Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Caribou Island by David Vann

This is a gorgeous book.  The cover shot shows a lake, water lapping the pebble-covered shore, and the title in an intriguing font.  Seriously, a beautiful book.

One that I couldn't even begin to get through.  I tried to read it to my age in pages...barely made that.  Jumped around a bit trying to find a thread to pull me into it, but it was impossible.  I'm sure it probably has some literary significance, but it was too depressing and bleak.  Unlikable characters behaving badly.  All human interaction seemed filled with hostility, and a feeling of dread just weighed it down too much.  (Somehow it made me think of Franzen's The Corrections, another book I couldn't finish).

I can't accurately say it was a terrible book because I couldn't read enough to be fair.  But, you know, life is rough enough.  And not to sound all Pollyanna about it, but I really didn't need to dive into the lives of these awful people.  Sure, I've read my share of Cormac McCarthy, which are plenty bleak, but there's something about those that feel like they relate to a bigger picture or message.  I didn't get that feeling from what I've read here.

But seriously, gorgeous cover! 

Special thanks to Harper for the Review Copy.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Signs & Wonders, Poems by Charles Martin

As you begin this new book of poetry by Charles Martin, you’re given the direction to look at the words “signs” and “wonders” in a particular light: signs being used as a noun, while “wonders” is to be used as a verb. A small detail, but one that makes a significant impact on the reading. The implication is that Martin is offering, not complete and finished expressions, but little riffs on which to ponder and reflect upon.

My first impression was how varied the poems are-some are short, almost just an observation rather than a poem. Others have a limerick quality, while a few extend to pages of rhymed couplets. For some reason, I was predisposed to think of this as “serious” poetry, but in fact, I giggled uncontrollably at a few of them (“The Spaniard”, for one).

His topics also vary, and yet the whole remains cohesive. One example is “Brooklyn in the Seventies”, where at first it appears he’s waxing nostalgic about thriving real estate and restoring brownstones, and then it pivots to discuss the variations in marriage-the times of tearing down and renewal. The parallels are uncanny and truly lead you to wonder:

Yes, selves were in a frenzy of commotion,
And those beyond their expiration dates
Were being tossed despite years of devotion
So whether by one’s doing or by fate’s
One found oneself in an unlikely place…

My favorite is “Ovid to His Book”, in which the ancient poet imagines sending to one of his books Rome to somehow regain his entry to the city from which he’s exiled. In the poem he counsels the tangible book as to proper decorum and strategy:

Go on your way now, book, and speak for me
In places that I love, but cannot be,
Saluting those whom I have come to meet
On metrical, if on no other, feet…

When biting words offend you, just recall
The best defense is often none at all,
And if you’d really have my exile end,
Go find us both an influential friend…

“After 9/11” is likely to be the most moving of the poetry in the book, as Martin relays the emotions and actions of New Yorkers at the moment of the tragedy and in the aftermath, searching for loved ones. Yet he goes in a different direction, noting that at one time, Manhattan was the site of a battle of George Washington, and that buried bones are not uncommon. Rather, they form the foundation of the island historically and culturally, and create “a sublime alignment of the present with the past.”

Against the need to hold them all in thought,
Time is what places them beyond recall,
Against the need of the falling to be caught,

Against the woman who’s begun to fall,
Against the woman who is watching from below,
Time is the photo peeling from the wall.

In total, Martin covers a dramatic amount of subjects: George W. Bush, art, the “unreal” pain of a poet, endangered animals, and suicide. In doing so, he makes thematic comparisons that are never cliché or trite. Only one title, “Poem for the Millennium,” left me lost-I didn’t know what to make of the style and phrasing that was evoking the events of the year 2000.  I sense a meaning too deep for me to ascertain!  Perhaps if I pick it up again at a later date it'll make sense to me!

It must be added that the cover of this book is one of the loveliest I’ve seen…I hope the picture shown expresses just how beautiful the physical book is.

Special thanks to Kathy Alexander of Johns Hopkins University Press for the Review Copy.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Making Rounds with Oscar by Dr. David Dosa

See that face?  Adorable, right?  Fancy a snuggle with this sweet little kitty?  Think twice.  For this is no ordinary cat.  It's Oscar...the death cat.  Remember last fall on the news, about the cat that predicted the impending deaths of rest home patients?  This is he.

The phenomenon appears to be that in the last twelve hours of life, for a patient who is visibly weakening or else perfectly fine, Oscar appears and cuddles them in their bed.  He is not affectionate at any other times.  Infallibly, it seems, he's accurate, and the patient dies.

