Thursday, September 30, 2010

Birds for a Demolition, Manoel de Barros

Translated from the Portuguese by Idra Novey

“Poetry is to flap without wings.”

Birds for a Demolition is a compilation of a variety of poetry styles by Manoel de Barros, with some arranged more formally in stanzas and others appearing as short proverbs. A repeating topic is his early life in Brazil, in a region called the Pantanal. His small town and his childhood home next to a river clearly holds significance. He talks about the river often, and even uses the word as a verb at times. His voice is both somber and humorous, and when he gets a bit nostalgic, he reveals both.

In Invented Memoir II, he writes of his birthday as a boy, when his mother had no gift to give him. So she gave him a river.

…The same river that had always passed behind our house.
I liked the gift more than if it had been candy from the peddler.
My brother pouted, he liked the river as well.
Our mother promised him he’d get a tree for his birthday.
A tree covered in birds.
I heard this promise and thought it was fine.
The birds would spend the day on the banks of my river.
At night, they’d sleep in my brother’s tree.
My brother teased that his present got flowers in September.
And a river doesn’t get flowers!
I told him a tree doesn’t get piranhas.
What united us was swimming naked in the river with the herons.
In this regard, our life was a caress.

Apparently, the river was something he held on to, both as a personal touchstone and a poetic motif.  While the poetry within this covers almost 50 years of his work, the focus remains much the same. Vines, lizards, adobe buildings, trees, and even ants are woven into more serious topics.

In Ants,

I didn’t need to read Saint Paul, Saint Augustine,
Saint Jerome, or Thomas of Aquinas,
Not even Saint Francis of Assisi---
To arrive at God.
Ants showed him to me.

(I have a doctorate in ants).

In just these six lines he does two things: reveals his inferred truth regarding life and creation, yet throws in a twist of humor with his doctorate remark. This pattern of mixing the serious with the blithe makes the collection much more vibrant and appealing. He does this in short proverbs in “The Book of Nothing”:

There are many serious ways to say nothing, but only poetry is true.

My dawn is going to open at dusk.

To have more certainty I have to know more imperfections.

I wanted to be read by stones.

Words hide me without much care.

Wherever I am not, words find me.

There are histories so true that at times it seems they are invented.

I want the word that fits in the beak of a small bird.

Note that the proverb style he uses above uses large breaks of space (caesuras or caesurae??) to give you time to stop and reflect rather than move quickly through the verses. 

Lastly, he applies a paragraph form to some self-deprecating words of explanation in a section called "Desiring to Be":  "I write an archaic Manoel-esque idiolect (Idiolect is the dialect idiots use to speak to the walls and with the flies.)  I need to upset meanings.  Purposelessness is healthier than solemnity.  (To cleanse a certain solemnity from words, I use manure.)...The cerebral touches in my writing are just a precaution to avoid succumbing to the temptation to make myself less foolish than others.  I am highly regarded for my foolishness.  Of this I deliver certainty."

Special thanks to Cynthia Lamb of Carnegie Mellon University Press
 for this Advance Review Copy. 
This title releases today, September 30, 2010.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Safe from the Sea, Peter Geye

The wreck of the Ragnarok, a steel ore ship in the Great Lakes, was a disaster that took the lives of all the crewmen, except for three. One of the survivors was Olaf Torr, a talented Norwegian immigrant who lost friends as well as his life path in the disaster. Returning to his family, he was a changed man.

“You end up a line in a poem, as a face in a picture in a museum. Meanwhile, your crewmates are dead and you haven’t talked to your wife-honestly talked to her –in years. And your kids grow to fear you. And instead of making it right you let it ride. You drink in the raunchiest bars in eight states…And you lose all shame.”

This broken man has reached the end of his life, suffering from an unknown illness, and in his final days his son Noah reluctantly returns to take care of him. Their relationship was never strong: Noah resented his father’s distance and his father was too wrapped up in the past to relate to any of his family. Their reconnection after thirty some years, with death impending for Olaf, is an awkward situation as both of them try to narrow the distance.

For his part, Noah is confused. His father was always a hero to him, and the legendary wreck of the Ragnarok was the small town’s biggest event. Many recollected the events without realizing the human effects on Olaf-a sort of survivor guilt he was burdened with. In many ways, neither man trusts each other, or their concept of family connection. Add to this the unresolved anger that Noah carries because of the way his father became a drunk and distanced himself from Noah’s mother. Early on, Noah learns that his father has lost his mothers ashes-somewhere-and that outrages him.

As Noah returns, trying to find a way to help this dying old man who resists any comfort (he refuses pain pills or physical comforts), he realizes that there’s more to the shipwreck than he realized. As they spend time together, Olaf is able to educate Noah about the wreck of the ship, the horror of the loss of life, and why the family relationship deteriorated from then on.  He clears up many of the assumptions Noah had made.

As a character study of both men, this book is amazing. It reveals fully-formed real men with honor and flaws in equal portions. The novel, by Peter Geye (his first, by the way), is amazing in how he balances both strong characters. He doesn’t magnify one over the other; he simply describes them and the mistakes they’ve made.

However, most books with strong characters usually weaken in plot. Yet the plot in Safe From The Sea is equally strong. The course of reconnection, the history of the wreck, and the effects on the Minnesota community make a suspenseful plot with twists and surprises. Noah (whose name appears somewhat symbolic) learns that his assumptions from childhood were wrong, and that somehow he had romanticized the idea of the wreck of the Rag.

“He remembered chalking it up to some kind of ambivalence toward his father, but in retrospect it was an ambivalence borne by the unconscious knowledge that what his father had just said was-and always had been-the truth. Twice already he’d alluded to the commonness of the crew, and twice now Noah had paused at the realization of this deflating fact: They weren’t gods and giants sunk on that ship, they were men and boys…..

“Isn’t it more fantastic to think of the guys who died as a little bit heroic, as swashbuckling sailors? As something more than a bunch of yokels from Great Lakes port towns?

“I don’t think so,” Olaf said. “It’s real life. In real life there’re boys from port towns.”

The two men share companionship and resolve their differences over the last days of Olaf’s life. Noah is relieved to have resolution, until his father asks him to do one further, unimaginable, thing for him.

Special thanks to Caitlin Hamilton Summie from Unbridled Books for the Advance Review Copy.
This title released yesterday, 9/28/10 and can be purchased at major retailers.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Dead Detective by William Heffernan

Classic old-school detective work: I hadn’t realized how much I missed it until I read this new novel from Akashic Press. I’d heard Heffernan was good, and I’m sorry I waited so long to read one of his titles. Everything about this crime novel speaks to the traditional style of ‘whodunit’ mysteries: it has an ensemble cast of police characters (the high-level brass is a bit stereotypical), an intelligent criminal, and a string of intersecting events that complicate the search for the killer. Best of it all, it has a badass detective who isn’t simply a genius, but rather a team-player with a special sensitivity for victims and with insight on human nature.

Harry Doyle is The Dead Detective, a nickname he acquired when his past caught up with his career as a policeman. As a child, his mother attempted to murder him and his brother, and only Harry was able to be resuscitated. Adopted by a policeman, he grew up with understandable hatred for his mother and a desire to help other victims. He appears to sense details that others overlook. He also has a somewhat unique ability, for an accomplished detective, to keep both superiors and underlings happy.

