Tuesday, May 31, 2011

World Tree by David Wojahn (poetry)

Private places and public spaces--David Wojahn uses verse to explore nuances of a distinctly diverse choice of settings.  Investigating the variances of humanity, all the forms of beauty and ugliness, he paints a picture sometimes brutal, and sometimes impossibly sweet.  From the beginning of one poem to the end, you're never entirely sure of the destination.  Many times I was intrigued at just how much emotion he evokes in a few choice phrases.

Designed in four sections, World Tree is a play on the concept of 'family tree'.  He extends the meaning to show the inner dependency we have on people throughout the world, whether we like it or not.  He illustrates the poems with an assortment of unusual graphics-the choices that serve as inspiration for some of the poems.  This is called ekphrastic poetry, using art or visual images to inspire the poem.  In some cases the poems are a reactionary response to the visual medium, at other times an attempt to explain the meaning or setting of the piece.  Or, as in some of the photographs Wojahn uses, the poem reveals hidden meaning behind the scenes.  Cave paintings and excavated archaelogical finds also provide potent ideas that Wojahn explores.

In one, "The Killed Man", he uses a cave painting that is thousands of years old.  He ties the old to the new in his imagination, making the ancient appear far more relevant than if observed on a museum wall:

"The stick man bristles with five sticks
& his insides pour out, a mesh of ochre,

Rendered childlike.  The invention of torture
Is so fresh they are confounded.
                How to depict
The human figure mangled, the whole reduced
To the gutted sum of its parts...

They keep you chained & hooded on the flight
From Kabul to Gitmo.  They serve a meal

Of rubber hoses, then another.  The shackles
Gnaw at your wrists & ankles."

The basic image moves into the present, with the not-so-unfamiliar image of a tortured prisoner.  Has time not changed man's brutality?  Is there progress evident?

In "Trepanned Skull of a Woman with a Prosthetic Seashell Ear", he uses the fascinating photo of the shell ear (amazingly true to life) to examine the mystery behind it:

"The facts:  someone made a drill of flint
& bore into her cranium for hours,
                 a procedure
She survived, living on some twenty years.
Someone fashioned a device with which she might detect

The wave-crash of a sea three hundred miles away,
Worked shell to a phosphorescent simulacrum
Of auricle & cartilage, a lobe she'd worry
Until her fingers rubbed it smooth as skin.

Of untold mysteries we are composed....

              ...& was affliction cured?
&did she prophesize-oracle, priestess, sphinx?

Wounded goddess, did she unclasp her shell-ear as she lay down to dream?"

In the fourth section, Wojahn's focus is more on the public spaces and modern history, with references to the King of Pop, the Haiti earthquakes, and the endless 'crawl' of bad news on CNN.  His "Letter to Eadweard Muybridge" mingles details from the photographers 19th century life with present events, and shows that not much has changed.  "In the Domed Stadium" employs the colors of gray, black, rust, and crimson along with words like sizzling, jeering, rippled, and twitching to create a nightmare scene from the inside of the Louisiana Superdome after Katrina. 

"Nocturne: Newark Airport" is my favorite.  Passengers are delayed due to snow, and the airport shuts down around them.  It's a "ghost dance" that appears, as some try to sleep, others try to read or explore the empty terminal.  The abandonment takes away the individuality of each person and makes it far more of an anonymous sea of blank faces.  Unity at last-all helpless to the power of the weather-leaving only a mute television scrolling death tolls that no one bothers to count.

This collection is poignant and deep...many of the references required me to look up some of them online to define and understand.  The way he ties abstract concepts to concrete images and responses is something that deepens this collection beyond what is typical.  It's one to read again....

Special thanks to Maria Sticco from U of Pittsburgh Press for the Advance Review Copy.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Retro or vintage?

