty is.  The child not wanting to disappoint his parents, those of that older generation who prefer to avoid uncomfortable subjects, remains in the man who loves his mother for exactly who she is.  Even if she cannot fully accept who he is.  He's there for the long haul, regardless, as he says "I am staying not to cling on, but because sometime, at least once, everyone should see someone through. All the way home."

So, it's heartbreaking. You will need tissue. You will laugh. And you just might hope you get a chance to be there for someone, to be that "other piece" for someone when the puzzle is completely undone.  Most of all, you may find yourself marking up the book to highlight special quotes.

A few of these, just to illustrate his beautiful writing:

"People forced to live by conventions are always the first to enforce them. I think this applies to my mother. A practical investor, she bought stock in the usual choices because they ordinarily pay off without risk or pain. She never imagined they could betray her or that anyone close would break them.  Never a practical investor, I have always gone for the crazy horse."

"I think people who have always felt okay in the world will never understand those of us who haven't."

After I read this, I turned to the beginning to read it again. I've become an evangelizer for this memoir. My mother and husband have read it. My English professor has dibs on it next.  I am hoping it wins a National Book Award like Patti Smith did.  I hope it becomes as well known as Paul Auster's journals. I hope it gets a PEN award. Anything that will get people to read it and see that throughout love and loyalty is a simple connection to Little Debbies and a casserole left on the front porch.

If it interests you, the author's website features pictures of Betty, George's father, and some of the other family mentioned extensively in the book.  Oh, and pay attention to the cover: it features some little details mentioned in the book.

Review copy received from the Amazon Vine program.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Notes from Underground by Roger Scruton (Czech history, Communism, samizdat)

"...attempts at difference had the opposite effect to the one intended. For they emphasized that, in the midst of this randomness, you saw only the one identical expression: eyes staring into the distance, and lips held firmly shut as though against some pervasive infection Our people had collectively solved their shared problem, which was how to keep the mask in place, while showing that it is only a mask. People collaborated in the great deception, so as not to be deceived."

Scruton's book examines Prague life under the unrelenting pressure of communism, and it's desire to create sameness and eradicate personal opinions and choices.  Seen most in the world of literature, where writers were commonly arrested and jailed, sometimes executed, the lack of freedom of expression was so controlled as to prevent personal thoughts.  Just the idea of waving at someone insinuated a further connection, a nefarious plan under way.

The police were calculating and cold in their efforts to cool any uprisings by suppressing everything written, even harmless works of literature. In result, much more harmful (to Communism at least) works were perpetrated in secret in opposition to the force of evil. Dissident authors and writers wrote secretly, as their work (or even having it in possession) could land them into jail.  But they did not quit, and if anything, while its exposure may have been limited to the literary few, it probably saved them mentally.

The novel begins with a woman being arrested who was secretly known for copying dissident works into books. Her son involved, she takes all the blame and is jailed. Lost for what to do, he himself a writer as well, wanders the underground (both literally and figuratively) trying to figure out what to do.  Soon he meets an attractive woman who leads him on a path to produce his literature but with a theory: become famous in the outside world so much that Czech officials can't touch him without political repercussions.

But who is she, and what is her intentions?

"A curious thought entered my mind: that she had quite separate lives. The thought no sooner occurred than it became a knife of jealousy.  The girl who cultivated dissidents, what was exploring the world of the samizdat, who was in some strange way excited by the opportunity to recreate me as a hero and a martyr, was the holiday version of another being entirely."

Filled with beautiful and nuanced sentences, the novel contrasts the barbaric stomping out of words with the subtlety and pleasure of well-written prose. The author contrasts these so clearly that one can't help but feel the tension between the political forces at play and the hearts behind the written word.  It's not idealistic, some of the samizdat writers were jerks too, not to be trusted and often arrogant.  But their opposition, in whole, to the entire movement to destroy them only makes them more fascinating.

Scruton's writing is unusual.  A narrator who thinks wisely and yet makes naive assumptions, who loves and yet distrusts; a complicated man in every sense.

