Friday, July 30, 2010

You Are Here, Donald Breckenridge

Headlights crossing ceilings
Metrocards at the subway
Purses hanging on the back of chairs

You Are Here is a novel that mixes up the entire concept of a story.  Breckenridge takes apart a group of people and finds the tiniest of connections between their varying lives in the years proceeding 9/11.  All are unique but some constants remain:  the same newspaper headline being read by different people in different locations, or the same restaurant where they eat, even the same brand of wine.  On the perimeter of the story is a stage play that alternates as part of the story and the story itself (it's complicated!).  At one point, in discussing whether to attend the play, two characters discuss the style, with one suggesting it may be experimental.  The other laughingly translates this to mean it may be pretentious.  I think this is a direct question to the reader from the author:  is this novel simply experimental or is he being pretentious?

I think the experimentation is refreshing, so much so that different passages floored me in surprise (as when, mid-book, he outlines the key diagram to a successful novel, all the way to denouement, in a textbook style).  The characters are not traditional, and as they go about their lives, some of them repeat the conversations of others.  Shoes are a popular subject, as in the dismissal of one man:  "And for him, she is nothing more than a new pair of shoes..."  Some characters find themselves in the same window, watching their reflection, on different days.  In fact, entire phrases and setting are reused with different individuals living in the space.  The references to reflections, which are frequent and usually involve mirrors or windows, are a nod to both the characters lack of reflection in their life as well as the way their lives reflect each other in this fictional style. 

While I think Breckenridge is avoiding traditional style motifs, there seemed to be an underlying theme of underlying things:  subways, feet, sidewalks.  There is a sense of motion and transportation as most of the events take place in the midst of transportation, or shortly before or after. A frequent reference to the Metrocard and the subway show us that their world is in motion, which refers us to the events that follow.  Strangely enough, lipstick and bar glasses (usually empty) were another motif, and I couldn't help but think that this is a nod to these individuals trying to make a mark, to leave something of themselves, as evidence of their existence in the first place. 

The style is different, and at times I was desperately wishing for a paragraph break to help pace the story, as well as dialogue tags so I could more readily identify who was saying what.  I think that's part of what the author intended, though, to keep the reader from settling into a predictable rhythm and missing the switchbacks.  I appreciated that in the midst of his stylistic experimentation, he never gets cutesy or, as the character suggested, pretentious.

Special thanks to Ted Pelton of Starcherone Press for the Review Copy. 

Thursday, July 29, 2010

I Curse the River of Time, Per Petterson

A Rare Breed of Publisher:  Graywolf Press

This review is a repost of one from April, 2010, in order to focus on the title as it releases August 3, 2010.  This is part of a special event called the "Spotlight Series" that focuses on smaller publishers, and the last two weeks have been focused on the amazing Graywolf Press, a literary group that promotes literary fiction, translated works, and global poetry.  They are an active press with numerous award winning titles in their list, and this latest Petterson title will likely continue the tradition. 

I Curse the River of Time is Per Petterson’s newest title, and it feels different from his previous novels. For one thing, there is a different feel to the words, almost a jagged and sharp edge to the prose. While Out Stealing Horses was almost dreamlike in its beauty and simplicity, this has more of an abrupt edge to it. That became apparent to me in reading portions of it aloud (a cranky baby was resisting sleep) and the words felt chunky and awkward, the sentences long and meandering. Given the subject matter, the complicated relationship of a son with his mother, I think this simply underlines just how talented a writer Petterson is. The style fits the story.

The novel begins with the illness of Arvid Jansen’s mother, and her quick journey away from home to absorb her news. Arvid quickly follows. The telling is interspersed with flashbacks of Arvid’s life, from incidents in childhood to more recent times with his impending divorce. His mother is portrayed as a distant but loving individual, with a strong personality and an aloofness towards Arvid that is never formally explained. It is very much centered on Arvid and his inner feelings as he perceives her, rather than her personal motivations.

Much of what makes this novel fascinating is by what isn’t said: several significant events happen (a family death, her illness itself) that are not explored at all. Rather Petterson focuses on how those events affect Arvid and his mother. If he were to have explained every detail of those events a reader would likely be struck more by the tragedy and its details rather than by what Petterson is getting at, the more subtle change in relationships. It’s really very clever to read it that way. It’s almost as if those very dramatic events are secondary to who these people really are.

As a child, Arvid didn’t fit in with his family, despite his parent’s assurances of how much he was ‘wanted’ by them, and valued. On a dismal occasion when a stranger took him to be an outsider from his family,

“But what I found out that summer…was that I could swallow whatever hit me and let it sink as if nothing had happened. So I pretended to play a game that meant nothing to me now, I made all the right movements, and then it looked as if what I was doing had a purpose, but it did not.”

There are allusions made to what might cause him to feel this way, and Petterson lets us wonder. As in life, he seems to want to tell us, there are no easy answers. I have some personal suspicions why this may be, but I don't want to spoil the mystery for anyone else (and I could easily be wrong).

Arvid’s life is more complicated than most, especially in his relationships with women. Three significant relationships are explored, and all of them seem to have him positioned still in the childish role of needing affirmation. In considering his divorce, he thinks

“…there is just you and me, we said to each other, just you and me, we said. But something had happened, nothing hung together any more, all things had spaces, had distances between them, like satellites, attracted to and pushed away at the same instant, and it would take immense willpower to cross those spaces, those distances, much more than I had available, much more than I had the courage to use.”

One of Arvid’s great desires is to be a good Communist, to help the ‘proletariat’ and his usage of that word rather than the more common ‘working class’ used by his Communist friends, infers he deems his calling in a more elevated sense than a true Communist might normally feel. While his parents had been in the working class themselves, his choosing it rather than pursuing college is his means to be different from them. A confusing choice for a man completely confused about who he is.

His feelings towards his mother are obsessive. He thinks of her often yet tries to appear distant and wants her to know he's separate:

“There was a before and after now, a border which I had crossed, or a river perhaps, like the Rio Grande, and suddenly I was in Mexico where things were different and a little frightening, and the crossing had left its mark on my face, which my mother would instantly see and realize that we were standing on opposite sides of the river, and the fact that I left her would hurt her, and she would no longer like me and not want me.”

Yet despite the chasm he imagines, he actually still seeks her out, chasing her even, not wanting to miss a moment of her attention and hoping for any kind of approval.  What I found especially signifcant was that while Arvid actively seeks his mother's blessing, he shows little concern for the rest of his family, to the point that his brothers and father remain on the periphery of his life (and this story).

The story is complex and requires a careful reading. Speeding through this one will offer no satisfaction, this one to relish and unravel. One thing that jumped out at me, and it had to be intentional, was that the character of Arvid Jansen is the same name as the main character in In the Wake by Petterson, where Arvid loses most of his family in a ferry accident (a horror suffered by Petterson himself). If that is indeed the case, then this book would serve as a prequel to In the Wake, and thus his story continues. This is the fourth of the Petterson books I have read and own, and he continues to be one of my favorite authors.

Special thanks to Erin Kottke of Graywolf Press for the Advanced Reader's Copy.  Be sure to browse their online catalog for great titles at

It is scheduled to be released in August 3, 2010.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Afghanistan-- A Cultural and Political History, Thomas Barfield

Ever since The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and Three Cups of Tea, I’ve found Afghanistan to be a strangely compelling region. In those books, there was a different sense of the humanity of the people compared to what is seen on the nightly news, and it was difficult to align the two in my mind. Mention Afghanistan to someone and all they usually come up with is the notorious Taliban or the crumbling ruins that appear on the news. How accurate is that image?

When I first received Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, I hoped to find that answer and at the same time, that the book wouldn’t be too dry or heavy on political rhetoric. I was pleased to find that it’s an incredibly readable history book that makes the subject understandable and reveals the complicated lives of the people of Afghanistan. The author manages to compile the history without a political agenda or motive.