From reader AISOM52 in the LA Times section, a pretty cool photo...love the colors.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Ghost Light, Joseph O'Connor

Molly Allgood O’Neill is a cranky old woman, weakened by extreme poverty and loneliness. An aging actress, she makes her way across London to one of the few jobs she can find-as a voice actress. Throughout her journey, she spends her time remembering the long ago affair she carried on with the Irish playwright, John Synge. In her memory Synge as well as the legendary Yeats come to life, and through her memories she gains a bit of vitality-all while so malnourished she can barely walk.

Her memory is detailed, and with equal parts humor and bitterness, she reflects on aging, competing with her sister, and the complicated socially-unbalanced relationship she had with Synge. His being of wealth and fame, and her poor urban upbringing, dooms their affair from the start. His mother will not consider him marrying her as beneath their social level. Molly’s sister too objects to the relationship, denying its reality. The Dublin theatre, and everything made up and false, becomes a key to understanding their attraction to each other as well as their eventual distance.

Molly is at her best when she’s thinking aloud. The author, Joseph O’Connor, presents her as a tough old bird who dismisses those beneath her, yet still partaking of their charity towards her. Especially touching is a local bartender who spots her a free drink on occasion, as well as a bit of food. They both keep up the pretense that she's a wealthy old actress, when without him she'd likely starve. In her small apartment, she’s down to living with that which can’t be burnt for warmth. Hunger grates at her, and makes her memories that much more painful.

She laments aging and her habit of talking to herself: “And getting up earlier. Another symptom, that. What young person ever got up at dawn out of choice? And talking to the wireless. And talking to the rain. And talking to dogs and to flowers in people’s gardens. And talking to clothes that don’t fit you any more and to dishes that need washing but haven’t been washed….and whoever puts the zips in the back of women’s dresses, a presumption, if ever there was one, that every woman is married…”

Her observations of the London neighborhood are sardonic and ‘cheeky’. One man that looks at her a bit too long gets her riled: “So turn the other cheek if you don’t like the look of me, and kiss my arse like it owes you the rent.”

The name of the novel comes from a theatre tradition: “An ancient superstition among people of the stage. One lamp must always be left burning when the theatre is dark, so the ghosts can perform their own plays.” The significance is obvious: she’s still alive while her peers are dead, yet who remain as alive in her memories.

As a character study, it’s fascinating. Seeing the character change as she observes Synge’s illness, and her reaction to the gossip about her is subtle-the author doesn’t tell us how she’s changed but shows us instead. A few times I thought the theatre scenes, where Synge and Yeats interact, ran a bit long (I sort of scanned those pages). Perhaps if I knew more of their actual history I’d have been more interested. The other thing that unsettled me was the ending. The book proceeded to a point that I expected it to end, it would have been perfect (to me), yet a new development occurred that continued it a short while longer. That put me off-track a bit, and it was hard to reconnect after what seemed like the obvious ending.

I could actually see this becoming a movie-there's enough action and drama that would go well with the Dublin and London period costumes.  I'd actually like to cast it:  Cate Blanchett as Molly, Viggo Mortensen as Synge, and Liam Neeson as Yeats.  That'd work.

Special thanks to Katie Freeman of Farrar, Straus & Giroux for the Review Copy.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

New Giveaway, Purge by Sofi Oksanen

First off, congratulations to Cal who won the Wicked Bugs giveaway that ended yesterday.  He/she will be notified and have 48 hours to respond.

The next giveaway is for a new paperback copy of Purge by Sofi Oksanen.  It's a work of translation from the author's native Estonian.  It's a fierce book, not for the weak of heart.  My review is here:
http://www.theblacksheepdances.com/2010/06/purge-literary-fiction-by-sofi-oksanen.html. Note, the front cover may vary...there are several covers out.  This is not a book about eating disorders or bulimia!  It's about Estonia and Siberia in World War II.

To enter, leave a comment to this post with your name and email address.  On June 2, 2011 I will have the random.org pick a winner and notify them.  You must be a blog follower to enter.  US and CAN only please (an international giveaway is coming soon!). 