Dr. Dosa really didn't fall for the idea at first, and took some convincing.  In terms of evidence, they simply kept track and noted that for the most part, there is no preceding signs that would tell Oscar something was up.  No catnip-scented medical equipment or anything else that would lure him to the bedside. Some patients were unconscious, others were speaking and behaving normally. No one can explain how his intuition works, or if it's just a fluke.

Aside from the fascinating but creepy details, the book details the ins and outs of rest home life (um, not appealing in any way).  Apparently cats are a typical accoutrement of rest homes, as they provide comfort and a homey feeling that residents appreciate.  Obviously, my cats would not likely be hired because of their surly attitude. 

I expected the book to be rather light-weight, and hesitated before reading it.  I'd received piles of 'dogs of note' books over the last year that were cutesy and saccharine sweet.  It was odd to actually see a cat book by a doctor.  Once I began reading, I did find it an interesting subject to analyze.  Just how much do animals understand?  How keen are their senses?  We take for granted dogs can sniff out drugs, but cats?  What can they do?

I think my only complaint is that the portions of the narrative that contain dialogue sound forced and unnatural-people don't speak in full sentences, and the back and forth exchanges of conversation didn't feel real at all.  Other than this, and the depressing nature of rest homes in general, this was a satisfying read.

Special thanks to Hyperion for the Advanced Review Copy.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Making Writing Matter by Ann M. Feldman

Composition in the Engaged University

Ann M. Feldman is an esteemed professor of English at the University of Illinois in Chicago.  This book is focused on the role of teaching essay writing in the primary levels of university, with the goal of creating meaningful and motivated writing rather than simply acquiring grammatical and argumentative skills.

The first difference I saw in her methods from the university that I attend is that she resists the use of such textbooks as Signs of Life in the USA or The Conscious Reader, which are compilations of essays and excerpts of excellent writing.  In many schools, these serve as a jumping off point for students to write response essays to the subjects addressed.  Her opinion is that in forming a response, the learning writer is too passive and is limited by the subject matter in the textbook.

Her response is to instead involve students directly in the community, writing about topics that are controversial and actively being debated;  thus, their writing is less passive and has a purpose to convince and relate to active social issues.  Feeling that this will both inspire the writer as well as sharpen their reasoning and logic skills, she gives many anecdotal findings that demonstrate more commitment on the part of students to be involved in their writing.  Upon completion of various essays in this regard, she encourages her students to present their work publicly, pushing them out into 'the real world' and establishing a conversation with experts and bureaucrats about the subjects they write about.  Then, at this point, she feels that then the feedback the students get is more valuable than simply a response to a textbook essay.

She calls this "engaging with...context".  One example she gives is the "emphasis on lived experience injects more energy into the participatory side" and creates a "community of practice".    She then goes on to explain her ideal: 

"Communities of practice thrive on the tension between participation and reification.  Even though participation is sometimes given insufficient attention in the educational process, it is easy to understand.  It includes the experiential side of negotiating meaning-living in the world, participating, acting and interacting, defining one's identity through membership in communities; and recognizing the mutual engagement of participants in any given situation."

Thus, she encourages students to address social issues that involve their community, everything from race to the propagation of food carts and unlicensed vendors.  Her evidence relies on many success stories of students transformed from merely reacting to a reading to actively participating in a cause through their writing.

Personally, I loved the Signs of Life in the USA series of textbooks and the readings on popular culture and current topics.  I saw a great deal of discussion in classrooms with students challenging each other's opinions and reactions, and I can't help but think dismissing these textbooks is not the answer. 

Her insight on the writing process is fascinating, but at times I noticed that she seemed to want to remind the reader of her success and her position, lest we forget that she is an expert in her field.  This became wearying, almost as if she was too eager to justify her assertions over what is more commonly taught.  And at times, her explanations of her schedule and her curriculum felt like she was proving to the reader just how busy she was-a subject that was never in doubt in the first place.

All in all, this text is more appropriate for academics in a university setting who may wish to experiment with the styles of composition that best engage the student.  There is no lack of references or cited evidence, and she builds a good case for her beliefs.

Special thanks to State University of New York Press (SUNY) for the Review Copy.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Giveaway: West of Here by Jonathan Evison

                      Jonathan Evison, Algonquin, $24.95 (496p) ISBN 978-1-56512-952-8

A new contest is in order, and it's for a brand new hardcover copy of Algonquin's best-seller, West of Here.  Sorry to say, it's a US only giveaway, and it's limited to blog followers.  Anyone interested must leave a comment to this post, and a random generator will select a winner on May 1, 2011. 

Please leave a way to contact you in your comment, so I can notify you if you win.  Special thanks to Algonquin for the extra giveaway copy.  My review is forthcoming....