The case in this novel, which I hope is the beginning of a series, is about an infamous female schoolteacher, a pedophile who preyed on a teenage student. Her murder early on is mysterious, as she was supposed to be under house arrest. The location of the crime scene, as well as further murders that may be related all create a twisted web for the detectives to unravel. Harry guides a team to the solution, all the while dealing with the impending parole of his mother (who happens to be intent on finishing her work of killing Harry). This is a smart and, at times, snarky novel that makes you hope Harry Doyle reappears with another case to solve.

That said, I had a few technical difficulties with the book. Small things really, but they did distract me a bit from the narrative in a few places. One was early on when a significant witness is being questioned about her friendship with the victim. Despite the detective's focus, she never asks what or if anything happened to her friend, which didn’t ring true. It seems that at that moment, her response would have been to ask what was going on. Her lack of curiosity struck me as 'off'. The other problem I had was an element of foreshadowing that became too obvious-the author repeats, quite often, that the murderer could be right amongst them. Too much information, and I’m not sure why the novel needed that not-so-subtle clue.  In any case, these distractions are not significant enough to ruin a really great crime story.

Thanks to Zach and Johanna of Akashic Press for the Review Copy.
While this book officially releases October 1, it is for sale at numerous retailers now.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Beside the Sea, Veronique Olmi

Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter

It's difficult to decide what subgenre this literary fiction title would fall under.  In some ways, it's a crime novel, with the crime heavily foreshadowed from the beginning.  But, more likely, it would be a psychological thriller, one that has you holding your breath from the suspense and completely terrified by what you know is going to happen.  In either case, this book has an emotional pull that can't be resisted, even though you may wish to step away from it at times.

The story is of a troubled woman, a young mother with deep mental issues, who decides to take her two sons on their first trip from their city home to the sea.  Right from the beginning, this mother also indicates it would be their last trip as well.  They arrive to a dark and dismal seaside town, where the sea is far from lovely and the streets are filled with oblivious and often harsh strangers, with no idea of the horror that is unfolding.

In some ways the book appears to be working backwards from the inevitable crime that appears at the end, simply because each detail succeeds in predicting the event.  It's hard to explain how this forward-backward motion is accomplished, but it works to create intense suspense.  Maybe set a timer to remind yourself to breathe occasionally.

While this mother is clearly insane, there are moments when she appears almost sympathetic.  She details the efforts of social workers to instruct her on how to better 'mother' her children, and she resists their advice.  Since it's written in the first person, we get a glimpse at just how irrational she is.  She attributes ill motives to her children, strangers, and even the weather and the sea.  She seems to have no practical skills or common sense:  she finances their trip with a can of coins that turns out to be just a few dollars, although she imagined it to be a windfall. 

"I definitely was disorientated in this place, everything was always behind me and I didn't know it, everything was there, and I just kept turning, turning round and round while everything waited for me."

Her problem, likely some form of bipolar disorder, is presented by her almost constant need for sleep, and her vision is sometimes affected when anything remotely complex appears in her life (such as climbing the stairs to the hotel room).  It's heartbreaking to read of her young sons, hungry and silent, waiting for her to waken, while they sit in their cold and dark hotel room.  The oldest son, Stan, is an especially intuitive child, and there is a sense that he may know what is unfolding.

This would probably be considered a novella, but it's impact is not minimized by its size.  As a character study of the mother, it is flawless in describing an inner struggle with sanity in a world that appears insane on its own. 

Special thanks to Mieke Ziervogel of Peirene Press, London for the Review Copy.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Reading Novalis in Montana by Melissa Kwasny

In case you are a bit behind on your German Romantic poets, as I was*, here's a brief reminder on Novalis:  he lived in the 18th century, died young, and wrote about the spiritual meaning of life and nature.  One of his most famous quotes is "Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason." 

With this information in mind, I readily enjoyed Melissa Kwasny's book Reading Novalis in Montana.  I assumed it would be an ode to all things in nature, but the book is far more complex than that.  It does discuss the natural world, with a seeming focus on birds, trees, and animal life, yet it also examines the relationship of nature on the human mind.  The questions we ask about nature can be asked about ourselves.  The observations we make often reflect what is in our own hearts and imagination.  She finds a connection between conscious thought and subconscious connections.

In "Sleep Comes from the Flowers", her reflections on what she sees reveals deeper questions.

Three hours the deer sleep, then back to the vowels
of the water, the all-day drowse of mice and grass and owls.
Snow like white dahlias.  Deer curled together like buds.
The ice in the creek cannot bear any more cold
and cracks each night into a thousand mums.  Petal
of the squirrel's lid, closed and safe.  The trees stay awake,
or asleep, as you prefer.  Like me, they take
what is offered them.  But the animals strive, pace the fields
for food or mates.  Do moths sleep together or apart?
Everything with consciousness must sleep, not merely rest,
though bird dreams last nine seconds or less
and fish can sleep while swimming....
The dark blooms in winter on the walls of the canyon.
We achieve our imagination in increments.

Somehow, her choice of mostly one and two syllable words creates a simplicity and a pace that sounds repetitive and quiet, almost like tiptoes in a quiet night.  Yet the words 'consciousness', 'imagination', and 'increments' startle us out of our reverie.  It's as though she awakens us from the quieter thoughts of sleep and dreams to what is in front of us:  the natural world.  It seems significant that she finds motifs of flowers everywhere: in the ice, the snow, the deer bodies, the squirrel's eyelids, and the shadows on canyon walls. 

In "Herbs", she discusses nature's changes and emotional change:

Persephone caught
staring at a flower.  Can beauty be compensation for grief?
     Our own heliotaxis.

Like the robin, for instance, at sunset, atop the high spruce,
     turning its breast to the sun,
or the layering through our lives of a particular herbage,

sweet pine, the prairie sages, the pink-rooted grass-
     the American grass we braid and burn.

Even without belief, we must admit
to a certain sense of holiness, in their green-lit transparence,

in their capacity for light, and how our eyes are drawn to it....

     To be changed internally from afar.

The significance of her words is deepened when you realize (thank you, Google!) that the grasses she mentions (sweet pine, prairie sage, and pink-root) are all herbs used in purification, and found in Montana.  The reference to heliotaxis, which is the way a flower turns toward the light, also demonstrates a turning, or change, accomplished by focusing on light and beauty.  Here the references to Novalis are especially clear.

Again, blogger isn't permitting me to upload a photo, but a link to the book is found here:,shop.product_details/flypage,shop.flypage/product_id,876/category_id,52/option,com_phpshop/Itemid,8/

This collection is meditative, quiet, and appealing for its breadth of topics, all linked in some way from the outer world to the inner heart.
*Actually, I had no clue who he was.
Special thanks to Jessica Deutsch of Milkweed Editions for the Review Copy.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Nothing Left to Burn by Jay Varner

Jay's father, Denton, was the chief of a volunteer fire department in a small town.  His career started early, and he rose to be one of the town's most recognizable mascots.  He was known for his devotion to the community and his singular focus on both preventing and fighting fires.  It comes as little surprise in the reading that Denton's own father, Lucky, was an arsonist.   Jay describes growing up in such a volatile environment, where much of the community was clued in to the disparate activities of his father and grandfather.  It's clear that one man was trying to find redemption for the deeds of his father.