Thursday, May 19, 2011

How to Eat a Small Country, Amy Finley

A Family's Pursuit of Happiness, One Meal at a Time

Somehow, I’m not hungry.

Being an obvious “foodie” along with my family, I thought this book about a couple’s journey, eating their way through France, looked pretty good. The author writes in a conversational, enjoyable way, and she’s up on her history-noting the significance of many of the sites she visits, both historically and culturally.

But…the book begins with a seriously disturbing “execution” of a rabbit for supper. I’m sure it’s supposed to introduce us to the dark humor and make the story feel authentic, but it is really disturbing. The idea of the couple’s children rolling on the ground laughing and pretending to be the dying rabbit is not really appealing. It’s a strange place for the book to jump off from, but it does get better. It proceeds into the story of the woman and her husband, who make the trip to France to restore their marriage after a rough patch. She had won a contest on Food Network and even got her own show, but he was uncomfortable with her being on television and away from home. No, he’s not a Neanderthal, but there is definitely some passive-aggressive stuff going on in their marriage that I’m not sure France will sort out.

Essentially, she signed on for the contest because she was unhappy as a stay-at-home mom, but he was unsupportive when it meant her being in New York while the family was in San Diego. She acknowledges to her son that she wasn’t happy in NY either, and that’s why she gave up the show. That’s fine…it’s not my business anyway, and if that makes them happy, great. But then she goes into her husband being uncomfortable with her “fame” and how deeply wounded she felt by all the bloggers and media talking about her and commenting on her appearance. I had to stop and look at the cover again: I had never heard about her. I’m guessing that’s possibly because I don’t watch Food Network, but it could be that there are just more important issues in the world. The idea that her concept of fame endangered their marriage seems a bit silly-she’s not Posh Spice or Beyonce.

She is a very good writer, and she makes many of the cities they visit sound wonderful. But two other things are annoying: one is that while they profess being on a budget, their entire trip is centered on locating what she admits are expensive delicacies and wines. You can’t play broke and spend $120 Euros on lunch…all while staying in various locations in France. It’s not a cheap trip, you know? So in some paragraphs she whines about finances and it’s hard to summon the sympathy. I really do like her style-she’s very open and funny. She’s quick to make jokes at her own expense, and she’s clearly a devoted mom. But since she makes her marriage a main basis of the story, I feel like some comment needs to be made on their relationship. Both of them are scorekeepers, and while they may iron things out for awhile, such doesn’t bode well for long term. Until they both stop keeping track of who did what, they’re going to need many more trips to France.

Secondly, unless she assumes her English readers are incredibly knowledgeable about French cooking, she might have explained things better. What is choucroute? Boudin noir? Unfortunately, given my public school education, the most exotic food dish I speak of is Zuppa Toscana from Olive Garden. (Actually no, but you get my point). Then there’s the idea of her lovely family sitting down at a restaurant for baby calf’s head. Seriously? Does she read to these kids? How do you get past the cow’s head with kids that have just read Click Clack Moo?

Thanks to Amazon Vine for the Advance Review Copy.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Frozen Time by Anna Kim (translated fiction)

Translated by Michael Mitchell

“…being missing mutates into the birthmark on their forehead, into the scar on their cheek, into their predilection for swimming in the rain, strolling along streets after midnight.”

Such are the sorts of details that forensic archeologists and forensic anthropologists look for when trying to find missing persons. It’s not enough to know what the missing person looked like, but how they lived, even their favorite foods, places to eat, and ways they liked to travel are also important. Habits assist in placing the victims, dental records and medical reports come in later to confirm the identity. Such is the difficult work of locating and identifying missing persons in wartime, in this novel, specifically during the Kosovo war. The conflict between Albanians and Serbs was intensely violent, and cases of mass executions and random kidnappings were common.