First off is recognizing that culturally, Afghanistan is made up of both tribal and nontribal ethnic groups. These groups mean everything to the people, and unlike some cultures, “tribal and ethnic groups take primacy over the individual.” In other words, “individuals support decisions made by their group even when such support has negative consequences for themselves.” This is a somewhat unique trait, and contributes to the devotion many have for their leaders. They also have an intense oral history that is repeated through the ages that also creates a sense of cohesiveness between past and present. These people live in a land crisscrossed by history, from Genghis Khan to Alexander the Great (see the photo of his castle above right). It was conflict between tribal regions, a civil war, that made the ordinary Afghan people eager to have the US come in to intervene with the Taliban, as “a drowning person is not too picky about who throws him a line….Afghanistan had either been ignored or abused by the outside world as it descended into chaos.”

The Taliban, known for their desire to spread extremely conservative Islam, had riddled the nation with violence towards women and other religions. They’ve managed to alienate even those countries that were providing needed humanitarian aid. They do not have the support of the ‘ordinary’ citizen, as at times the Taliban members have numbered below 150 members. A good portion of the book deals with how and why the Taliban gained such power. Another portion discusses the occupation by Britain and Soviet Russia prior to more recent actions with the US.

The historical details are interesting, but it was the smaller things that were more revealing. For example, why is it that on the news you usually see only children or old people? Their hardscrabble lives, tending outdoors to agriculture and focused on manual labor, shows up on their faces and they appear prematurely aged. Are the devastated streets of broken concrete typical? Actually no, as the majority of citizens live in small villages far from urban areas such as Kabul. Is it just a land of dust and opium poppies? No again, as stone fruit, grapes, nuts, citrus fruits, melons, and rice are grown in different parts of the country, depending on what areas are irrigated. The famous mountainous region, known to have been a hiding place for bin Laden, is in the center of Afghanistan. Its steepness creates dynamic changes in climate in just a few hours of travel, and creates a diverse variety of crops.

The current situation in Afghanistan is covered in the sixth chapter, where Barfield addresses the complicated social concerns that continually plague the country. The resurgence of the Taliban and their religious ideology reverses social progress, while modern policies want to focus on reducing the religious power of clerics. Additional goals include establishing rights for women, tolerance of non-Muslim faiths, implementing educational policies, and modernizing archaic laws to better represent the desires of the majority.

Special thanks to Katherine “Casey” LaVela of the Princeton University Press for the Review Copy.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Tinkers, Paul Harding, 2010 Pulitzer Prize fiction

Winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize

Maybe it’s the lower-case small font and nearly colorless cover of this novel that had me thinking that this was a quiet novel. I imagined it being somewhat quaint and simple, and began reading it with that in mind. The cover is possibly the only simple thing about this unique and lovely book. There are many threads throughout it:  fatherhood, family, and the passage of time being foremost. But the mysterious elements of regret, personality, and love also wind through delicately. It’s complicated without being overwrought or maudlin.

The first half of the book is a sort of parallel account of father and son, each from their perspectives and in their own voices. Howard, the father, is an epileptic who travels the countryside selling his wares. He watches over his family as best he can, with a particular fascination for his oldest son. At one point, his son runs away:

“There was a moment of sorrow, disappointment, and deep love for his son, whom he at that second wished had had a chance of real escape…I just wish that you had made it beyond the bounds of this cold little radius…”

George, his son, enters the story as an elderly man, in the week preceding his death, hallucinating about his life, his childhood, and his love for clocks. The thoughts alternate from one character to the other, but in real life they seldom had a conversation. Clearly, though, they were on each other’s mind. Details of their work, always involving small and seeming insignificant parts that lead to a complex whole, fill the narrative.

A change occurs though, in the middle of the book, that is ominous and painful and takes the story into a new direction. Suddenly the visual images change from small metal workings to descriptions of light, water, and landscapes. In this portion, the reader goes back further to Howard’s father, whose own mysterious existence now becomes the focus of Howard in his later years. The flashbacks are not confusing in this context, as happens in some novels, because the tightly woven threads of the narrative keep you in place. There’s almost a haunting feeling as you near the end, as you realize the implication of the events in the story.

“A move of the head, a step to the left or right, and we change from wise, decent, loyal people to conceited fools? Light changes, our eyes blink and see the world from the slightest difference of perspective and our place in it has changed infinitely…”

Harding describes his characters beautifully: full of contradictions, flawed, sometimes foolish, and yet often hopeful. At the same time, he describes one with a particular sort of rage and hatred that is masked by indifference. The contrast is chilling. This is by no means a suspense novel, but trying to understand the motives of some characters creates a sense of apprehension. An acknowledgement of the relics we carry, both literal and emotional, plays into the personal impact of the story.

Some moments are unimaginably painful, and yet real: the family gathered before George’s death turns off all his ticking clocks, his life’s collection, because the sound is annoying to them. While he, in his semi-conscious state, realizes that without the ticking, time has essentially stopped, and his suffering is worsened with the loss. Little details like this mean you need to keep the Kleenex handy. And be prepared for after you finish this book: you’ll want to hug your Dad.  Often.

Scent of the Missing, Susannah Charleson, nonfiction

Love & Partnership with a Search-and-Rescue Dog

“’You couldn’t pay me to do that’…she said, gesturing to the brochures and photographs we had…When I told her that we are an all-volunteer group, she gave me a little laugh and a doubtful twist of her head, and said, ‘You do this for fun?’”

Dog lovers will revel in this true story of a young woman who, after a career piloting her plane for law enforcement searches, makes the jump to a field assistant for canine search-and-rescue teams on the ground. Eventually she qualifies to train her own dog, a Golden Retriever named Puzzle, who emerges into a highly trained partner. They learn to read signs in the field and understand each other’s signals to accomplish work that can save lives and solve crimes.

Dogs have forty times more scent receptors than humans and most of us cannot appreciate how a dog can trail a missing person. Because of this, skeptics abound even among law enforcement personnel. However, those who work with specially trained dogs in other fields, such as bomb and drug detection know the abilities of these specially trained dogs. Some dogs are can be trained to sense seizures approaching in epileptics or cancer in medical patients. A variety of classifications is explained in this text that shows the fascinating possibilities, many yet to be explored. Some dogs, like Puzzle, are trained to accept a pack and rappel line and are lowered down steep cliffs, literally hanging on a wire, while remaining calm and eager to continue their search.

“Air-scent dogs are frequently used…to find living victims. Trained to locate and follow the cloud of human scent made by the microscopic skin rafts we shed and odors we create just in the process of living… Tracking dogs, sometimes called a cold-scent dog, may follow both the scent in the air and scent that has fallen into foliage, objects, cement, or dirt in trail and can follow a path that is days or weeks old…”

“Cadaver dogs specifically recover deceased humans and locate skin, hair, bones, blood, and the indeterminate mix of scents made of semen, urine, sweat and the process of decomposition which has an evolving scent of its own.”

One of the most fascinating types of search canine is one classified as a HRD, a Human Remains Detection dog, who “may alert over graves from a century before. One of the most remarkable possibilities with a HRD dog occurs when humans are buried near the root structures of trees. HRD dogs may put up their paws and stretch to alert on the relevant tree, which exudes human scent as part of its photosynthesis and related processes.”

Besides participating in searches for Alzheimer patients and campers who become lost or wander off, crime victims, or those who have drowned, Susannah has also participated in the recovery of human remains from the space shuttle Columbia’s disaster. Dogs have been used in the recovery at Ground Zero, in tornado-ravaged country sides, and the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City. The photo section in the center is moving, as many of the dogs discussed are shown, some with the people they saved. One picture that is especially touching is that of Skip Fernandez, a search-and-rescue handler, sleeping against a wall after working all night in the rubble of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. While he rests, his Golden Retriever is on his lap, still on duty protecting him.