Memoirs are tough to read, and I imagine they'd be hard to write. You don't have the luxury of fiction to soften the blows or shine a more flattering light on yourself as you would a created character. Jay Varner even acknowledges that there would have been no way to write this fictionally-no one would be able to believe it all. After much thought, no doubt weighing the consequences, he decides to write the story of his family. What he exposes is painful and ugly and improbable, yet it rings true.

The history begins with Jay's return to his small hometown, complete with a new job as a journalist with the local paper.  The community appears amused by this latest generation of Varner, especially in that his beat includes reporting fires.  Jay alternates between present and past as he reveals his childhood, the death of his father, and his own changing face in the community.  At moments, when discussing his father's frequent absences, his words uncover the pain he felt at being secondary to the needs of others.  In discussing the procedures of writing obituaries and local fires and accidents, his words seem almost profound as he describes the numbness that envelopes him after he gets used to the frequent suicides and accidents.  He is meticulous in his details, and while it's not fiction, many twists still surprise the reader.  He clearly wants to find the link that would explain both men's fixations on fire, and yet their completely differing acts.  To the last page, astonishing details are revealed. 

And I said at first, memoirs are difficult because of what they reveal.  Perhaps because I've been reading a great deal about Siberia and the Holocaust, I feel a bit impatient with Varner's more childish complaints.  He repeats continually during the first half of the book how often his father abandoned him for others, and recounts in detail all the milestones of his life that his father missed.  It's clear that it caused him pain then, as well as now.  In the second half of the book, in the aftermath of his father's death, he still tends to focus on what he and his mother missed out on, and how the community shut them out. Not to minimize his pain, but his focus seems to be inordinately about his own disappointments rather than searching out their cause.  Towards the end, he does acknowledge that there must have been reasons for the strange behavior of his grandfather, but he doesn't go any deeper.

Since he was trained as a journalist, I would have expected him to cover both sides of his family's history, yet he admits most of his information about the past comes from his mother and his mother's family.  This omission seems a bit jarring, especially in that he clearly dislikes his father's family and spends a large portion of the text with a negative focus on them.  There isn't a single positive thing said about them, the focus being only on their crazy behavior and his sense of embarrassment of being connected to them.  While his memoir is undoubtedly gripping, I'm left with a sense that there's even more to the story.

Special thanks to Algonquin for the Review Copy. 
Blogger isn't permitting me to upload the cover photo at this time.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Meow Ruff-A Story in Concrete Poetry by Joyce Sidman

Okay, I admit, I'm on a bit of a poetry kick.  And while I have only reviewed three children's books on the blog so far (this is the second, recent one), I have to mention this title.  Why?  Because it's as much fun for adults as it is for little kids.

I'm taking an English class that is studying poetry, and it discusses using 'concrete' words rather than 'concept words'.  So instead of addressing all the intangible aspects of description (love, freedom, etc), a poet will make more impact from using concrete words that describe actual tangible things.  So when I found this children's book at our local library, my son loved the pictures and I loved the words.  The illustrations are sweet, yet simple-almost a pop-art/anime style.  The illustrator incorporated the text into the actual artwork, so a tree is made up of words, as is the grass.  In the meantime, a cat, a dog, and some feisty crows create the story.

Here's the tree, where the font increases and decreases in size and width to create the canopy and narrows into the trunk: 
Each leaf
rippling and
each twig
and shivering
each branch
feeling the wind's
whisper but the
hearted gnarl-armed

The grass is described in a long, thin font that looks like grass blades:
wind-whispered grass
seed-studded grass

Later on, a table, rain, and even clouds are made up of concrete poetry.  A fun book for kids and moms...

Book courtesy of my local library!  Check out yours!

World's End by Pablo Neruda

Translated by William O’Daly

Pablo Neruda never disappoints. There are many great poets but he is one that seems to say so much with so few words. Succinct and concise. That said, World’s End, the final of the series of Neruda collections from Copper Canyon Press, feels different somehow. He addresses larger issues and concepts than his previous collections. In places, his tone feels more defiant. Of course, his picturesque lexicon and love for Chile still pervades, despite the clear sense of disappointment he seems to have placed on himself.

In “The Wars”, he speaks to the scars and remains of war. He talks of the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and the labor camps of Siberia, and despite his familiarity with heartache and violence, he still appears mystified by the waste.

Come here, fallen hat,
burnt shoe, toy
or posthumous pile of eyeglasses
or else man, woman, city
rise from the ash
as far as this weary page,
deprived by the weeping.

Come, black snow, solitude
of Siberian injustice,
frayed remains of pain
when close ties were lost
and the fog of the inexplicable night
overtook the righteous.

He talks about his homeland, Chile, and describes it as a mother whose appearance has changed. Neruda served as a senator at one time, and was active politically and hands-on in his duties.  He could see that for the common people, time had not been kind. In “Ports”:

Seated, she sees the flowing water
of the dark irrigation ditches,
the detritus of the outskirts,
the assassinated gills,
and the stiff dead cats.

In the books, mother country
was the color of oranges and snow,
and through her hair fell
a cascade of cherries.
So it hurts to see her
seated in a broken chair,
among potato peelings
and rickety furniture.

A favorite of mine was “Little Devils”, wherein he describes both individuals as well as political entities and their quest to raise themselves above others, crushing the voiceless with their agendas. He ends it by acknowledging that for all his contributions, he could not create significant change.

I have seen how the rich one
would prepare his character,
the social climber his alibi,
the gold digger her nets,
the poet his inclusions.

I played with blank paper,
each day facing the light.

I am a working fisher
of verses, living and wet,
that go leaping in my veins.

I never knew how to make anything else
or knew how to curb the needs
of the natural braggart

…leave me alone with the sea;
I was born to small fish.

As in the other collections, William O’Daly prefaces the collection and contributes greatly to understanding Neruda’s intentions and state of mind in World’s End. He reveals “If Neruda never allowed disillusionment and heartache to destroy his hope, he credits his powers of renewal, as a man and as a poet, to forgetting (p.XXIV).” O'Daly also identifies and clarifies some of Neruda's allusions to military leaders such as Castro and Stalin, a knowledge that helps the reader understand Neruda's own understanding of world events.

Special thanks to Janet Jones of Copper Canyon Press for the Review Copy.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Horse, Flower, Bird by Kate Bernheimer

The Brothers Grimm cornered the market on fairy tales, and the original versions of them were often dark...far more frightening than the sanitized versions found in modern children's books.  This collection of short stories by Kate Bernheimer entitled Horse, Flower, Bird is a dark collection of tales as well...not suitable for children, because under the seemingly simple stories lies a violent understory.  The combination is disconcerting, and makes you wonder how the elements of fear and innocence could be combined so artfully.

I can't think of any short stories that are like this...the images create an almost instantaneous shot of pain, like a paper cut, when you grasp the author's meaning.  For example,  in "A Cuckoo Tale", a little girl speaks innocently of her feelings of guilt and anxiety (she didn't call it that) in a religious sense, so different from her Catholic friend.  "There was no talk of heaven or hell in the girl's household.  It was all about pogroms and rape."  While she tries to live a child's life, visions of Jews herded into ovens fill her too-young imagination.  She wonders why no one helped Anne Frank, who she calls "the girl who kept the diary."