Frozen Time examines the conflict from the point of view of a researcher with the Red Cross Tracing Network in Vienna whose job consists of interviewing the families of persons still missing long after the conflict ended. She interviews the family, trying to discern details that will set their loved one apart amid the thousands of corpses that are buried throughout the region. Physical details are important, but even their moods and whims create an additional layer of identification. Nora is taught essential skills in interviewing loved ones, yet even her professional demeanor is challenged when hearing the heartbreaking stories of incomprehensible atrocities.

The title comes from Nora’s observations about a man, Luan, who is searching for his wife Fahrie, who had been abducted seven years before and was presumed dead. “Your present and future have been amputated, leaving traces, phantom beings, they complain whenever you forget your grief, even if only for a moment, your life frozen at the moment when you discovered Fahrie had disappeared, no, it’s not your life that’s frozen but your time, frozen time which doesn’t count, you wish it would finally pass, it is passing, but as it’s frozen, it passes infinitely slowly. Or is it less a matter of being frozen, more of experiencing particular minutes, days and months in an endless loop?” Her interviews with him are painful, as he deals with the guilt of not protecting her, guilt for his own survival, and the guilt that he feels when he tries to move on with his life. Yet in order to find her, and differentiate her from all the others, she has to probe, unemotionally and distant, to find clues.

As she interviews him and builds a paper trail of Luan and Fahrie’s life, their shared history, another dimension is revealed as the courtship and marriage rituals unique to the region are explained. Arranged marriages are still common in Albania, and in the case of Fahrie and Luan, they cleverly met in advance to see if they could stand each other, and fell in love on their own, which required them to hide their affection at their marriage because it was assumed they’d never met. Sweet little details like that make Luan’s grief, despite the seven years of solitude, palpable and intense.

The story is told in a documentary style, based on the styles of interviews that are typically done in these cases. This means no dialogue tags, quotation marks, and a few areas of abbreviated text. It feels very real-brisk-and yet despite that, or maybe because of it, the details of the atrocities that are still being unearthed and exposed are shocking and hideous. I remember this time period, my children were little, and it’s hard to imagine such a medieval scope of violence occurring within their lifetime. Even having studied the region in previous nonfiction texts, I was still astonished at what unimaginable horrors have been meted out to innocent victims. The book doesn’t focus on these, but they are there in the background, begging the reader to consider where such violence comes from.

An especially important detail is that the author, Anna Kim, doesn’t get into the politics of the war; she doesn’t push for one side’s guilt over the other, instead, she concentrates on the recovery process. In a situation where, say, one hundred bodies are discovered in a mass grave, it isn’t enough to have a photograph or DNA; knowing if the missing person frequented the area, what they wore (were their ears pierced?), and if they were right or left handed is more useful in the initial stages.

This book was hard to put down: the style of writing and subject matter had me glued to it to see if Fahrie would be found. I marked so many interesting passages of text I couldn’t even begin to sort them out for this review. There was only one thing that drove me nuts: extensive use of italicized words and phrases. I’m not sure if it was on the author or translator or even editor’s end, but very often in the narrative, a few words would be italicized to remind you that they are very important. But the context was clear and concise, if you’d read anything in the book you knew that without needing italics to tell you it was significant. It sounds completely trivial but it put my teeth on edge at times, because it was distracting and unnecessary. It almost came off as childish, which makes no sense given the serious nature of the subject matter. See, I just did it…isn’t that obnoxious? The book was still very much worth it, but it had to be mentioned!

An excellent title for the Eastern European Reading Challenge!

Special thanks to Jorun Johns of Ariadne Press for the Review Copy.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books... by Elif Batuman-nonfiction (Guest Post)

   Thanks to Colleen Connolly-Ahern, Professor of Advertising and Public Relations at Penn State University, for contributing this review to the blog.  It sounds like a great read for those doing the Eastern European Reading Challenge!  She has her own blog at http://www.colreads.blogspot.com/ where you can discover great titles too...