This was an amazing read, especially in revealing the skills of animals that we often take for granted.  As my Doberman sits on my lap snoring, I can hardly imagine her doing anything particularly useful, much less lifesaving!  One caveat:  some of the writing style felt a bit strained, with sentence fragments and punctuation missing in places.  Initially these were a distraction, but as the book proceeds they were less noticeable.  The amazing on-the-scene details took over, and it became the kind of book you want to share with others, especially dog lovers!

Special thanks to Julie Harabedian of FSB Associates for the Review Copy.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Little Giant of Aberdeen County, Tiffany Baker

"Say"--he frowned--"does this porridge taste funny to you?"
"Moments before his appearance in the kitchen, I had personally pounded a clutch of wormwood leaves--so renowned for their hallucinogenic properties--into a pulp and scraped their juices into the cereal."
"No," I sad around my teeth as I made a show of swallowing one tiny bite.  "Tastes regular to me."

Possessing a pituitary gland gone wild, the large woman known as "Truly" was aware of the unkind remarks, the whispering, and the significant looks from people.  She knew she was an outcast and a source of amusement.  But strangely, it seemed, the larger she grew, the more invisible she became.  When she finds a secret hidden in plain sight, she finds a way to get even with her detractors.

"...some mysteries are too big for one person to hold onto for long, and some are too tantalizing to let lie fallow, and those are the worst kind of all, for they end up being the real heartbreakers.  They are the ones where once you know the story you wish you didn't."

This is a delightful book with an original heroine:  taller than a man, multiple chins, and wearing overalls and men's boots because nothing else fits her.  It is the story of an ugly duckling that never becomes a swan, but is lovable anyway.  And just when you think you have a handle on the story, a plot twist sends you in a different direction.

"But weakness has an insidious side no matter how big you are.  It will creep and slide, wrapping around your ankle like a snake until it's up around your throat, squeezing hard, turning you blue in the face...I didn't say anything at all.  The snake had my tongue."

For her first novel, Tiffany Baker has constructed a tale that weaves life and death, family and friends, hatred and compassion together.  It poses the question, what would you do if a friend was suffering and you had the means to put an end to the pain?  Going further, what would you do if it was an enemy?  This story has a folk tale quality to it, without becoming predictable or cute.  The time period it takes place in, after the sixties, is a reminder of how much society has changed:  from country doctors and one-room schoolhouses and family heritage to newer traditions and replacements for the smaller and quainter aspects of life.  It alternates between sweetness and heartbreak, suspense and resolution.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Poetry and Cultural Studies, Maria Damon and Ira Livingston, editors

First off, an admission: I have not yet “completed” this title. I’ve read through all of it, but it’s a book more designed for study than for simply reading. It has an almost textbook style to it and I’ve got so much out of it I don’t intend to shelve it and move on. I want to continue going through the chapters as the concept of combining poetry with cultural studies is much deeper than one would expect.

For example, in high school and college a certain amount of poetry is covered in English, but admitting you like poetry at that age is akin to outing your inner nerd. Only a few could get away with it and still be cool (Keith, AG, Class of ’84: you did it…you were still the coolest!). Then, as we age, reading or writing poetry is often a way that some identify a snob or someone with too much time on their hands. If you say that you are writing a book, you can maintain some respect and a bit of eccentricity. Say that you are writing a poem and you get looked at askance, at least in my corner of the world.

Then there’s the problem of identifying “quality” poetry: there’s an attitude about high-brow poems that if you have to ask what it means, you are surely too dense to get it anyway (and I freely admit I am too dense to get some of the more abstract types). Some of the more famous poets get written off as if, by becoming commercially successful, they’re less important. Then there’s a few of the edgier poets whose content is so filled with obscenities and graphic depictions that you simply end up confused at their purpose (one title, which shall remain nameless, was sent to me to review, and every single poem had a penis somewhere in the verse, I kid you not!). The variety of work is incredible as are the techniques, and I freely admit to enjoying most of it. Billy Collins, Kay Ryan, Scott Wannberg, Alex Boyd, Richard Wilbur, and Susan Rich are some of my favorites. Manolis is new to me and I’m enjoying his work is well.

That’s where this title, Poetry and Cultural Studies: A Reader comes into play. The premise is simple: culture creates a poetic voice, and varying cultures generate different styles, subjects, and emotional responses. The most obvious reference is to rap music lyrics, and how the culture of black society in the US created this form of expression. However, editors Maria Damon and Ira Livingston did a far more thorough study. For example, Nicaragua is discussed in Bruce Campbell’s essay “Assembly Poetics in the Global Economy”, and he relays how the culture there actually promotes poetic expression: “The Sandinista revolution (1979-90) distinguished Nicaragua as the first nation for which poetry and sweeping social, economic, and political change were closely identified. There were poetry workshops designed to create readers and writes of poetry…Famously, ‘a nation of poets’ was declared, pronounced, spoken, read into being in the 1980s.” He goes on to show how even after the Sandinistas no longer were in charge (during their leadership literacy rates increased dramatically), poetry is commonly found in newspapers and is a constant feature of Nicaraguan life. He goes on to explain the signs and convergence of globalization on regional poetry.

Are there complications to the advance of poetry in a literate society? Trinh T. Minh-ha points out in the essay, “Poetry and Anthropology”, that “poetic language could therefore be a process that destabilizes institutionalized ways of writing, [and] …unsettles the identity of meaning and speaking subject.” And speaking to the unique styles of poetry, “it engages meaning in all its subtleties and prevents it from ending with what is written and said.” In other words, the study of literature and poetry do not necessarily mesh because one invites interpretation and the other could have multiple meanings, and understanding poetry is often dependent on cultural motifs, clues, and authorship.

In Audre Lorde’s essay “Poetry is Not a Luxury” she speaks to how allowing our creative voice to speak and refers to poetry “as illumination”: “It is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are-until the poem-nameless and formless, about to be birthed, but already felt.” She encourages self-expression because “each one of us holds an incredible reserve of creativity and power, of unexamined and unrecorded emotion and feeling.” Her essay examines all the possibilities of such freedom and birth of thought, both for a poet and for a reader of poetry. She concludes with “there are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt…”

This collection was published by the University of Illinois Press and could be considered the definitive standard for understanding the differences in styles, regions, and importance of a variety of poetry styles.

Special thanks to Michael Roux of the University of Illinois Press for the Review Copy.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Seaworthy, Linda Greenlaw, nonfiction

"Darkness waded in cautiously and headed west.  Hesitating waist-deep, then plunging into the murky chill, the diving night splashed light onto the opposite horizon, which swam like spawning salmon up the riverlike sky. The sun hated as if it were a baby chick, pecking from within the shell until fully risen, yellow and warm, and as unsure as I was...after all, the sun starts anew every day.  This could well be my last chance...and I would make the most of it."

Linda Greenlaw's latest book, Seaworthy, is the story of a female Swordboat captain.  I saw the title and thought, "a woman captaining a boat"  and "swordfish"?  How interesting could that be?  But her picture on the cover looks like a capable outgoing woman with an engaging smile and, being a capable outgoing woman with an engaging smile myself, I decided to check this out .

It had been ten years since Linda's last swordfishing endeavor, and she was eager to immerse herself in life at sea reliving good memories, but also apprehensive that her body might not be up to the strenuous effort involved.  She picked her crew of four (to whom the book is dedicated) and found herself aboard a rusty bucket called the Seahawk.  Whenever anything broke down, which occurred almost daily, the crew called it the Shithawk behind her back.  "How many times did I hear Tim say, 'It's fixed.  I think we're okay now'?  His words soon became known as the kiss of death, in the few moments that we relaxed, we sat and waited for the next thing to break, leak, or malfunction...I didn't have the energy to fly off the handle."

"Fortunately, when things are incredibly bad at sea, humor reigns.  I was thankful and relieved to hear the men joking appeared I had a crew full of class clowns.  They kept working and laughing."