In "A Doll's Tale", a little girl receives a beautiful doll as a gift...a doll far prettier than she.  She didn't like it, and so "confused by this feeling-for Astrid was a kind and gentle being-her ambivalence became a kind of devotion."  Her true feelings are revealed when she dumps it down a laundry chute.  However, the loss of it soon leaves her lonely, and she invents an invisible-friend.  There's no joy there, as the 'friend' suddenly disappears.  A painfully memorable picture is created when her and her father drive around, looking for the beloved invisible friend:

"This second loss proved too much for her, really.  Doll-less, invisible friend-less, finally more comfortable in fear than in gladness, Astrid began to live in her head...To outsiders, this...lent her a remarkably pleasing air, since she never had reason to interrupt anyone's talking."

Kate Bernheimer
 Even what promises to be an amusing story of little girls playing Jedi's from Star Wars takes a darker turn, when their imagination, fed by the careless conversations of adults, suddenly creates a world far more violent and ugly than the movie. 

The stories, while diverse and mysterious, all contain a theme of the loss of innocence.  And the source of such loss seems to be the a child's view of the world where an active imagination and lack of experience create troubling and sometimes dangerous visions.  Sometimes the simplest words can create a landscape of horror. 

Special thanks to Esther Porter of Coffee House Press for the Review Copy.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Mapping Stereotypes and Prejudices with Humor

From Victoria Mixon on Twitter, this link takes you to a group of maps of Europe as imagined by residents of different countries, snarky with humor but somewhat true to stereotype:  Britain considers Ireland "rascals" for one. Sweden is "IKEA". Check it's painfully funny!

In the Land We Imagined Ourselves, Jonathan Johnson

Jonathan Johnson has created an unusual collection of poetry, one that goes against much of the stereotypes of modern poetry.  This is a man's man, a tough guy, so to speak, who writes about tangible things rather than transitory concepts or feelings.  My first reaction, about one-third into it, was to stop and see if he has other works to read (yes!).  It's that good.  My second reaction was that this is something my poetry-hating boys would actually read, and enjoy. 

He talks about nature and beauty, especially in Idaho, but mingles in the unexpected:  the B52s, Art Garfunkel's hair, tattoo parlors, logging, fathers, sons, and cars.

From Third Street and the Stolen Boat:

Lampposts tattoo the short shadows of objectivity onto concrete.
Luminescence pierces the lip of every overhanging leaf.

The last of August, sunlit chill breeze and constant sparkle of university traffic again.
A skateboard double clacks the coronary insistence of adolescence...

A longer poem, a masterpiece entitled American Ballad, tells the imagined story of Josie and Wyatt unorthodox retelling that plays with the concept of violence on and off the Frontier.

In New You, New Me, he speaks to his daughter Anya, in a poem she will surely treasure, where he recounts his teenage glory days but reveals the greater joy he's found, one that transcends youth:

May you too know singing along with the windows down,
air through your hair,
and the blossoming conviction that someone should be getting this on film.

...Go ahead, make yourself a self you'll be nostalgic for,
and may someone come and rescue you
the way you rescued me, on the pillow beside you telling my story...

Postcard with Black Rocks is my favorite of the collection.  In it he talks about the details surrounded a beloved photograph of the blustery shore, taken at a favorite place he frequented:

Now I walk to the place
in the postcard alone, though not right now.
Not today I mean.  It's winter there today.
And it's night.  It looks nothing like this.

I loved that last line, because I know exactly what he means, although my postcard is different.

Special thanks to Cynthia Lamb of Carnegie Mellon University Press for the Advance Review Copy.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Mermaid and the Messerschmitt, Rulka Langer

Originally published in 1942, Aquila Polonica has reprinted this in a stunning new edition.  The first thing that jumps out at you is pictures!  Lots and lots of pictures, particularly focused on the Siege of Warsaw, which is the focus of the book.  In addition, maps and timelines assist in understanding the events before and during WWII.

First off, the female author adds a unique voice to the usually male-dominated subject of wartime.  She also explains immediately why her story is different from what a war correspondent for the news might write.  Her presence as a mother with an extended family gives her a different viewpoint:

"A war correspondent, when he runs to that gigantic fire (her example), does not leave his own children behind in his hotel room.  When caught in an air raid, he doesn't tremble for the life of his own old mother.  His brother has not vanished somewhere on the crowded isn't his own house, the house in which he was born and has lived for years, that has been set on fire by an incendiary. And if he himself goes through the agony of mortal fear, none of his readers will ever know about it."

As a narrator of the horrors, Langer is ideal.  For a time before all this occurred, she had lived in the United States and had attended Vassar, and then became a copywriter for an advertising agency.  After marrying and having a child, her husband became the Commercial Attache at the Polish Embassy.  Eventually he resigned and they went back to Poland, but in 1938 he had another opportunity to work in the US.  She remained in Poland, on a temporary basis, planning to rejoin him.  However, as WWII heated up, she ended up in a small town with her mother and extended family, hoping to wait out the storm.

The book goes on to detail the fears that residents had, as well as the thread of suspicion that wove through daily life.  At one point, when she travelled to try and find a way to get to Warsaw, she was arrested by a band of women with pitchforks who assumed she was a German spy (her missing passport didn't help her case).  While many Warsaw residents had fled the city, Langer and her mother actually decided to return there, because the refugees who fled were equally endangered, and the prospect of travelling with small children seemed questionable.  They returned to an apartment thoroughly shelled, without windows, and with its contents turned to rubble.  Here they tried to reclaim their life and wait out the Siege.

It's this personal aspect that makes the book most involving.  As a mom, hearing how she attempted to feed her children and create some semblence of normalcy, no matter how fragile, was amazing.  Entertaining them, distracting them from their fears, and still maintaining a sense of calm is hardly imaginable. When a fire began on their roof, it took 48 hours to get help.  Without panes of glass in the windows, they nearly froze in their apartments.  Small details jump out the most:  how a copy of Gone with the Wind seemed to inspire her to hold on to her old clothes lest she have to use the drapes for fabric.  How rumours and gossip made fear escalate even more.  And how, even in extreme danger, women will still bicker over the price of produce!

Another intriguing part of the book involves her creation of a new business to try and make money. Since newspapers no longer circulated, and the Poles desperately needed items that would normally be offered in the classified ads, Langer used her advertising background and a friend's help to create posters of small items for sale.  Despite interference from the German's occupying Warsaw, they still found a way to post these and make a small amount of money. 

In all, her family suffered greatly during the Siege and family members was tragically killed.  But Langer and her children survived and were able to get to Vienna.  Soon after, they left for America.  I'm most amazed at how readable this is compared to other books about the war experience.  Suitable for all ages, it would make an excellent resource in a classroom and a stepping stone to further study on the Siege of Warsaw.  Hearing from a survivor about the human capacity for resilience and inner strength is motivating, especially in a time when nothing made sense.

Special thanks to Debra Gendel of Aquila Polonica for the Review Copy.
Aquila Polonica also produces a DVD of the Siege of Warsaw available on their website,

Um, what?

Reading Greg Zimmerman's excellent blog  left me speechless this morning.  He reveals, from another source, that Elizabeth Gilbert already had a book deal in place before she set out to "find herself" in her hugely popular memoir  Eat, Pray, Love. I didn't care for the book, except for the foodie portion set in Italy. I felt it would certainly be easily possible to "find oneself" in a place where money is no object, beautiful scenery exists, and the (paid) help foresees your every possible need (not to mention the Argentinian hunk who pursues her). Much of it felt contrived.  Yet, finding out that she already had a financial motive and needed a story to sell changes everything. 