The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them

Perhaps it’s no surprise that someone described as a “perpetual student” would fall in love with a non-fiction title about the arcane nature of life in academe, particularly the study of Russian literature. Elif Batuman’s The Possessed captures academic life, warts and all: the joy of exploration, the despair of missed chances, the almost selfish pursuit of the unique, the camaraderie of shared misery (anyone who’s ever been to graduate school will immediately recognize that aspect of the book). In the process, Batuman turns her own life into a piece of Russian-like literature, analyzing her every move for clues to who she was, and who she has become.

Batuman’s story is fascinating. She grew up in the U.S., fluent in her mother’s native Turkish. She developed a love of literature as a child and focused on Russian as an undergraduate. But one of the great twists of the book comes in an unexpected grant opportunity in Samarkand, allowing Batuman to add Uzbek to her impressive list of language credentials. Along the way, she realizes that a language is more than a collection of consonants and vowels – it is inextricably linked to culture, society and the varying expectations of day-to-day life where the language is lived.

If Russian literature has a reputation for being a bit heavy, Batuman has an explanation for that: what we think of as the history of Russian literature is actually the history of the brutal suppression of Russian authors. That gives Russian literature a unique place in society – both honored and feared.

...as Foucault has observed, the institution of authorship is largely dependent on the author’s liability to state punishment. It’s true that Russia subjected its writers to an unusual degree of state control; consequently, it’s also true that nowhere in the world has literature been taken more seriously (210).
The cartoonish cover art might lead a reader to believe the book is a comedy, but that would be a mistake. To be sure there are some very amusing vignettes, as when Elif is working on an exhibit and conference dedicated to the works of Isaak Babel, only to find herself in the middle of a dispute between two competing Babel heirs, each of whom favor different interpretations of his work. And there is a certain kind of dark humor in Batuman’s interactions with the Byzantine bureaucracies of Uzbekistan. But like Russian literature, the humorous bits are all predicated on an analysis of the vagaries of human existence.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, although I have to admit that as someone who is not a literature scholar, some of the discussions of post-modernist schools of literary interpretation were a bit much for me. There was one section on Derrida in particular that had me shaking my head and wondering, “Do people really fight about this stuff?” But that’s just the point: they do. And I probably would have gotten even more out of the book if I was better schooled in the great Russian authors – but that’s my shortcoming, not Batuman’s, and one this book has inspired me to rectify. But I would heartily recommend the book to lovers of literature and anyone who has every slogged through graduate school in general. Both groups will find something to love here.

Thanks Colleen!

Friday, May 13, 2011

These Hands, Per Aage Brandt (translated poetry)

Translated from the Danish by Thom Satterlee

Bilingual Danish/English Edition

Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols and ultimately their meanings in communication. Cultural signs can be read simply by observing the clothes someone wears, the car they drive, and even how their home is decorated. Thus having someone who specializes extensively in semiotics and linguistics on a scholarly level is especially interesting to read as a poet; after all, poetry similar deals with signs and symbols in its presentation and understanding.

Per Aage Brandt is foremost a scholar-a professor with worldwide experience in clinical studies of semiotics, linguistics, poetics, and aesthetics-yet he’s also published numerous volumes of poetry. Reading his work is different from reading other poetry-his has an uncanny ability to carry multiple meanings without being ‘precious’; he covers serious subjects with regard but isn’t afraid to dip into light wit as well.

These Hands is an intriguing combination of his scientific method of observation and his selective use of specific words to get an idea across. The introduction notes that he’s one of the few, if not the only poet, to put his titles for the poems after the poem, instead of before. It sounds odd but it works. The title read last seems almost like a summary, or key words to remember the verses by.

In “visible, invisible”, he clues us into his perspective in poetry by commenting on how he sees this according to his training:

I see that you stare, and so probably also see,
But not what you see, I see; see this is a
Big problem for me: what is even more
Significant than that; but the door isn’t
Open, I can just lean into what you’re now
Saying you see;

…it hurts, never to be able to share what is seen
And experienced now by us and nobody else.