Advance review copy provided by Amazon.

Friday, January 30, 2015

As I Said by Lev Loseff (bilingual Russian edition)

This bilingual collection of the poems of Lev Loseff begins with a preemptory acknowledgement, by series editor Jean Boase-Beier, of the difficulties of translating poetry, especially when a reader has no knowledge of the original language and thus might miss subtleties that the poet intended. As Boase-Beier puts it:
We know that translated poetry is neither English poetry that has mysteriously arisen from a hidden foreign source, nor is it foreign poetry that has silently rewritten itself in English. We are more aware that translation lies at the heart of all our cultural exchange; without it, we must remain artistically and intellectually insular.
With this in mind, both Russian and English versions are here provided “side-by-side because translations do not displace the originals; they shed new light on them and are in turn themselves illuminated by the presence of their source poems.” And translator G. S. Smith shows a similar attention to detail and attitude that goes beyond mere words: Smith was actually able to translate much of Loseff’s personality in the poems, as the two collaborated over the translations over a period of several years and Loseff gave his approval to the resulting works. Loseff, an editor himself who has translated Joseph Brodsky, guided Smith in some areas with comments and suggestions, but his firmest request was that the poems be presented in reverse chronological order. It was Smith who chose the poems for the collection, selecting those that had the best prospects for accurate translation.
Yet another scholar, Barry P. Scherr, contributes an introduction to Loseff that gives some essential biographical information, making the poems that much more compelling. Loseff was part of what was casually called the “philological school” of Russian poets; intensely familiar with and influenced by traditional Russian literature, he refers to his country’s most famous writers (e.g. Pasternak, Dostoevsky, and Pushkin) in many of his own poems. Besides this cultural expertise, Scherr notes that Loseff is also a poet of observation, one whose emotion “arises from contemplating the world outside the poet, rather than the writer’s most intimate thoughts.” Yet Loseff does reveal himself on his terms, subtly, and G.E. Smith picks up on such nuances.
“At the Clinic” for example, will strike many readers viscerally (here’s the full poem):
The doctor mumbled things about my kidneys,
and looked away. I pitied this MD.
For life to me had burst its inhibitions,
and now flowed heatedly and easily.
Diploma on the wall. MD. His awkward silence.
Hand scribbling out a slanting recipe.
While I'm astonished by this easy lightness—
so easy had the news turned out to be!
What happened to the demons that beset me?
I'm breathing easily, not like before.
I'll go and let them have some blood for testing,
and give a bit more blood to sign this poem.
A great deal is revealed in the poetic subtext: “Burst” and the phrase “flowed heatedly” contrast with the idea of ease. In fact, Loseff uses variances of “easy” four times in the poem’s three stanzas. At the conclusion, there’s a play on words in regard to blood—using both “give” and “let”—that indicates a sense of surrender despite the lightness he’s just described. Curiously, Loseff initially speaks of the “doctor” delivering the news, only to repeatedly call him “MD” afterwards. The usage on the facing page in Russian also uses a different word for doctor after the first, which made me curious if there was an aural play on words here, as “MD” in English sounds like “empty.” Does the Russian word Loseff used, Врач, also hint at another meaning?
A poem that reaches into Russian literary history is “The Blood Washed Off. The Axe Dumped in the River,” which seems to make a clear reference to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. While Raskolnikov stashed the axe rather than dumping it in the Neva, Loseff contrasts this murderer’s obsession over guilt (felt even before the murder occurred) and cleanliness with contemporary criminals, who “abandon axe and empty bottles by the body, mumble / when questioned, not bother washing off the blood.”
Throughout the collection, Smith’s translation beautifully captures a duality to the meanings. A phrase like “the river’s molten-honey seethe” in a poem about the death of a commercial area easily reminds the reader of the river Lethe and the feeling of forgetfulness. The layers are uncovered by Smith but never fully revealed—keeping Loseff an enigmatic poet whose work is destined for further study.
Published by ARC Publications.
First published in Rain Taxi magazine, 2013