Saturday, August 20, 2011

Scott Wannberg: not your hipster poet, but the real deal

I heard this evening that one of my favorite poets, Scott Wannberg of Florence, Oregon, has passed away.  He had a wicked sense of humor mixed with a voice that spoke for the little people. 

One of my favorites of his many works:

Agony River by Scott Wannberg

Temperature has a headache

swears it won't rise to your occasion
Speeding patrol cars out of fashion
find enough time to spotlight your cold skin

Agony River just called collect
promises to flow to the front door in a few hours
Strange faces from the ongoing confusion
only make the decision that much harder

Pull the plug or mop up the bleeding deck one last time
in hope it will never show up again
Pain aches for you and it calls me over and
wants to know the secret of reaching you

Idiot, I tell it, the only secret is in
the sunlight, how it still finds a way to bathe you
when all the experts have run off to the airport
for their red eye flights home

Agony River winds its way to the sea
and we are nothing more than
belligerent fish
waiting for some omnipresent hook
to call on us for some kind of sustaining belief

If anything, I'm glad his pain is over.  He has a spoken word CD called 3 Fools 4 April that has some especially moving poems.  In one, he actually is weeping as he reads....the poem was about the death of someone close and the strange mix of dealing with death, finding a meal, making 'arrangements', and grieving all at the same time.  He never just read a text, he felt the emotions and exuded those feelings.  Not your hipster poet, for sure. Strange Movie Full of Death is a huge collection of his works-the definite grouping.

The words will be treasured as the voice is missed...

Monday, August 15, 2011

We, The Drowned by Carsten Jensen (translated fiction)

Translated from the Danish by Charlotte Barslund with Emma Ryder

   "War was like sailing. You could learn about clouds, wind direction, and currents, but the sea remained forever unpredictable.  All you could do was adapt to it and try to return home alive."

Carsten Jensen was already noted as a journalist long before We, The Drowned, was published.  Perhaps it's his observation skills from that career that make this fictional maritime novel so enthralling.  Yes, that's a gushy word, and this review will contain many of them.  See, I had heard about the novel quite a bit, and had a few people recommend it.  And last year I was so adoring of anything Nordic or Scandinavian (still am, actually!).  But there was so much hype about this that I figured it may be too 'important' to be enjoyable.  I had it sitting a few weeks, looking like a great white whale among my other review copies....intimidating me.  Then I dove in.  And everything else pretty much got pushed aside in favor of reading this novel.

The scope is epic---generations of families living in the Danish port city of Marstal live and die, mostly via the sea. Going to sea is a right-of-passage for most every boy, and those who never return seem to outnumber those that do.  Yet, it's not overly sentimental--the stories are told in a more distant, reporting style, rather than as an emotional narrative.  Sections of the book are laid out almost as short novellas that interlink.  The most intriguing feature of the arc of the novel is the family ties.  We begin by meeting Laurids Madsen, an unflinching and unbending character who appears to be the model of wisdom and good.  The story moves through him to his son, Albert, and beyond.  Yet some vignettes feature new characters interlacing with old, and it seems like instead of a family tree, Jensen has created a city tree, donating a bit of space to each character.

"As we stood there, gazing out at the water, it seemed a great mystery lay before us: the mystery of our own lives, spread before our eyes. No matter how often we came here, it was a sight that always rendered us speechless."

Despite the many characters in play, however, none of them are similar.  They all feel distinctly individual, with traits that are too unexpected to be imagined.  I wondered if Jensen had collected a gallery of individuals from his reporting days, little mannerisms and odd habits that he saved to put together in this tale.  Because it feels so one behaves perfectly and things never go to plan, yet it feels right.  He recreates the speech of children, their inner thoughts, and moves on to the worries and equivocations of an older man.  Here he shows the child's reaction to fear:  "They were probably scared of him and so they did what boys do around any object of fear: they went up close, pointed a finger, gave it a nickname, and masked their terror with roaring laughter."