BTW, it has one of the most beautiful cover designs I've seen in years.

An Apple a Day by Caroline Taggart

This is the latest in the series of non-fiction books by Reader's Digest that explain everything from the origin of famous sayings, foreign phrases used in English, and brief explanations of classic historical figures and texts.

This one in particular focuses on old-fashioned proverbs; "timeless words to live by."

Ever wonder where "strike while the iron is hot" came from?  Or, "there's no smoke without fire?"  This explains the origin as well as the proper use of such phrases, because many get twisted in usage or misapplied.  The author did extensive research in the works of Malcolm Gladwell, Lao-Tzu, PJ O'Rourke, and other notable writers. 

It's sectioned via index and glossary, and the design of the book fits into the others in the series:  A Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi and Easy as Pi, to name two that dealt with foreign phrases and math.  I believe there are at least six books in the series, and these would make an ideal collection for a student as well as someone simply curious about the etymology of words and axioms in both popular culture and classic literature.

Thanks to FSB Associates for the Review Copy.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Prose by Thomas Bernhard

Translated from the German by Martin Chalmers

It's really tough to be brilliant.  In fact, for the men in these seven short stories, their unimaginable intelligence seems to cause them more confusion than triumph.  While successful in their fields, they barely manage to exist in the real world.  This leads to all sorts of issues:  mostly amusing, often strange, but quite atypical to what one would expect from a genius.

With these stories, Bernhard exposes a part of human nature that goes beyond intelligence.  The confusion that comes from being set apart as different, the difficulties of doing something new when everyone else thinks you already know the drill, and what to do when things don't make sense.  It's subtle but it's apparent that these guys are almost defective because of their genius.  They seem unable to understand sarcasm or even affection.

Much of their time is spent dealing with insomnia (apparently sleep can seem impossible with all those big thoughts spinning around), pacing miles of streets each day, and second-guessing their every action as they try to fit into the world.

The stories are at times heartbreaking or alternatively, riotously funny.  One man finds a hat, a trivial piece of nothing, and makes it the course of every waking moment to find the owner, in a small town where everyone owns that same damn hat.  Yet to him, it must have value because it exists.  Another story finds two men, both deformed from birth and subject to the hatred of their families, who try to develop an existence that is normal;  yet when you meet their family, you truly begin to wonder who actually is deformed.  The emotionally deformed parent who abuses their helpless child, or the scorned child himself?

This is not a downer book-the stories are short and the play on words is unique.  The humor is dry, and the situations reveal the confusion that can happen in an ordinary interaction when one person prejudges the other.  Additionally, the book has achieved major buzz in literary circles already by the concise story lines and unexpected details.

Special thanks to Seagull Books of London for the Review Copy.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Back in Business, Sort of!

currently reading
I'm pleased to say that I'm back and ready to get back into gear with the website, the reviews, and the freelance work.  It's been just over six weeks since everything went crazy, when a mass was discovered in my liver.  As of last week, it was removed at USC Hospital in Los Angeles, and I'm on the road to recovery.  They still don't know what it was as pathology is out still (sort of a scary thing to wait on!), but with the mass (the size of a loaf of bread) gone I already feel much, much better.

I know it's corny to say that my attitude is better in the face of fear and suffering, but it really is.  I'm so grateful for my family and friends and so much in life seems completely irrelevant in view of what happened.  I have to thank my friends for the cards, flowers, and the delicious meals that have been arriving nightly (and everyone so generous as to make sure my parents are fed as well!).  The phone calls that were so encouraging even when at times all I could do on my end was cry.  They know who they are-I can never thank you enough!

All that time in the hospital (17 nights at two different times) should have led to some great reading opportunities, but I read virtually nothing but the LA Times towards the end.  It hurt too much to hold up a book.  Now with recovery I'll have some time to play catch up.  My apologies to the publicists who were hoping for certain reviews by release dates-I'll try to catch up eventually.  I did have to drop a few print magazine assignments (BUMMER!) but I hope to recoup those eventually.

So I have a few meaningless observations to share:
  • USC doctors all look like hair models, yet they are exceedingly kind
  • the view of LA at night is possibly the most gorgeous thing in the world
  • moms are great to have around to calm you when you start to panic
  • Jello is unfairly maligned-on some days it was the only little thrill to be had
  • even the homeless in LA have Blackberry's
  • every single nurse was unimaginably nice-I felt like a princess!
  • Ambulance drivers don't take tips!  Who knew?
Right now I'm reading Caribou Island by David Vann, and after that I'll have things back in gear.  For the Eastern European Reading Challenge I have Travels in Siberia next.