This is an engrossing account of that trip which found her towed into Sambro, Nova Scotia for engine work before they even reached the fishing area.  Soon after, having set out her first thirty-mile set of 800 hooks, she was arrested, handcuffed, and then taken before a judge in St John, Newfoundland for inadvertantly fishing Canadian waters.

In retrospect, Linda realizes that there is a difference in her thinkings as a young person and now as one who is older;  there are things we can fight and change and other things we just have to suck up and endure.

"...I steered the Seahawk through the sheer-faced cliffs that protect the port...I stared down Newfoundland.  Not blinking was, for me, a small yet palpable victory in a sea of seeming random defeats."

I enjoyed Linda's descriptions of the fishing;  putting out beepers and lines, and not pulling the thirty-mile line toward them but rather moving the boat forward slowly to keep pace with the men hauling in the lines.  The reader is right there with her as she checks the weather, the water temperature (swordfish like it cold), and the ocean currents that converge for the best fishing.  Reading this felt like I was on a vacation to a place I had never visited before.  Greenlaw's name may be familiar, as she also wrote The Hungry Ocean and The Lobster Chronicles.

Special thanks to Heather Skinner of Viking (a division of Penguin Press) for the Review Copy.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Maribor, Demosthenes Agrafiotis, poetry

Maribor is a collection of poetry from Demosthenes Agrafiotis that focuses on the complexities of old versus new, especially in relation to civilization and historical regions in Europe.  The title comes from Maribor, a city in Slovenia, and in many of the poems, we see the poet's intention to try and make sense out of what remains from the past when combined with new attitudes and new technology. He refers to "the ridiculousness of names" and how people are "alive in a dead language".  He asserts that "narration becomes a lesson (moralistic) about the present" and how "time produces uneven memories".  Throughout, you can sense there is a hope in both the betterment of life for people in these complicated regions, as well as a wish for older traditions of the culture to remain intact.

In #7 he illustrates how the two usually don't mesh:
the survival
and the denial will be preserved
for the end
the falsehoods
the nuances of deception
are no longer postponed
trapped in feigned docility
in incomplete sentences

One of the longest pieces is #48, where he discusses all of the topics in a stream-of-consciousness style about the combination of tourists and residents in this land of history and folklore:
so what did you expect?
what fraction of language
to be dedicated
to the surface of objects
to the inertia of events
to the entropy of the world
to the elasticity of sounds?
the words slide on all
the voids.

Even though the emphasis seems to be on a larger significance of place, many of the poems appeal as well on a personal level.  He considers, briefly, what excuse there is for flowers other than to enjoy their beauty?  And how our concentration is lost on signposts and headlines so much that we miss the subtler details of life that have far deeper meanings. 

Translated from the Greek by John Sakkis and Angelos Sakkis

Special thanks to Lindsey of Post-Apollo Press for this Review Copy.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Adventures Among Ants, Mark W. Moffett

A Global Safari with a cast of Trillions

Flat out, this is the most fascinating non-fiction title I’ve read this year. Ants are seldom seen as fascinating, more like a nuisance! However, this book makes me almost wish for an ant invasion, just to try and observe some of the details the Moffett describes in his worldwide studies on ants.

The text contains lots of surprises as it covers various species of ants, and I can’t scratch the surface of all the funny and also disquieting details about these creatures. He first discusses marauder ants, who can be classified in three sizes: the largest is 50 times larger than the smallest, and often serves as a ‘bus’ to carry smaller ants to new locations. Most ants are female, they can live upwards of two years, and their behavior as workers for the colony is altruistic. The worker ants do not reproduce, and thus do not compete for food. In fact, he describes the male ants (that resemble wasps) as ‘socially useless’, and confined to being sperm donors.

Their travel in columns is well-known, but how they find food and relay the information to the workers is unique. They emit a “recruitment” pheromone that immediately tells ants in the vicinity that food is near, and within seconds a full swarm goes into attack mode, retrieving the food and taking it back for storage. But what is more fascinating is the Pharoah ant that also has a “don’t bother” pheromone that it emits when the food is gone, so that no ants waste their time.

The paths that ants use are actually ant roads, they reuse them as needed, rather than just randomly traveling over earth (as it would appear). Some ants have coordinated group attacks that allow them to overcome much larger prey simply by virtue of their large numbers rather than a stinger.  Army ants are useful in some ways because they clear out vermin, such as roaches and mice, from the vicinity. Driver ants can overtake a monkey corpse and reduce it to bone in just a few days. More interesting is that driver ants can play dead, for sufficiently long periods of time to allow them to escape.

Weaver ants were possibly the most fascinating to me, as they literally sew leaves together (see photo at right). The ants grab a leaf as a team, and another ant picks up a larva (basically a baby ant) that exudes silk and uses the silk as thread to create nests that can last for years. Argentine ants are battling a dangerous war in Southern California, as the colonies actually raise and “herd” aphids. Aphids in oversized numbers then attack local plants. This leads to the death of important indigenous plants that serve to provide pollen to the region, and upwards through the food chain different species are affected by the invasive species.

The writing style is witty and fast-paced. The author’s enthusiasm is contagious, and the details never get too cumbersome or so overly scientific that you end up bored. Great photographs that enlarge the ants to a bigger size make the details that much more fascinating.  

Mark W. Moffett/Minden Pictures
All images from Adventures Among Ants, Mark W. Moffett, University of California Press, 2010.

Special thanks to Katherine Carney for the University of California Press for the Review Copy.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Marrowbone Marble Company, M. Glenn Taylor

Loyal Ledford grows up surrounded by tragedy, and at age thirteen is left to raise himself simply and quietly.  Being alone suits him, and he works hard, not making waves.   He enlists after Pearl Harbor, eager to defend his homeland.  Being sent to the Pacific to fight the Japanese, he learns the horrors of war and the fragility of friendships. 

He returns to West Virginia an angry man, an alcoholic really, who is unable to cope when faced with cruelties in the world. He begins by shutting out the newspaper...he can't bear to hear of other tragedies in the world.  As the civil rights struggles heat up, he is shocked and angered by a country that willingly lets blacks fight alongside whites, but then denies them the ability to sit together at a restaurant or on a bus.  This disparity eats at him, until he thinks he's found the solution.  He sets out to create a utopian community deep in the hills, one that allows people of different races to live side by side, work the land, and form a closeknit family structure, one that he never had.  It works out beautifully, for a time.  The success he finds eases his injured heart, and he begins to forget the ugliness of the War he fought.

However, word gets out about his community and he's labelled a Communist, and the new community faces its first real challenges:  surviving amid the hate from the outside world directed at it.  Things begin to go terribly wrong, and the inner person he thought he left behind returns. 

This work of fiction is well-written and shows the different ways people try and repent from their sins....Ledford sincerely wants to make things right.  The clue though, is that besides the newspaper, he then shuts out television, unable to cope with any sort of evil without taking it personally.  It's apparent that he is only comfortable in a made-up world of his own making. When he is outside the community, his personality changes.  However, he's a likable character and the story unfolds beautifully.  A little too beautifully.  His new community seems too ideal, the residents behaving perfectly, and a mutual understanding that is a little bit unimaginable.  There are no disputes over housing, work, or food, and the ability for everyone to get along so well was unrealistic.  Additionally, I kept wondering where the money was coming from, as money for this community and the new marble factory they build is never an issue.  I thought that seemed a glaring omission, and it unsettled me throughout the last half of the novel. 

Outside the depictions of war, this is a very peaceful book, a pleasant read that appeals because it represents an ideal most people yearn for.  The underlying character study of Ledford is what makes it unique, and shows how complicated people are, and how difficult it is to flee from the past.

Special thanks to Ecco for the Advance Review Copy.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

New World of Indigenous Resistance, Noam Chomsky

When is multiculturalism a bad thing? Could the answer have anything to do with literature? The new book, New World of Indigenous Resistance, examines this concept in a way that not only fascinates but educates.