In a section about a vicious schoolteacher, it concludes,

"Limping and bleeding, our skin black-and-blue with livid bruises, we were always aching in some exposed place.  But that wasn't the worst of what Isager did to us.
He left his mark in another far more frightening way.
We became like him.
We committed appalling acts and only realized the horror of what we'd done when we stood gathered around the evidence of our atrocity.  Violence was like a drug we couldn't relinquish."

As Jensen tells it, it's clear that he's devoted to the tenacity of the Danish people.  Many times, but not always, he employs the David vs. Goliath archetype, with the small town victorious over much more feared and powerful nations.  In this way, he introduces a political and historical thread to the stories about the townsfolk, without becoming dull or stalling out over the explanations of war and battle.  In fact, as a journalist Jensen mentioned this in detail in an article from the BBC World Service, in regard to why Denmark hasn't joined in accepting the Euro but retains the krone for its monetary unit: 

"To understand the reason for this obstinacy in a people that historically has mostly been known for its lack of passion and its willingness to adapt, you must understand then in Denmark nationalism takes the shape of moralism.

In a world where almost all nations are bigger than Denmark with its number of inhabitants that is only half of that of London how do you compete? How do you become visible on the world map?

By claiming you belong to another world, that of moral superiority. Big is bad and small is good, you claim. You celebrate David as the symbol of your small nation and take on the rest of the world as if it was a kind of Goliath. It is not your contribution to the world that singles you out, it is your resistance to the world, the stones you throw at it" (1).

Back to the novel, we are shown that drowning is at the back of everyone's mind, whether in peacetime or war:  "Every sailor knows this bitter feeling: the coast is near, but you'll never reach it.  Is there anything more heartbreaking than drowning in sight of land?  Is there a single one of us who hasn't at least once felt haunted by the fear of slipping away within sight of a safe haven?...Every terror needs a yardstick, and surely the yardstick for the unknown is the known?"

Marstal, Denmark
As the people recover from their familial losses, they gain in other ways.  Marstal changes, and even the personality of the town is altered by the sea.  The losses from war aren't always physical, as Jensen shows clearly by even considering the economic conditions of the town.

I think I had two favorite aspects of the story, as well as a special fondness for Laurids and his son Albert.  The family line that is conveyed, with the lineage that is similar enough to feel related even if they hardly know each other, owes its success to the writer's skill of somehow incorporating DNA into the text.  Without telling the reader outright, one can sense the hereditary gifts (and faults) from father to son. 

The other draw of the story is the writing itself--fast-paced, lean, yet incredibly descriptive and atmospheric.  In some points you pause to reread a well-worded passage.  For example, one sentence knocked me out..."their blue faces made them look like mermen born of the boiling foam."  It felt poetic, and stuck in my head, until the point I thought the line was almost too perfect and alliterative.  Yet gorgeous metaphors like that appear throughout, without being too precious.  The locations too, from Australia to Samoa, Hawaii to the Caribbean and back to Marstal, feature realistic portrayals of ship life and the arduous journeys.

In an interview in World Literature Today, Jensen stated one purpose to the book for the city of Marstal today.  "...for the widows of Marstal whose husbands were lost at sea, there was never an ending.  No burial, no ritual of saying goodbye--like a sentence without a period.  I felt like I was finally providing an ending to their story, bringing the dead back home and burying them.  I was constructing a symbolic or metaphorical cemetary" (2).

For those ready to read this, it may be helpful to take note of a few of the names early on...the men who are captured by Germany and the boys in school in Marstal.  They reappear.  And don't let the large size of the book overwhelm you;  the brisk storyline builds to a roaring adventure quickly and keeps it up. 

One last note should address the beauty of the book itself, from the font and page numbers to the subtle graphics and monochrome color scheme.  Everything about it feels classy, and this is one book I'm not lending out.

Special thanks to Hannah Harlow of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for the Review Copy.

(1) Web.
(2) Taras, Ray.  "A Conversation with Carsten Jensen".  World Literature Today, May-June 2011, p57. Print.