Cynicism.  Don't knock it!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

10 Pulitzer Prize winners....

A great list with some surprising (to me) mentions.  #1, 2, 4, 5, 7, and 9 are titles I've never read.  Has anyone read the whole list?

I Just Lately Started Buying Wings, Kim Dana Kupperman, memoir

Disaster and loss happens to everyone at some point in their life.  But in the case of Kim Dana Kupperman, it seems like she's had several lifetimes worth of grief in just a few years.  This is a collection of essays she's written in response to the various sorrows she's endured-the loss of a brother to AIDS, a mother to suicide, and a father to old age.  Mix in a vicious custody battle and a drug-addicted half-brother who complicates everything, and you get just a snapshot of her life.  She's had it rough, but none of the essays solicit pity.  Instead, she speaks in a no-nonsense voice with no embellishment, just her take on 'who' and 'what' happened to her.  She leaves the 'why' up to the reader.

In one essay, she talks about the 'arrangements' that must be made after a death-the practical aspects that are attended to in a haze of grief.  Specifically, what do you do with all that stuff?  Do you keep it?  What makes something an heirloom?  What defines a memory?  In all the loss she endured, she realizes:

"Later you touch and sort, discard or keep for another time all the artifacts that testify to a life that has passed...Eventually all these objects are not only handled more than once, they are packed into containers, some resurfacing on shelves or in drawers years later, others given to friends...So many things we once thought were useful and beautiful dissipate or are buried, as if there was no point in having them in the first place.  But in the act of letting go of them, there is a relief that they no longer have to be carried, cared for, or worried about."

How many people are willing to admit that carrying the momentos of life can be a burden?  It's this unflinching honesty that draws you in, and makes her writing more touching than if she simply summarized her losses.  Her unique voice is apparent early on, as she describes being the trophy in a bitter custody battle between her controlling but hypocritical father and her drug-addicted mother.  She tried to please both sides, eventually creating a sense of isolation in herself.  Regarding childhood, she states, "The miniature versions of who we become as adults are always available, if we pay attention.  As soon as I could write, I made lists and stories. And before understanding the power of words, I drew messages."  What she drew were subtle indications of her frightened isolation, and yet only one person realized her plight.

One of the most moving essays was of her life in France when the Chernobyl disaster occurred.  Her first reaction was to notice the wind blowing outside the window, and the implications of the poison heading her way was horrifying.  The thought of it consumes much of her concentration, yet five years later she travelled to Kiev, in search of the history of her grandmother.  There, she gathered stories of people who were there when the implications of the catastrophe were realized:

"I visited with a journalist who told me that in May of 1986, Ukrainian radio broadcasts recommended taking showers after outdoor excursions.  He walked his Afghan hound in the park, wiped off his shoes with a wet rag by the door when he came home, and showered in his clothes with the dog.  He never let on if he cried through any of this.  Or what he did with the towels after those showers.  Or if the dog lived."

It's in the course of her interviews that she realizes that while much is said, something is missing from their narratives:  "Perhaps we participate in acts of omission to shape memory into something manageable and safe.  Who has the room inside their psyche to remember everything, carry the weight of how things felt, and still get out of bed each morning?"

In all, this is a collection that begs for discussion.  Her matter-of-fact tone in dealing with dividing the ashes of a loved one, identifying a body, or reading old letters from her parents, is one that makes it easier to grasp just what sadness is faces all of us.  It'd be an ideal and unusual selection for a book group because the difficulties are universal.  Most meaningful, she ends this on a reflective note, a word of advice for others:  "My mother reminded me to care for memory as if it were my child."

Special thanks to Graywolf Press for the Advanced Review Copy.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Where I Live, Maxine Kumin, Saturday poetry

Maxine Kumin seems like a sweet older woman.  Harmless, it would appear.  After all, she begins her book of poetry with a focus on nature, and makes insightful observations on little things that are often overlooked.  For example, in "Lore", she talks about a book she's read about blue jays, and how many acorns they ingest each season.  She describes the oak trees that result from the blue jays losses, but takes notice of an even more interesting thought:  who is the person, "an aspiring Ph.D." that actually counts these and compiles such data?  It's that little bit of twist, from observing nature to questioning a source that make her unique, and makes you realize this is not a simple collection of pretty words.  Most of all, as you continue reading Where I Live, you see that she isn't as harmless as you might suspect.

Her topics vary greatly and her observations are often are anything but sweet.  In talking about Iraq, she doesn't back away from revealing the discrepancies between the suffering caused by liberators and a religious leader claiming there is a "spiritual value of suffering".  She concludes that the sun comes up, "staining the sky with indifference".  She also contrasts the ideals of the Geneva Convention with vice-presidents and Supreme Court justices who engage in what she calls "canned hunting".  In "Please Pay Attention as the Ethics Have Changed", she wonders what kind of Humane Society (a word play on "human" society) would permit such cruelty to an animal (or moreso, to a person).  From Daniel Pearl's tragic death to contaminated drinking water, she reveals her heart in her words.

She also speaks of stray dogs and abandoned cats with great feeling, and you get the impression that it isn't simply the immediate sadness that she's getting at...she's driving at the attitudes that make people shut their heart up to others.  And while sometimes we may stereotype a poet as distant and focused on things beyond real life, she shows she's firmly planted in the here and now.  In "The Chambermaids in the Marriot in Midmorning", she finds another life in their chatter:
"Behind my "Do not disturb" sign I go wherever they go
sorely tried by their menfolk, their husbands, lovers or sons,
who have jobs or have lost them, who drink and run around,
who total their cars and are maimed, or lie idle in traction...

I think how static my life is with its careful speeches and classes
and how I admire the women who daily clean up my messes,
who are never done scrubbing..."

The contents are divided into sections: New Poems, Looking for Luck, Connecting the Dots, The Long Marriage, Jack and Other New Poems, and Still to Mow.  Simple chores, farm work, famous women authors, childbirth, the Red Sox, misbehaving pets, redemption, corporate greed, and travel all are portrayed as she sees them, not sugar-coated nor politicized.  The collection as a whole feels like a book of sage advice from a favored aunt-the feisty one-the one that sometimes says what you don't want to hear but who you listen to anyway.  And while they are considered poetry, the verses often read with the detail you'd find in a short story.

Special thanks to WW Norton for this Review Copy.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Reluctant Mullah, Sagheer Afzal

Fact:  Nobody likes an arranged marriage. 

It's on this basis that the novel The Reluctant Mullah makes its case.  In it, Musa has just thirty days to find a wife that he actually likes, or else he's stuck with the one chosen for him.  He fears who will be selected for him, as it goes against every romantic bone in his body.  Thus, he begins searching on his own.  It's not simple, as Muslim tradition makes getting to know any woman a near impossibility.  He's aided (and thwarted) by friends more bent on the humor of the situation than by real concern for his future.

Musa himself is intriguing.  Besides his romantic nature, he has a sense of humor not expected from a Westerner's perspective.  For example, he sings Sinatra music, "My Way", but changes the words:
"And now the end is near, and so I face the final cousin.  My friend, I'll say it clear.  I'll state my case of which I'm certain. I've been to muslimbrides, I've travelled to each fa-mi-ly.  But more, much more than this, I did it my way."  It's his irreverance mixed with a shocking amount of modern humor that makes him an extremely likable character. 