The book focuses on South America’s regions, and has a series of essays discussing issues that face an area largely unknown by those in the U.S. Usually we only hear of earthquakes or small regional clashes that mean nothing to us, but there’s far more to explore. Author and historian Noam Chomsky discusses the essays featured as well as including his own thoughts on the complexities of the region. The South American continent is not simply a mass of Latino culture, but a huge collection of tribes and peoples. What happens there ultimately affects the rest of the world, and outside influences have been hugely detrimental to both the people and the land.

The primary problem faced is one of global corporations and governments arriving to extract resources, reestablish political boundaries, and ultimately combine the people into one more manageable mass. One essay, “Resistance and Cultural Work in Times of War,” by Elsie Rockwell in Mexico discusses the nature of multiculturalism and how it doesn’t benefit the native people at all. For example, international funding promotes a “intercultural” education that lumps all indigenous people into one category, then attempts to teach them in one, streamlined manner. This ignores their personal heritage and virtually eliminates it from the curriculum. Then, in an effort to offer variety under the guise of multiculturalism, they split the students into gifted, ‘special ed’ and ‘migrant’ groups. It is odd that the ‘migrant’ students are actually lifetime residents of the same community where the school is located. Where exactly have they migrated from? Rockwell’s primary assertion against this method is “the current economic order globalizes barbarism: it fabricates poverty, destroys nature, and militarizes other regions.” The one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t respect the distinct differences between the indigenous people, and thus their voice in art, music, and literature is also lost.

Another essay, “Beyond Education”, by Gustavo Esteva in Mexico, examines the attitude of tolerance and its hidden agenda. He discusses how the US prides itself on being a melting pot of cultures, but this melting pot mentality actually just attempts to “to dissolve, each one of the multiple immigrant cultures.” He asserts that the term “salad bowl” would be a more accurate and positive term, one that respects the individual heritage and culture behind native people and promotes such diversity. Thus, the literature and poetry of other places can continue to thrive instead of dying out. As the US gets involved in South America for mining and energy projects, they often use their influence and funds to promote a similar mentality. The problem is, this homogenization of culture also makes it far easier to exploit and manipulate the people within, and the authors of the essays are addressing such concerns.

Chomsky discusses this further in his interview, featured at the end of the book, where he explains that “the demeaning of others translates into subordination internal to the community. So war is the extreme case. You demean and demonize the enemy to the point where you want to destroy him, but you also accept that you are totally controlled at home. You subordinate yourself to your own state to try and destroy the enemy state, while they are subordinating themselves to their state.” This attitude gives great power to a few large nations and the smaller die out. He applies this to literature when he states that “the main themes of the great antiwar novels after the First World War was the idiocy of essentially the same people in the trenches on both sides slaughtering each other, each committed to a power system that was oppressing them.” Thus he concludes that rather than embracing oneness, a healthy respect for the individuals of other places, along with their culture and history, is good for everyone and provides a wealth of experience that enriches what we see and read. 

Special thanks to Stacey of City Lights Books for the Review Copy.

Friday, July 16, 2010

No Way Down, Graham Bowley (nonfiction)

"Above the Bottleneck was the serac-the blunt overhanging end of a hanging glacier-a shimmering, tottering wave frozen as it crashed over the moutainside, a suspended ice mountain six hundred feet tall...and about half a mile long.  It was smooth in places but large parts of it were pitted with cracks and crevasses....This was the way to the summit."

Journalist Graham Bowley created an intense narrative of the infamous tragedy on K2 in 2008 in this new release No Way Down.  Despite being smaller than Mt. Everest, at 28,251 feet, K2 is reputed to be the most terrifying to climb.  Twenty-seven members of eight international teams progressed from Base Camp One to Base Camp Four as their bodies adjusted to the increasing lack of oxygen.  Then, on a beautiful clear morning they began their final ascent on K2, in a planned order that the groups had agreed upon.  They planned to reach the summit and plant their national flags, document the excitement with photographs, and return to Base Camp Four, all by nightfall.  No one wanted to be on the mountain after dark.

Then everything went wrong.  A series of bad decisions and unexpected events changed the plan, resulting in the loss of eleven lives, as well as lifelong injuries for two more.  Some climbers had to spend the night on the frightening mountain, hanging on lines and wondering what the morning would bring.

This is not a simple disaster story, and there is no happy ending.  What is unique is that while Bowley wasn't there, he was able to interview most of the members of the various teams, getting insight on what they were feeling and how they addressed proceeding through disaster.  Additionally, he interviewed families of the survivors and those who died, getting their impressions and insight.  This creates a fast paced read that isn't simply one eyewitness account but rather than unbiased compilation of many voices, a fuller picture that demonstrates both the power of nature and the desire of man to conquer it.  Reading it exposes more than just the climb, it explores the personalities and reasons why some choose to explore such danger.Half-way through the book is a photo section that would have been better placed at the front, just to put a name with faces.  Seeing the photos made the tragedy more personal.  Included is a group picture at Base Camp Four who were determined to ascend the following day. 

"They had broken out of comfortable lives to venture to a place few of us would dare go in our lives.  they had confronted their mortality, immediately and up close."

Reading this makes you shiver from the cold and the suspense, even if you know the ending.  This would be a great summer read, just for the chilling effect it would have on a hot day!  It'll make you ponder the whole concept of how you identify 'adventure'.

Special thanks to Gretchen Crary of Harper Collins for the Review Copy.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

What the Water Gave Me, Pascale Petit...poetry

Poems after Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo is well known as a surrealistic “folk artist,” and her Mexican heritage is evident in her works. She’s also known for her stormy marriage to fellow artist Diego Rivero. However, very little is known about her personal life beyond those details and a rather infamous unibrow. When I received the poetry collection What the Water Gave Me by Pascale Petit, I was fascinated by what the poet achieved:  a biography of Kahlo through verse. The combination of historical details and poetry in this collection is unique, and when I was able to look up some of the Kahlo's work online, it was especially fascinating. 

Each poem is related to a piece of Kahlo’s art, some having the same title. The poet imagines what Kahlo was thinking as she painted, and put those imagined thoughts into verse. Petit didn’t simply guess, however, she did meticulous research and even spoke to some of Kahlo’s acquaintances. As an artist herself, she was able to note visual clues in the paintings that would illuminate Kahlo’s mental state and attitudes.

An important element is the accident Kahlo was in as a teenager:  her spinal column, pelvis, collarbone, and several ribs were broken. An iron handrail also crashed through her abdomen and uterus. From this accident, and from her prior illness with polio, a lifetime of pain was a certainty. Many times she was bedfast for months at a time, and her frequent miscarriages were devastating. Her pain translated into her art, few of which appear happy or jubilant. In Kettenman’s 1955 biography of Kahlo, she is quoted as saying “"I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best." More than half her paintings were self-portraits.

One of Kahlo’s most well-known works is “The Suicide of Dorothy Hale”, which she was commissioned to paint by a friend of Hale's. Hale had jumped from a skyscraper, and Kahlo rendered the descent as if the clouds were slowing her fall, so her scene in death is almost like slumber. Petit went one step further in the poem, concluding it with Kahlo’s imagined thoughts:

“And I’m desolate as you were
That violet morning
When the window spoke its glass vowels
That drew you to the balcony.”

Petit’s interpretation of her biographical knowledge combined with the artistic clues make a powerful statement. The title of the book refers to a piece Kahlo completed, and it represents a woman in a bathtub with elements of her life symbolically played out in the water. The verses combine Kahlo’s art with the reality of this image (Kahlo took frequent baths to soothe her back pain as Petit notes) to imagine the emotional and physical pain Kahlo felt being a spectator for much of her life.