Friday, August 12, 2011

What You See in the Dark by Manuel Munoz (fiction)

Change-both progressive and regressive-is the theme of this quiet thriller set in Bakersfield, California in the 1950s.  Three stories are told that intersect in varying ways, leaving the concept of "what you see in the dark" meaning entirely different things.  Darkness is the time to ruminate over bad decisions, the time when crime often occurs, and the only way to see a movie-all demonstrated in this novel.

As the book begins, we're introduced to a young couple who defy their small town's expectations by dating, even though their 'interracial' relationship is a scandal.  He's white and successful, a veritable catch, while she's a poor Hispanic, living alone in poverty, abandoned by her mother.  As the town gossips, the story seems to be on track for a fairly predictable resolution...that is, until you realize that the narrator isn't identified.  Who is this person that seems to be watching and seeing what is going on in the lonely town?  This unknown element changes the novel, making it less predictable and adding tension.

While this is going on, a famous Actress comes to Bakersfield with a Director to film a new and somewhat scandalous new movie, using the small town as a location to set their prospective movie.  I was terribly annoyed by the way the Actress and Director were only referred to by those became annoying.  Yet, it's not long before you figure out that Munoz is alluding to Janet Leigh and Alfred Hitchcock, and that the movie is a not-subtle nod to the film Psycho.  The film's elements also refer to change, in the form of what is seen on film in terms of morality and violence.

Amid this is a small hotel (Bates, anyone?) on Highway 99 facing obsolescence due to the progressive new I-5 freeway being built nearby.  (I've driven these roads before, so it's easy to picture the setting.)  Again, change threatens to alter both lives and the city itself, and when a unexpected murder occurs, the intersections all make sense.

At times the story loses its rhythm, often in lengthy asides wherein film history (European vs. American style) is analyzed for far too long.  Yet, in other places, the methods of filming and lighting individual scenes is fascinating.  It's almost as if there's too much knowledge packed into the novel that might have made an excellent nonfiction film exploration.

In any case, I didn't really get attached to any of the characters.  Arlene, mother of the popular young man and owner of the hotel, is a sad old woman living in the past, and who doesn't want to move forward.  The young Hispanic woman, Teresa, seemed far too stereotypical to be believed;  too dependent and needy for a young woman already managing on her own.  And the Actress, who studiously analyzes her role and the implications of it, comes off more like Pollyanna than real.

The setting of Bakersfield is spot-on, however:  the street names, weather descriptions, even the crops and sports are all true to life.  The anomaly of this small town being just a few hours from Los Angeles, yet world's away culturally, and the conflict between both ways of life, is something that propels much of the action.

Special thanks to Michael Taeckens of Algonquin Press for the Advance Review Copy.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Sickness by Alberto Barrera Tyszka (translated fiction)

Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

"Tears are very unliterary: they have no form."

This is possibly the most dog-eared book I've ever had. Folding down corners is my method for marking significant (to me) passages, but it clearly wasn't working with this fiction novel because I was marking every page.  I'd never read this Venezuelan author before, but I hope to find more of his work translated into English.

Delicate prose, deep moral questions, and a stunning pace are what kept me hooked into reading this in one sitting.  The story itself is rather simple:  a successful doctor discovers that his father is seriously ill.  Their close relationship is strained as the son weighs the consequences of telling his father the details of his illness.  In the meantime, another man, virtually unknown to the doctor, begins stalking him, imagining that he holds the cure for the the list of complaints he suffers from.  There's a push and pull to the narrative, as the poignant moments between father and son,nuanced with shared memories of grief, intertwine with the creepy certainty of the stalker.

Because of the health issues that permeate the novel, questions about the nature of health and wellness are explored, but in a brief, compelling way.  The author cites quotes of famous authors, ethicists and physicians, but he's not showing off, they are actually appropriate observations of how the human body deals with illness.  These asides never go too long or feel like a lecture, they fit the material in the most uncanny way.

For example, Tyszka quotes Julio Ramon Ribeyro, who provides possibly the best explanation for the euphoria that exists after an episode of physical pain:

"Physical pain is the great regulator  of our passions and ambitions.  Its presence immediately neutralizes all other desires apart from the desire for the pain to go away.  This life that we reject because it seems to us boring, unfair, mediocre or absurd suddenly seems priceless: we accept it as it is, with all its defects, as long as it doesn't present itself to us in its vilest form - pain."