The novel makes a fascinating read because it discusses Muslim culture without delving into political or religious polarities.  Instead, it focuses on the social life and complications of people dealing with both tradition and outside influence, all in a modern world.  I appreciated that the women in the story do not appear to be slavish nor repressed, but rather amusing and sassy and quite capable of taking care of themselves.  In fact, what surprised me most was how close family ties were, especially with aunts and uncles all concerned and involved in each other's lives.  Sure, Musa finds it a bit obnoxious as he seeks true love, but the unity and reliability on each other is inspiring.

In all, this was an amusing novel that still had a share of deeper complexities.  Because, despite the humor and ridiculous situations that Musa finds himself in, a darker side of tradition will still assail him. He finds love, but he finds heartbreak as well.  This is what makes the novel both timeless and appropriate for anyone:  affairs of the heart know no national, political, or religious boundaries.

Special thanks to Martine of Halban Publishers, UK for the review copy.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

New winner...and some razzing on contest FAIL!

Kayla has one the random selection for Andrew Erwin's Extraordinary Renditions.  She has 48 hours to email me her mailing info or it goes to the next name on the list.  Congratulations!

So, regarding my Booker quiz for Peter Carey's Parrot & Olivier in America:  come on people!  It wasn't that hard!  Only two entries and both were wrong!  Seriously, this is a hardback final copy of a Booker nominee!  The conest is on-going, just scroll down for the rules and to enter.

Impress me!!!! 

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Ernest Hemingway and the Geography of Memory-Cirino and Ott

Hemingway is known for so many off-the-page details (his drinking, suicide, cats, crankiness) that sometimes his amazing works of literature get lost in the myth.  Sure, most lists of classic books feature at least one of his titles, but as a body of work they hold more significance.  After all, his topics vary tremendously, and the way he handles his characters is never the same.  So the opportunity to review the book, Ernest Hemingway and the Geography of Memory, appealed to me.  I genuinely wondered what the phrase "geography of memory" would mean. 

This is an amazingly in-depth, heavily detailed, and annotated exploration of Hemingway and the way his books related to places and things.  It's not a biography, or simply an exploration of what his books meant.  Rather, the focus is on both how he created them and the influence of his writing on others. This would be an ideal read for someone familiar with most of his collection. 

In this review, I want to comment on two of the most fascinating chapters in the book.  One is "Memory and Desire-Eliotic Consciousness in Early Hemingway", a persuasive essay by Matthew J. Bolton, which is a revealing look at the relationship between Hemingway, Ezra Pound, and TS Eliot (thus "eliotic").  Pound was the editor for TS Eliot on the book The Waste Land, and soon after became editor to Hemingway.  Hemingway in many respects appears like a jealous little brother of Eliot:  he made snarky remarks every chance he had, and yet appeared to respect Eliot's work.  According to the book, Hemingway used The Waste Land as a model "for incorporating the remembered word or image into the fabric of the story and for using the processes of a structuring principle for layering a series of scenes and stories outside the normal scheme of narration (37)." The chapter explains what this means in terms of writing:  a word or phrase from another source (such as the poet Marvell) is subtly fused into the story, and then the author revisits it again in a later section.  It adds a depth and authority to the newer work.

My favorite of Hemingway is The Sun Also Rises.  I was incredibly confused by the huge amounts of alcohol found in the story:  how did these people function on so much booze?  Obviously, by continuing on with the book, I realized that they didn't do much, the drinking was their medicine to cope with the horrors of war. In the book, much is made of each bar and restaurant that Jacob Barnes visits in Paris.  He makes sitting in a bar getting wasted appear to be an intellectual exercise.  In any case, until I read this book, I didn't realize that the sites he mentions actually became a road map for wannabe "artists" and tourists who went to Paris hoping to fit right in. 

In the chapter, "Expatriate Lifestyle as Tourist Destination:  The Sun Also Rises and Experiential Travelogues of the Twenties", Allyson Nadia Field explores the tourism that resulted from Hemingway's book.  Some entrepreneurs created maps of the places in the book, encouraging visitors to visit and live that 'authentic' Parisian lifestyle as romanticized by Jacob and his friends.  And yet, before Hemingway's book was even released, many travelogues were already creating a tourism based on the mysterious hipness of the starving artist and intellectual.  After The Sun Also Rises was published, the area simply exploded with visitors bent on reenacting the lifestyle, yet finding themselves, by definition, clearly not fitting in.  You can almost imagine Hemingway's sneer at the type of people that would make the journey and spend the money to be like him and his friends.  In fact, the essay explores how many people were disappointed that the Paris they visited was so unlike the book.  It's really sort of ironic that the people who would go to such an effort didn't spend the effort in actually reading the book, in order to understand that the Paris life it revealed was not happy at all.

This is a collection that examines each of Hemingway's books in the framework of society and time.  Each essay reveals connections between people on the periphery of Hemingway's life as well as inspiration for the scenes and narrative.  This is not a simple read, or lightweight in any way.  It would actually be suitable as a textbook or research on Hemingway.

Special thanks to Kent State University Press for the Review Copy.

The Fish House Door, Robert F. Baldwin-a children's story

Illustrated by Astrid Sheckels

The Fish House Door by Robert F. Baldwin is a vivid glance at small time life by the shore in Maine.  The story has surprising depth for a children's book:  it explores moments of quiet companionship between father and son, as well as a gentle message about what defines beauty and value.

In it, a young boy helps his father, an experienced lobster man, in their family business.  They work on their own dock, and spend time maintaining their equipment as well as catching lobsters.  On the dock, a Fish House holds their tools, and over time the Fish House door has acquired the patina of weathered wood accented by the odd brush of leftover paint and scribbled notes.  As an everyday object, it became nearly invisible to them. And yet, when a wealthy tourist catches sight of the door, he recognizes the iconic value as a decorating item-something unique with a distressed finish that would appear stylish in a city loft.

Despite the need for money, the boy and his father realize that family history is contained in the notes and colors of the door.  They recognize it has a value beyond money, and now that it is pointed out to them, they come to appreciate its beauty as well.  They decline to sell it, despite the urgings and generous offer by the tourist.  The story is sweet, unique, and never gets preachy. 

A major shout-out is in order for the illustrations of Astrid Sheckels.  She bases her paintings on actual photos, which is significant, as it creates images that are more true and detailed than many children's books.  The expressions on the faces look real, not an approximation. It ties in well to the story of the dock and the sea, and her colors and composition are gorgeous.  Instead of flat depictions, every crease, chip, shadow, and bit of woodgrain is revealed.

Lastly, this is from Islandport Press, so it's several steps above a typical childrens book.  I fell in love with their books when I read Dahlov Ipcar's The Cat at Night, a gorgeous edition that is of heirloom quality.   The heavy duty archival paper, the matte pictures, and the feel of their books lasts through many readings and will serve as something that I can pass on to my grandkids.  The Fish House Door is no different. Islandport puts more quality into their product than most of the mass-produced titles I've seen.  And yes, this was a review copy, but I was writing about their books long before I was invited to review for them.  As a matter of fact, The Cat at Night is my go-to baby shower gift, because it's suitable for any small child.  In the case of my toddler, he enjoys looking and discussing the picturess, as at three-years-old, we aren't yet to the point of reading all the text yet.  We create our own stories based on the illustrations, and as he gets older I'm sure he'll enjoy the story as much as I did. 

For other children, I'd think that ages 5-10 would be especially prime for the book in terms of comprehending the meaning behind the story, and relating to the child in it (who appears to be 10-12 years old).