Special thanks to Simon Hicks of Seren Books, Wales, UK.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Fado by Andrzej Stasiuk

Translated by Bill Johnston.
Winner of the Vilenica International Literary Prize

My final impression, closing this book, was that Andrzej Stasiuk loves people. His essay collection, Fado, demonstrates this as he examines the peoples of the former Yugoslavia and the other regions that form Central Europe. In all, he writes with obvious affection for the human condition surviving in a complicated place and time. He quietly observes people and their activities: from children playing games, the routines of the working man, the women washing their steps, and the teenagers pining for escape to the West. This is not a travel journal, told by a curious visitor. Stasiuk resides there and his impressions are that much more knowledgeable and profound.

It begins with a road trip: a car driving at night in the rain, and a suggestion of mystery.  He reflects on the dark houses he passes, and how no matter what ethnic heritage a person has, they are all the same when asleep in their beds. A map is essential to reading this, as he goes to a variety of cities and recounts what he sees as well as historical details and anecdotal stories from each individual place.

Much of his writing discusses the changes from Communism to newer political states, some still in their infancy (Slovakia). The past is complicated in Central Europe, and progress is equally difficult. Of Montenegro, he writes:

“Everything that was, becomes rejected in the name of a modernity that assumes the nature of a fiction, an illusion, a devilish apparition. To a greater or lesser extent this applies to all postcommunist countries. But it’s only in Montenegro that it can all be observed within the space of ten miles.”

This battle between old traditions and new identities is a continual subject, but it remains fascinating because each town he visits handles the conflict differently. He talks about the emptiness that is felt in places, where modernization has left many without a purpose. Yet he uses almost poetic words to describe these impressions:

Of Pogradec, “Pool has taken over the town. That noble game, combining geometrical abstraction with kinetics, allows a person to forget the everyday. The men circled the tables like they were hypnotized. They moved back, moved forward, judged distances, stepped on tiptoe and held their breath as if afraid that the moving spheres would change direction and the cosmic harmony of the game would be disturbed.” It’s not difficult to see the underlying correlation with the region in finding their place in history after the divisions of Russia and Yugoslavia.

In Levoka, he observes the local police, who group together in anticipation of a rebellion by Gypsy residents. The violence never occurs, but the image of the bored policemen, playing with their police dog and throwing snowballs, reveals a truism of the place: “Brute force, tedium, and play were combined in perfect proportions, but instinct told you that any one of these three elements could take over at any moment, and for no particular reason.”

In another essay he writes about the changing of the face of paper currency throughout Russia and the Slavic states. In earlier years, the images featured working men and women in simple settings. The implied meaning being hard work garnered money. Then as years passed, the illustrations became more abstract and conceptual, until they evolved into paper faces of famous heroes. There was a political meaning behind each image, and Stasiuk shows how the meaning of money changed too.  Change occurred yet again, during difficult economic times, to another theme: “the patrons of this inflationary series were of course artists and writers. In my part of the world, when times are uncertain we usually turn to culture, since it’s a domain whose failures are not so glaring…”

Stasiuk’s ability to combine history with contemporary issues is amazing because it’s so readable, never dry or boring. He doesn’t get off track trying to make a political statement or place blame, and at times it’s difficult to even guess his position in the controversial matters he discusses. He never judges the people or even presumes to suggest a solution.  An especially fascinating scene was played out at the end of the day in Rasinari, when the cows, oxen, and goats returned from grazing loose into the village, all on their own.

“This daily parade was like a holiday. The whole village came out of its homes onto the road and watched the passage of the livestock. Children, old women in headscarves, men in small groups smoking cigarettes-everyone watched as the animals unerringly found their way to their own farms and stood by the gate waiting to be let in. This ritual had been repeated for centuries and everything in it was self-evident, complete, and in its own way perfect.”

Special thanks to Martin Riker of Dalkey Archive Press for this Review Copy.

International Winner and Scandinavian Reviews

First off, congratulations to Lyn (LMAN) of Australia for winning the giveaway for the Book Depository gift certificate.  I will be in contact and if I don't hear from her, I have a second place winner already lined up from the randomizer....I'll try and do international giveaways more often!                        
Photo  from spare it on Flickr, taken in Albania, as a sort of tribute to Fado, a great book about Albania I am midway through reading. 

Nancy has sent some recent reviews for the Scandinavian Reading Challenge, now past the halfway mark of the year!

Jose also sent:

Colleen's contribution:

There may be more but my email got messed up, email me if I missed one and I'll add it to the list. 

Great article with writing advice in today's Los Angeles Times:

From the ARC piles: the last two weeks have been huge, more than 30 books have arrived for reviewing.  Of course, not all will get done, and it seems this batch had a number of unsolicited titles that aren't really appealing and will get passed on.  Strangely, there were tons of dog books.  Dogs are the new vampires:  sad dogs, lifesaving dogs, genius dogs.  I'm a cat person.

Just for fun, Galleycat had a link to a fun little online game that analyzes your writing sample.  I tried it with a blog post and it said I am similar to James Joyce, wow.  Then I had it sample a short story and it said Dan Brown. Oh..  Try it if you feel like wasting some time:  "I Write Like" at

Monday, July 12, 2010

Winter Journey, Jaume Cabre, Catalan author

Translated by Patricia Lunn

This collection of short stories from Jaume Cabre is his first to be translated into English. Cabre is a Catalan author, teacher, and philologist. What is a philologist? Hopefully I’m not the only clueless one out there! A philologist is someone who studies the historical development of languages and literature. This aptitude for linguistics is especially apparent in Winter Journey in the way Cabre expresses dialogue, illustrates a character's inner thoughts, and describes influential details in different scenes.

The short stories vary a great deal, but a common thread in many is music, both composition and performance. Many of the characters deal with problems that occur in their lives in the most unpredictable ways. Cabre reveals his characters, even the most flawed ones, with a thread of humor and care. It is as if he is acknowledging that they are flawed but that they still have value.

My favorite was “With Hope in His Hands”, about a father enduring a long-term prison sentence with no word from his only child. He spends his days agonizing over why she hasn’t written him a letter in all the time he’s been incarcerated. He wonders if she’s ashamed of him, how her health is, and even if she’s still alive. His worry leads him to plot an escape plan, with the sole intention of seeing her again, just once. Despite various setbacks, he keeps planning, and finally, the moment arrives for him to escape. But just as dramatically, he is given the answer to all his questions, and he chooses to remain in prison. It’s not despair but joy that makes him stay. The way the story unfolds, with flashbacks as well as details of the prison, feels incredibly real.

Another is “Dust”, about a young woman hired to clean the spectacularly huge library of an aging book collector. She spends her days in the various genres, sometimes in ORIENTAL POETRY, other times caring for TRAVEL BOOKS, EUROPE. She imagines the value that all of the books must have, and assigns a similar awe-struck value to their collector. After some time in his employ, she questions him about the books and how important they must be. His response is that “I’m searching for wisdom…Because wisdom is shy and it likes to throw up smokescreens so people will leave it in peace. I pursue the unknown wisdom that always hides […] In apparent mediocrity.” He then, to her shock, explains to her that his collection is pretty much the worst of the worst: terrible poetry and hideous novels. The twist is there and it packs a punch, but Cabre pursues it even further, revealing the reason why the collector keeps the vast works at hand.

Each of the short stories features some sort of distortion of expectation in one way or another, but they never get gimmicky. Towards the end of the collection, a story called “Winterreise” re-introduces us to two characters from the very first story. Cabre doesn’t just deepen the previous storyline, but he takes it into a new direction with unexpected details that weren’t evident before. It changes everything, and creates an entirely new storyline that is painful, ironic, and a tiny bit funny. 

Special thanks to Melinda Kennedy and
David Rade of Swan Isle Press for the Review Copy.

A Little Party Dress, Christian Bobin, lyric essays

Translated from the French by Alison Anderson

First, I have to admit I didn't know what a lyric essay was, so I had to look it up.  Turns out it has nothing to do with music (LOL), but is rather a sort of hybrid between an essay and a poem.  Then I started reading this book, A Little Party Dress, by Christian Bobin, and I realized there must be a better definition.  In these lyric essays, each section is more like an informal commentary on a theme, without coming across as being a lecture or a self-help book.  The book itself defines it as "meditative prose".