Tsyzka presents simple scenes with insightful observation.  On trying to read the face of a doctor while awaiting possibly bad news:

"It's the illustration that accompanies a bad diagnosis, the first installment of an expression of condolence."

On imagining his father's worries:

"Are the monsters of old age as terrible as those that assail us when we're children?  What do you dream about when you're sixty-nine?  ....Perhaps this is what his father dreams about:  he's in a laboratory, in the bowels of a hospital, surrounded by chemicals, sharp implements, gauze, and strangers all repellently dressed in white...."

Events proceed in unexpected ways, and as a reader, you never quite know what direction you're being pulled in.  You feel empathy and disgust in altering passages, and the underlying fear is riveting.  I did find the ending a bit confusing...I still am not sure I've understood all the implications laid out.

One scene confounds me:  It takes place on a ferry, where an obnoxious businessman makes a production of his 'importance' and maltreats his seemingly intelligent and kind wife, all the way to the point of beating her to the ground.  I'm not sure what the symbolism is, although I know it's present in that scene.  Is Tyszka trying to say that people are subject to humiliation, by oppression or illness, no matter how virtuous they are? 

In full, this is easily going to be in my list of favorites for the year.  While the subject revolves around illness, it never quite defines which 'illness' is being addressed:  is it disease?  regret?  evil?  The questions are posed, and only each individual reader can answer.

Special thanks to Paul Engels of Maclehose Press, London, for the Review Copy.

Additionally, I jumped the gun on this review:  it will be released in the US in 2012 by Tin House Books, but is available in the UK now.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

My Bottom Five-the worst books ever (IMHO)

Okay, so there's way too many Top-5 lists, right?  Why not come right out with the worst and confess the total annoyance a reader may feel after a terrible book (the kind you keep reading, despite the awfulness, rather than throwing at the wall).  Please contribute your suggestions...

1.  The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard:  WWII-era story of the "ideal" man, a researcher in Japan and China who falls in love with a fifteen-year-old angel (of course, he waits till she is of age to seriously consider her as a companion).  It's not the creepiness of his crush on her, but the author's characterization of this always well-dressed, perfectly groomed, wealthy, intelligent, respectful, proper, and unreal man-Alfred Leith.  He's so perfect you actually begin hoping he does something awful, even so much as belch, just to take away the sainthood Hazzard smothers him in.  The dialogue between he and his little darling is so contrived as to create laughs instead of romance.

2.  The Season of Second Chances by Diane Meier-Unhappy academic moves to Amherst, buys terrible house.  Finds good friends and wonderful contractor, fixes up house on supply of endless funds.  Begins wearing eye shadow to match the paint on her walls.  Alas, wonderful contractor not suitable as companion because he's not an academic like her-but her good friends help remodel HIM so as to be worthy of their company.  ICK.

3.  PS I Love You by Cecilia Ahern-I only read this because the movie was coming out soon, and frankly, Gerard Butler, Harry Connick Jr, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan are a trifecta of handsomeness.  The movie wasn't ghastly, but the book was.  The dialogue was so false and every single incident drizzled with sentimentality and too many coincidences to be real.  Corny is the best word for it.

4.  Winged Obsession by ????  This is a newish nonfiction title that could be great-it's about butterfly smugglers operating around the world, mostly set in Los Angeles, and the scale of the endangered-species trade is huge.  Yet every specimen is referred to as looking like Angelina Jolie, or Beyonce, or Cher.  Seriously, give the butterflies a break!  The author name drops way too many brand names and celebrity names and cheap gay humor to make you take the actual issue of illegal smuggling seriously.

5. An Dantomine Eerly by JD R Middleton-I admit, it's probably me.  I'm not smart enough to get this.  Imagine drinking three pots of coffee, having your eyelids taped open, endless episodes of Yo Gabba Gabba on while a strobe light fills the room, with an audio tape of Ethel Merman playing, while you're trying to read James Joyce, all after having not slept for a week.   That's sort of how I felt.  I couldn't figure out if I was holding the book incorrectly or if I was just completely clueless to the meaning of the rambling phrases and images.   I passed it on to a friend who called and wanted to know if this was, indeed, in English.  (And yes, I realize this publisher will likely not send me anything ever again.)