Special thanks to Melissa Kim of Islandport Press for the Review Copy.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Man in the Woods, Scott Spencer

This book releases today...

“The things for which we feverishly prepare aren’t generally the things that actually happen. Our undoing comes waltzing in through another door altogether…"

Can good work make up for an evil deed? Is punishment really necessary if a perpetrator is sincerely sorry? Can you hide your past under a new persona?

These are the sort of questions that Man in the Woods, by Scott Spencer, wrestles with in its exploration of intentions, deceit, and repentance. The story revolves around a large number of characters, most of whom are deeply flawed and trying to start new. Spencer explores more than just their actions but their motives for why they want to change and their methods for doing those “good deeds”.

One character is Kate, a newly sober author who fancies herself a spiritual leader for other women involved with alcoholism and drugs. She’s attained a huge following of somewhat pathetic women who seek her out-crediting her with saving them from themselves. She plays to this crowd, creating a social persona of goodness and light that she’s manufactured into a million dollar conglomerate. From poverty to wealth, she’s reinvented herself in a glamorous life of public sympathy and private consumption. That her spirituality is just a fa├žade is obvious early on-she’s completely unable to even relate to her pre-teen daughter and instead puts her efforts into pleasing her audience.

Paul is her boyfriend, an incredibly talented craftsman and artist who claims not to mind his house-husband status, yet chafes at her lavish lifestyle. He is a simple man of few words, and picks up the slack in showing kindness and concern for Kate’s daughter, Ruby; he’s a far better parent than Kate is, and recognizes certain emotional problems in Ruby that Kate is blind to. It’s clear he’s a stable man with good intentions all the way around.  His own past was such that he desperately wants to create a positive future.
Finally, there’s Will…a complete creep and hardened criminal on the run and hiding from his past. He’s a pretty much worthless lowlife who breaks up with a woman and steals her dog, just to get even. In fact, it’s the dog that plays a key role. When Paul and Will cross paths, Paul steps in to stop Will from beating the dog to death. Their interaction is the key to the story and the concepts of personal worth, humanity, guilt, and redemption.

All told, this is a brisk and sharply paced novel that wastes no one’s time in unnecessary details. The narrative switches between characters and reveals little nuggets that make it easy to picture them. For example, Kate’s signature greeting is “Hey there, ho there!” What more do you need to hate her? Her inventive theology is such that even she doesn’t buy it, and her act is pretty weak. Yet she pitches the same corny platitudes to anyone who will listen. She’s possibly the most astonished when Paul, deeply grieved over something he’s done, actually buys into it himself. Suddenly he’s eager to hear more, and her stage act  is now playing out in her home, requiring her to unveil some sort of validity to it.

“She had already begun on the path she had chosen, which was to keep him safe, this man, her man, who, except for that one terrible thing, did nothing but make life better for everyone around him. Ignorance wasn’t bliss, but rather a gauzy scarf thrown over the lamp of knowledge, coloring the light, making it less harsh.”

Watching these characters interact was interesting, especially when you see how easy it is for them to justify a self-serving course and cover wrongdoing when the only alternative means their losing face and prestige. Kate is, frankly, one of the more irritating characters I've read recently, which shows the skill on Spencer's part to make a reader feel a part of the book.  While it's an excellent read, I did find that the ending sort of slipped.  One scene features an improbable gathering of nearly every character, around a table of food, and somehow that part and what followed made the denouement less spectacular than I expected.  There seemed to be a few too many substories and threads going through the book that all tied together a little too neatly for reality.  However, just the moral issues that are faced, and how they are handled, make this both absorbing and enlightening.

Special thanks to Ecco Books for the Advance Review Copy.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Russian Winter, Daphne Kalotay

Russian Winter is an engrossing fiction novel from Daphne Kalotay that combines personal history with notorious events in human history.  Flashbacks from Stalin-era Russia combine with the modern life of a Russian defector, Nina Revskaya, once famous as a Bolshoi ballerina.  As she enters her final years, she decides to have a Sotheby's-style auction house sell her gems...purportedly to donate the funds to the Arts.  However, it soon becomes clear that she has more personal reasons to divest of the jewelry-some of the pieces harbor memories that are too painful to hold on to. 

In the meantime, Drew, the auction house assistant, is charged with the task of determining the provenance of the pieces.  A mystery arises as a new pendant is anonymously that would appear to be linked with Nina's set.  The significance is clear:  there's more to the story than Nina is willing to reveal.  And it is the verification of the jewels history that becomes a story of assumptions and lies, and the betrayals that come as a result from them.

The story was well paced, and plot twists developed that kept the mystery going.  I also found the in-depth portrayal of the auction house's job of verifying historical jewelry fascinating.  However, I had a few issues with the substance of the novel overall.  One, I got the impression almost that a formula was being followed...'reveal this much detail at a time, then hold back, move on, and sprinkle foreshadowing liberally'.  It worked, but once completed, the novel felt a bit manipulated.  Another thing was I think the author wanted to show two powerful, independent women in action;  and yet, both women (Drew and Nina) lacked warmth and were really kind of boring.  The men in the story-Grigori and Viktor-were far more interesting and vibrant to read about.  The women seemed passive in comparison.

The flashbacks of Russia were of the most basic historical components:  poets, vodka, intellectual suppression, mysterious arrests, the ballet, corruption, and poverty.  In other words, there was nothing new added that dipped beneath a mere surface knowledge of "Russia 101."  I would have loved if the book could have added historical details that would have revealed more complexity to the characters, in the way Vasily Grossman's Everything Flows uncovered a pain that explained its character's actions with more humanity.   And yet, to someone unfamiliar with Russian history, they might find it a good introduction to the unique events of the region's history. 

               Special thanks to Katherine Beitner of Harper Collins for the Review Copy.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Factory of Tears by Valzhyna Mort, poetry

Translated by Elizabeth Oehikers Wright and Franz Wright

Valzhyna Mort is a Belarusian poet whose voice is unapologetic and smart.  She doesn't mess around trying to beautify what is not...and yet, she finds beauty in unexpected places.  Her poetry doesn't back away from the controversial.  This collection is the first book of Belarusian/English poetry published in the US, for which Copper Canyon Press can be very proud.

Belarus has a rich and sometimes violent history as part of the former USSR, and a place where the matter of national language is still debated.  Most residents speak Russian, and one source states that only 11% of the population actually speaks Belarusian.  Proponents of each side don't appear to have any agreement in sight*.   And yet, there are those, such as Mort, working hard to maintain the historical language of Belarus.  In any case, Russian and Belarusian are similar and with additional borrowed Ukrainian and Polish words, the language of the country is rich.  Mort even addresses such complexity in one poem, where she considers "how do two languages share one mouth/like two women in one kitchen"?

In this language that reflects history and culture, Mort writes equally reflective poetry.   "In memory of a book":

books die

out of dark bedrooms
where the only road
paved by a yellow lamp
led to their pages
they are stuffed in every corner of a house
thus turning it into a huge book cemetery
those whose names do not ring any bell
are taken to the attic
where they lay-twenty books in one box-
a mass grave

books become windows

in empty apartments
nobody's heart beats above them
no one shares with them a dinner
or drops them into a bathtub

nobody watches them
lose their pages
like hair
like memory

books age alone

In one entitled "For A.B.", she paints a parallel between children and identity as well as heritage:

it's so hard to believe
that once we were even younger
than now
that our skin was so thin
that veins blued through it
like lines in school notebooks
that the world was like a homeless dog
that played with us after class
and we were thinking of taking it home
but somebody else took it first
gave it a name
and trained it stranger
against us

and this is why we wake up late at night
and light up the candles of our tv sets
and in their warm flame we recognize
faces and cities...