However you define it, it's lovely.  It includes thoughtful reflections on time, books, family, and indirectly, our attitude in life.  Bobin discusses books in many places, such as in "A Story Nobody Wanted":
"The wall between readers and everyone else goes far deeper into the earth, beneath faces.  There are wealthy people who never touch a book.  There are poor people who are consumed by their passion for reading.  Who is rich, and who is poor;  who is dead, and who is living?  Those who never read are a taciturn race.  Objects take the place of words:  cars with leather seats for those who have money, ornaments on doilies for those who don't.  A life without reading is a life one never leaves, a life piled up upon itself, stifled by everything it holds on to...."  He describes the void felt by those who can't look out into another world in books, who are left closed in by their own fences.  Given that he's essentially preaching to the choir, because those reading these essays are obviously readers already, it might seem self-aggrandizing and smug.  It isn't. Instead it reminds the reader to read meditatively and to slow down and enjoy simple pleasures.

In "May He Be Left In Peace", he talks about fatigue and life's constant rush, set in the context of Percival's quest and his ultimate realization:
"Tired people are good at business, they build houses, pursue careers.  To flee their fatigue they do all these things, and in fleeing they sumbit to fatigue.  Their time is lacking in time.  Everything they do more and more of, they do less and less of.  Their lives are lacking in life." 

One of my favorites is "Promised Land" where he describes the plight of the 'mass-produced' businessman,  travelling, rushing and controlling:
"In his haste he takes the void with him.  However often he speaks, he hears only himself. However far he goes, he finds only himself.  Whereever he goes he leaves behind a stain of gray; he sleeps in the midst of what he sees.  And so you say to yourself:  these people who travel so much never take a single step forward.  To really see something, you have to be able to touch its opposite...The businessman is merely the latest avatar, the most recent version of the pale man...He is the man with the weakest identity-that of keeping things in their place, that of the eternal lie of living in society."
He contrasts this man with a simpler man, of seeming no importance.  And comparitively reflects on the meaningfulness of each in a way that isn't dismissive but insightful.

The translator, Alison Anderson, describes Bobin's work: "He’s not edgy, or trendy, or experimental; he’s deeply reflective, almost religious. Maybe people aren’t used to thinking about life in a philosophical way, at least not through literature."  (from Scott Esposito at Two Words: Center for the Art of Translation at

Of everything I've read this past year, this is one I think I will return to, enjoying the short essays and the honest style of the prose.  The author writes in such a beautiful way, it's almost as if this review needs a special font to illustrate it.  Their is no arrogance in the writing, even though it points at many of the flaws in modern life.

Special thanks to Russell Valentino of Autumn Hill Books for the Review Copy.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Dirt Riddles, poems by Michael Walsh

Winner of the 2010 Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize

The Dirt Riddles is a sober and quiet reflection on rural life, composed by Michael Walsh.   The poems highlight many of the themes of agrarian life:  the constant attendance to the sky, the soil, and the wind as well as the more routine chores of keeping the home place in order.  There is a solitary feel to the poems, a reflection on the inner mood rather than the outside.  In fact, reading these feels like eavesdropping...hearing a quiet voice observe and evaluate their surroundings unsuppressed by inhibitions.  And yet, these aren't sullen or gloomy either.  The introspective voice is aware, calm, and natural.  There are no awkward metaphors or complicated allusions.  The simplicity is deceiving.

From the larger animals down to insects, Walsh shows an acuity to every detail.  No living thing escapes his notice, and even inanimate objects merit interest.  Things we consider traditionally beautiful may be mentioned, but it is Walsh's ability to note the beauty of rust, electricity, wind, gravel dust, even the rot in the core of an apple that make this collection unusual. 

With very few words, Walsh describes different facets of a father figure, one who is rigid and angry, yet runs into a burning house to save his childhood comic books. In "Paper Flesh" he describes him:

He couldn't leave these stacks behind.
But the bright covers were already half-cooked,
dark as negatives, heroes and villains
singed indistinguishable.

One favorite, still on the father theme, was "After his lessons from the belt":

my mother would always sit on the bed
and spread out the great map
of his fault lines - that webwork
of unpredictable tensions.
We studied where the quakes
were most likely to occur:  in barns, fields,
near sheds.
We learned to sense the shifting,
the slow grind of plates, the opening
chasms of his hands.

And "Wind"

If you sprint fast enough,
the corn runs with you,
whole rows quick on their roots.

Slow down and they jog
calm and breathless.
Stop and they turn

to walls.  Hands on knees,
you pant, and all the leaves,
like wings, beat wildly.

It's the attention to simple details and the juxtaposition of unusual elements that makes this collection really enjoyable, even relaxing, to read.  Without getting maudlin or political, there's a sense of how the increasing loss of the farming life and the family farm in our lifetimes has left a void in our consciousness in the last century. 

Special thanks to Thomas Lavoie of the University of Arkansas Press for this review copy.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Lovers, Vendela Vida

The Lovers is a novel set in Turkey, where a newly widowed woman returns to the place of her honeymoon, almost three decades before.  She's trying to escape her life in Vermont, and her new status as the pitied single woman among couples.  As the mother of grown twins, she is conflicted with her memories of her marriage and her relationship with her children.  She's discovering that as more time passes since her husband's death, the more she is forced to re-evaluate their relationship.

After describing lush and green Vermont, the description of Turkey provides a stark contrast with dust, stones, and volcanic mountains.  It's a none-too-subtle hint that with a new setting in place, things are going to change.  But are they?  This is where the novel makes a twist:  nothing you think is going to happen actually happens.  Once in place, she craves the company of others, so much so that she puts up with the imposition of others just to have human contact.  Eventually, this leads her to a realization about her own personality and her own future. 

To be sure, this is not a romantic or happily-ever-after "chick" lit story. It is not Eat Love Pray, and there's no glamour, sudden insight, or handsome distraction.  Rather, Yvonne, is very much alone and really has no basis to understand who she was, or is.  If she's different, then it means her perceptions of her husband and children are altered too, and that's where her story becomes less typical and more interesting.  In fact, the title "The Lovers" is's not easy to determine who that would describe. 

It doesn't take long for her to realize she's been playing a role, but she has no other script to turn to...she doesn't quite know how to behave anymore.  I don't want to reveal any spoilers, but as the plot continues, she is so disoriented that her decisions become riskier and more dangerous.  Rather than feature shocking revelations or dramatic confrontations, the novel proceeds to a realistic conclusion.  Rather than settle for a shallow resolution, the novel leaves you to ponder deeper complexities of personality and self.

The story is fast paced, and as a main character, Yvonne is solid.  But her children remain a mystery, and it's hard to grasp how they fit in with it all.  Additionally, in the beginning there are hints as to the direction of the story that are misleading, and really weren't necessary at all.  The book didn't need those elements to mystify us, her story alone is strong enough without them.  And while the main character is female, the appeal of the plot isn't limited to a female audience.

There was one seeming discrepancy: this sheltered woman has put herself in a foreign country, alone, without even a guidebook to the language.  She is suspicious at times of others, and rightfully so, as malice is present, and yet she makes no great attempt to lock up her vacation rental or show any sense of caution in her actions. She's throwing euros around as tips, and everyone seems to know she's alone.   Unexpected visitors, with their own keys, seem to pop up constantly, and yet she takes it all in stride.  That seemed a bit out of character from how she was described, but it's a small complaint.

Special thanks to Ecco Books, a Harper Collins imprint, for the Advanced Review Copy. 

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

New Zealand Book Council video

This is a short, amazing clip of paper art from the New Zealand book council.  I'm not sure what the book being read is, but this is way cool.  It's only about 2 minutes long...

Found at the Hesperus Press website....