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Art of the Novella Reading Challenge-Melville House

Melville House is promoting a lively list of novellas this year, and a new challenge has been started.  There are varying levels of participation...I'm going for reading nine of the titles (I believe there's something like 42 listed).  In fact, five of the novellas are all called The Duel by varying authors....

I'm starting with some of the Russian novellas and will post here as I complete them.  See the website above for entry may win something cool!  Authors are varied, as are genres...

M C Escher, Ascending and Descending

Another Escher classic....

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A Fireproof Box by Gleb Shulpyakov (bilingual edition)

Translated from the Russian by Christopher Mattison

Interactive poetry-complete with questions and answers (and a few prompts)-make up this collection from Gleb Shulpyakov.  The collection is personal, as he tells you about himself immediately in the section "Flick":  "I mean, I simply don't know where to begin, so I loiter, like a school boy hanging out after school...."  In his poetic 'loitering', he throws out images and ideas and creates parallels you don't expect.  Then, he teases you a bit by questioning what he just laid out.

In one sense, Shulpyakov is a painter, using words to create a vision (and even mentioning Vermeer so we get it right):

Evening, sorrowful as snow in a painting
(late Vermeer, unsigned and dated)
in an aged scrawl).  A lamp in the middle
of the room.  The ticking clock

     is audible at snowfall's end.
     Classics staring back from the shelf.

What can we add to this painting:
a hot flame in a Hollandish fireplace?
a pair of borzois on a bearskin rug?
ringlets? festoons? patchouli? pastels?

     A map of a country on a stand?
     A checkered floor in perspective?

By the end of these verses, he's went from creating the vision to questioning the stereotype of it.  Small villages he describes seem quaint, yet then he mentions the statues of tyrants that lend a sense of foreboding to the image, and the quaintness implies hidden suffering.  The quiet is less serene.

He creates another unforgettable image in the following poem, made poignant by the hints at passing time found among the words 'waves', 'fades', 'moths', 'silhouette', and 'end':

A white Viennese chair sets against the sea
and you--time fades in the landscape's
evening waves.  Sculpted cheekbones in profile
and a child's sand-plastered shovel.

When you're here, red wine
flows for two, and the bitter wafts into salt air.
When you're here, everything's made right
as the sun eats away at the beach like moths.

Sunset over the sea!  Tragedy's classic
moment.  Silently gazing out to a point,
I see not you, but a color--and in it your
silhouette.  And this point is not an end. 

The poet writes to the reader, not necessarily for the reader.  The sense of conversation is intense at times, even when it is often humorous.  He mentions names from art, history, and politics, and assumes you know what he means (more than a few I didn't....thank you Google!).

That summer at the dacha I wrote a play...
Something from the classical genre:  love and the seaside.
And a pistol must be feared near the finale.
Each day, after flipping through more journals,
I headed up into the garret.
I opened my laptop and all the heroes
poured out at will:  babbling and dashing around.
You know what it's like to write a play?
You give them words and they create a ruckus--
quarreling with each other
barely enough time to keep track of them all!

I tripped over my words in reading this, I thought he meant that the pistol must be in Chekhov's gun rule, which states that if a pistol or rifle appears early on in a story, it must be fired or the audience is left uncertain.  It's a form of foreshadowing called repetitive designation, and given that Chekhov and Shulpyakov are both Russian, I thought immediately of the connection.  But this wording, 'feared' instead of 'fired', gives another dimension.  Feared can mean revered or venerated (besides dreaded), so perhaps this is a nod to the violence of Russia's past and how necessary it seems in literature to add the conflict of violence to make a plot work. 

The bilingual edition is lovely to look at...I only wish I could read the Cyrillic alphabet and hear it as Shulpyakov wrote it! 

Special thanks to Canarium Books for the Advance Review Copy.