Somehow I picture the typical wornout world map, with its faded blue background and the mysterious lines, as a background for this poem.  How strange to live in a place where the lines have moved, often inexplicably! 

There is a moodiness to the poems that lends itself to topics of dreams, life, and death.  Humor is sprinkled throughout and she uses images of tears, hair, and children to personalize the mysteries of belonging and believing.  Her youth is evident in crisp words that are magnified by the enjambment so that we feel the anxiety and confusion.

Special thanks to Janet Jones of Copper Canyon Press for this review copy.


Room, Emma Donoghue

(possible spoiler alert on one point, below)...............................

Room is a big novel about important issues, which is significant when you consider that much of it deals with captivity in a very small place.  It begins in Jack's "Room", the small, soundproof building in the backyard of a kidnapper.  Placed there with the express intent to hide someone, Jack's mother is the first unwilling resident when she is kidnapped and placed inside.  In the small space is a bathroom, some basic cooking equipment, and a television.  Over a period of years, she gives birth to Jack, and he too is kept locked inside.  However, the captivity is even more significant:  he's never seen the light of day.  The only outside world he's seen has come from television cartoons and from the stories his mother tells him. 

The blurb on the book describes Jack being thrust out into the outside world, and I feel I need to say (here's my kind-of spoiler) that it means he and his mother escape.  The reason I mention this is because I am not sure I could have kept reading the book without that development.  While fascinating, it became plodding and a bit repetitive.  I was about to quit when they escaped and the story enlarged to encompass Jack's assimilation into "normal" life. 

Once out, Jack and his mother are thrown into a media storm of exposure, especially difficult for a child in his position.  One immediately thinks of a recent real-life kidnapping case with similar details, and it makes the story that much more painful.   His mother's parents are thrilled to have her back, yet learning to live in this altered reality is as difficult for his mother as for Jack.  Her parents have to learn who she is all over again, and at the same time, immediately care for and get to know this charming but difficult little boy.  The return to people and places is fraught with complications, and no one, not even the psychiatric specialists called in to help, knows the ideal path to 'normalcy' for Jack.

Why is this book so amazing?  First, the depth of the mother's love:  she manages to create, in great detail, an outside world for Jack.  While only possessing a few old books, she spins stories, creates games, and tries to make the best of an impossible situation.  She teaches him history, science, and scores of topics.  She teaches him good and bad, and most of all, bravery.  She does this without a break, and so could be called completely self-less.  She doesn't dwell in pity, she puts her energy instead into making Jack a more empathetic and kind child than most in the outside world.

As a character too, Jack is amazing.  His sheltered existence makes him unprepared for the complexities of the outside...even normal weather events perplex him.  Interacting with family and other people is equally difficult:  he can't understand sarcasm, innuendo, or dishonesty.

Room is getting a ton of buzz, and was nominated for the Man Booker Prize.  It's a title that I wouldn't be surprised to see Oprah select for her book group, as it deals with a strong female character surviving tragedy.  In other words, I expect this book is going to be seen everywhere for quite some time.  In terms of content, it's worth noting that none of the unspeakable acts of cruelty by the kidnapper are actually discussed, only alluded to, which means this title would be safe for a young adult audience.  In fact, I especially appreciated that much of the horror that you know was there isn't actually detailed. 

See the trailer:  or the website for the book:

Special thanks to Little, Brown for the Advanced Review Copy.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Man Booker Prize shortlist

Just an FYI, the six titles shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize are below.  I've reviewed two of them already here on TBSD:  Parrot & Olivier in America as well as The Long Song.  I have a review prepared for the release date of Room next week.  The other three titles are new to me.

In an case, based on what I've read, I'm guessing Parrot and Olivier in America is pretty much a sure thing.  Sweeping epic, drama and humor, historical references, etc make it hard to beat!  Personally, it's not my favorite book out there, but I think it's the best of the shortlist.

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey
Room by Emma Donoghue
In A Strange Room by Damon Galgut,
The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
The Long Song by Andrea Levy and
C by Tom McCarthy.

In any case, I'm offering my hardback copy up for grabs as a new contest, ending Sept 30, 2010.   For this contest, you must have a US mailing address, and be a follower.  In addition, I'm making a bit of a quiz in order to win.  Enter via comment BUT then answer the quiz in an email to me at  All accurate responses will go into the drawing for the hardback finished copy of Parrot & Olivier.

Solve the Six degrees of Peter Carey:

Explain the links between author Peter Carey and the book Persuasion by Jane Austen.  You might solve it in less than six degrees...just explain in your email how you connected the two.  Remember:  comment AND email to enter. 

Note:  The Extraordinary Renditions contest is ongoing, a separate entry, and ends 9/15/10. 

The River Gods, Brian Kiteley

Back in 2002, I was in New Orleans for the Super Bowl. We did all the usual touristy things, but I was especially fascinated with Jackson Square in the French Quarter. I spent an afternoon on a bench there, people watching and just absorbing the history of the place. So many events have taken place in that location that I felt like all the other tourists should be paying more attention. It seems like a part of history was still alive even if few people were noticing it. And it was the first place I thought of when Katrina slammed the region: history continuing on, in that uniquely relevant place.

That memory was triggered for me when I read Brian Kiteley’s novel, The River Gods. This book takes place in Northampton, Massachusetts, and creates a fictional history of events that occurred over several hundred years in that one location. The rambling river that divides the town also intersects the stories, then and now. The focus of the story is the characters: wildly diverse yet all living within that same region. They range from Puritan settlers to Native Americans, from famous celebrities to an ordinary family called the Kiteleys. The stories are short, and reveal just a snippet of a moment in time. It isn’t until later that the impact of the individual stories reveal the comprehensive whole of Northampton history.

In one instance, we are introduced to Abigail Slaughter, one of the Puritan settlers who left England to protect their religious freedoms. She describes the region in 1680: “The land was from the beginning a savage antagonist. We pursued an immediate knowledge of the land to make it ours, but the complexity of this environment often killed or maddened us.” That same area, slightly tamed over the passage of a few hundred years, is still mysterious, when, in 1826 Arius Fuller describes an unsolved murder in the same region. Even later, in 1965, a young Brian Kiteley is spying on his grandfather and brother along a verdant river, wondering how he can ever measure up against his agreeable brother.

The idea that one physical place can hold years of history is nothing new. This is why travelers visit the Pyramids or the Great Wall of China. It isn’t just the location but the mystery of the unseen people that have lived and breathed at those sites. This is why Kiteley’s book is so intriguing. Imagining the heartache, the conflicts, and the joys of different people set against the same backdrop gives it depth, and makes each story, possibly insignificant on its own, have a keener meaning. Because each story is very short, the pace is very quick. Stopping to note the dates on each entry is essential to getting the big picture of how all these stories combine in Northampton. And since they aren’t told chronologically, but rather jump back and forth in time, there’s a dynamic sense of unity between each character and their place in Northhampton’s stream of time.

Special thanks to Shana Rivers of FC2, the University of Alabama press, for the Review Copy.