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Rasskazy-New Fiction from a New Russia-Tin House Books

    Rasskazy-defined as narratives, stories, tales
Edited by Mikhail Iossel and Jeff Parker

Rasskazy is a collection of excerpts and short stories set throughout Russia, and provides a more positive depiction of Moscow than last week’s Moscow Noir. This is completely different from other selections I’ve read from Russia, and much of it has a level of humor not always associated with Russian writing.

The “New Russia” is evident everywhere, as there isn’t many references to the old Cold War struggles of poverty, crime, and brutality. They may make a brief appearance, but it certainly isn’t a theme. These appear to be younger writers, creating a new and lighter style. In They Talk, an eavesdropper hears the secrets and silliness in other people’s conversations: “…and until the dog kicks the bucket, you’re not moving it from that apartment.” Or, “…when he loved me, I wasn’t jealous, and when he didn’t love me-I was. I’d start calling, aggravating both myself and him, until one time an ambulance came for me.” The little fragments of conversation are both poignant and funny. They could be heard anywhere, and that re-emphasizes the theme a “new Russia”.

Another story, A Potential Customer, reveals what a young man gets out of his visit to an old friend: “I must tell others of my life, in order to see my reflection in their pupils.” As he visits Moscow after an absence, he’s waiting for his reappearance to be significant. He goes out and stands in the square. “I was prepared to be noticed, my plans had allowed for it as an integral part of my vacation, but Moscow sailed past….the depressing suspicion crept in that this time, as if out of spite, everything would be just as it had been a thousand times before….My native city would not recognize me.”

Or the lonely blogger, in Have Mercy, Your Majesty Fish, who finds a mysterious commenter is the only one of many who understands her posts. His cryptic responses leave her hanging…

My favorite of the collection is Bregovich’s Sixth Journey, by Oleg Zobern, about a professor who travels out of Moscow for some quiet space to work on papers. His drunken neighbor keeps a starving dog in the frozen yard. “One time I thought I saw barbed wire strung around his doghouse, with little guard towers standing around it. That would make the space between the house and the shed, where Ivan Denisovich’s doghouse sits, into a little one-dog prison camp.” The narrator feeds the dog, plays his music too loud, and tries to understand the Russian literature he assigns his students. “I find it hard to study this stuff because it’s so close to me; it’s where I live, in a way. The further back you go in the century, the simpler it is, everything’s in its place….I divide the writers into the living and the dead and begin with the dead…The dead: they’re like family to me already.” In the end, the dog named after Solzhenitsyn’s famous prisoner is released to roam free. An action that becomes symbolic of the Russian people in this new time as a whole.

The collection is huge, and would make a great selection for course adoption in a Russian history class.

Special thanks to Deborah Jayne of Tin House Books for this review copy.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Canal by Lee Rourke

Flat-screen monitors, an old park bench, the "Park Crew", suicide bombers, swans, an Airbus A320, an Audi TT 225, an unknown woman at a funeral, boredom...

All of these things factor together to make The Canal by Lee Rourke a fascinating glimpse into boredom.  How can boredom be interesting?  Don't we avoid it?  The unnamed narrator has left his job, spending his days ruminating on life on an old bench near a canal in downtown London.  It's not the most scenic location:  dirty water, a roving gang, commuters, and the occasional coot or swan may pass nearby, but no one seems to sit.  Until him.

As he sits, he imagines the lives of the people who, quite literally, cross his path and he reflects on his own experiences.  Having the freedom to just sit is something he's not used to:  "it's the power of everyday boredom that compels people to do things-even if that something is nothing."  He notices that all the efforts to avoid boredom, usually in order to be more productive or to entertain, never really accomplish anything.  It is 'found' time, an appreciation for not filling every moment, that makes time more meaningful for him.  And this he does, spending more and more time at the canal.    It is only after the pace of his life has slowed that the really exciting and life-changing events begin to happen.  But this is no new-age inspirational story.  What he discovers are terrible crimes and intentional cruelties, all tied together by acts done out of boredom.

"I've often thought that we seek reality in places and not in ourselves....We need things, extra things that help us to make sense of it all;  we need the space where things can happen, where these spaces become a thing-it is only at that point, when space becomes a thing to us, that we truly feel real."  The narrator considers the nature of time as an object, one to be treasured.  The different characters he meets are similarly lost, filling up time without understanding that their actions are actually just throwing it away.  "It baffles me why people are so obsessed with trying to fill this time with holidays, cars, designer clothes, technology, energetic sports, et cetera.  Why would they want time to pass by quickly?...Those who bemoan the speedy passing of time at the end of their life are surely those same people who tried to fill it up with things to quicken its passing anyway, aren't they?"

The novel is brief:  we know little about the narrator's appearance, home, or prior job.  He doesn't even have a cell phone.  We know small details about his family but the impression is that he doesn't see them.  He's a complicated figure:  he is fascinated by flight, admiring the planes descending into Heathrow, and yet he's nearly motionless himself.  Throughout the remainder of the story, the concepts of time and flight intersect, and the denouement finds both fractured.  The effect is complex and mysterious and one of those rare books that may yield more insight by being read again.

Special thanks to Megan Halpern of Melville House for the Review Copy.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Life As We Show It - Writing on Film

Edited by Brian Pera and Masha Tupitsyn

Life As We Show It is a unique collection of essays, imagined scripts, and personal reflections by more than 20 writers on how film has shaped much of their lives and their opinions.  Not all of the cited films are blockbusters, and the influential titles are not meant to gather a "best of" collection like you'd find on A&E.  Rather, these movies are personal touchstones, relevant in ways that are unique and sometimes perplexing.  Some titles are virtually unknown, and the focus isn't so much on the film but the viewer's reaction to it or to the memories it evokes.

The standout essay for me was Rebecca Brown's title "My Western", a fascinating and multi-layered investigation into several western movies, her own family's history, and the concept of 'happily ever after'.  Her signficant film is Shane, the western classic that is mostly known for its lines "Come back!  Shane, come back!"  The young boy is brokenhearted watching Shane leave.  Brown combines both plot details and anecdotes from the real-life actors with events of her own life, particularly that of her father.  She finds parallels in the lives and deaths of both her father's disappearance and Shane's.  The effect is stunning, making the film seem more personal, and notes the synchronicity between real life and film that is often forgotten.  With Shane and other westerns, she connects that usually unspoken need we have for a hero.

She writes:  "A classic western sunset and a stranger on a horse is passing through.  We fall in love. With him and with the stories we imagine he could tell but won't.  We fill his secret past with our desires and the things we are afraid we cannot do.  We do not want to know what he is not.  The stories we will tell of him will save us from our lies."

She doesn't end it there, however.  She makes an impassioned argument on why Shane had to leave, and why a happy ending was impossible.  The boy wanted him to come back, but he was wounded and near death.  If he came back, it would only serve to traumatize the boy more;  coming back to die in the child's arms wouldn't satisfy the audience either.  And so it is with other classic films, such as ET (which is addressed in another essay by Dodie Bellamy):  ET had to go home, could it really have ended with him becoming a member of the family?  I immediately thought of Citizen Kane in a similar light:  Rosebud had to be burned in the fire, if it been preserved as a museum piece, the film would never have become as iconic.  The ending required a loss.

Elizabeth Taylor is a topic of an essay by Wayne Koestenbaum, where he muses on her different roles, her costars, and her personal life, and how all three collided in various ways to create the icon she has become.  Some of it is gossipy and silly, and much of it is tragic.  I had never realized how many of her costars died tragically, but the point of his essay isn't simply a biography from a fan.  It's an explanation of what it means to be a survivor "and how to endure division."

To be clear, many of the essays have far more to do with the writer than the films themselves, so it's not a title that is aimed at a film student.  It is an interpretation through their eyes and based on their lives and their own personal loves and losses.

Special thanks to Stacey of City Lights Books for the Review Copy.
or at and other online retailers.

Editors Brian Pera and Masha Tupitsyn shown at left.