Brandt uses the underlying to emphasize that no two people see the same thing: they bring to their interpretation their own life experiences and opinions. Beyond that, even the physical distance two people may have as they observe one item can change their perception: light, shadow, and even sound can render their understanding differently. How perfectly, then, semiotics ties into poetry. The particular enjambment he chooses renders some words transparent or commutable.

“a study of the signs of life would include:
An exhausted smile stuck to the mirror, a
Colorless coat on a peg, a scarf typically
Forgotten on a chair, the sound of footsteps
From a possibly still intoxicated upstairs
Neighbor, an open window shaken by the wind…”

Another poem explores the significance of the written word to cement meaning:

“a phrase goes stray for a moment, and the wind picks it up,
Lets it blow into a face like a newspaper, and then it doesn’t mean
What it used to mean, now it means the aforementioned gust of wind
And also the strayness of the moment: the “writing” of the phrase
Is its weight”

At times, Brandt makes simple observations that give pause:

“time should stand still when I’m addressing it”.

I took a class on semiotics last year, and one of the tasks was to understand how symbols work in advertising-how by using art and graphics in a specific, intentional way can manipulate a consumer far more than words or testimonials could. Then it went into the types of literary motifs and themes that make a reader presuppose what the writer is saying. Somehow, reading that Brandt was both a scientist and a poet reminded me of Derek Walcott, and how by virtue of his Caribbean heritage, he didn’t fit in with American styles or traditional British writing, although he loved both. Brandt seems similar in that he can’t be pigeonholed into either role, but is renowned in both.
Special thanks to Host Publications for the Review Copy.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki

Translated from the German by Anthea Bell
“Where his contemporaries succeeded, he stood aside. Luckily the details eluded him because he saw anything that was more than three to five metres away only in indistinct outline. Of course he noticed something was going on. He just didn’t let on, learned another language instead. And although at university he was at last considered a genius and quietly admired, he still always had to stand aside when the real prizes were handed out.”

What real prizes? That question becomes the theme to this story of Schepp and his wife Doro, two academics who teach Chinese history and whose marriage appears solid on the surface. Schepp serves as an anchor to Doro as she has a tremendous fear of death---she worries obsessively about possible afterlife scenarios. Doro, for her part, is a quiet and agreeable complement to Schepp’s genius, and they raise a family together quietly and in peace.

That is, until Schepp has eye surgery to better his eyesight. Suddenly, everything changes…quiet and peace are no longer enough: the change in his vision changes his entire outlook on life.

“It was terrible to see the world in such detail, so sharply outlined, all of a sudden! It had always been so comfortably impersonal in its remote milkiness; Schepp hadn’t felt he was missing anything. Now it dazzled him with a confusingly large number of details… Overnight life seemed like one long missed opportunity. If he had previously renounced a great deal, never complained, he was now determined to make up for it.”

The novel begins ominously, as he finds Doro dead in their study (not a spoiler, it’s stated on the back cover!). As shock sets in, he is strangely unable to take the necessary actions, and instead finds himself poring over her notes. The Doro he discovers in print was one he had never seen, although he’d lived with her for decades. Thus the concepts of sight, vision, appearance, and imagination all combine to make this a suspenseful read, from the reality of his dealing with her corpse to the mystery behind her hidden personality.

Woven into the story of this couple is another story, one that Schepp wrote in his spare time, “Marek the Drunkard”. It has its own suspense and ties in to Schepp’s life as he both writes the story and somehow unknowingly appears in it. The denouement of it, a manuscript that Schepp had kept hidden and was somehow now edited by Doro, creates confusion and another element of mystery. It begs the question, how much of a writer’s own intentions and wishes are put into their writing? How separate can a writer be from his characters? Was it a novel that he wrote, or a wish list? An alternate life?

As the terrible day of his grim discovery proceeds, a sense of anticipation builds. I found myself mentally urging him to call the coroner, to put the notes away, to get some air. Yet he’s locked into that manuscript and what she’s written…this new woman he hadn’t seen before. 

“He was in such a state that he accused Doro to her face of deliberately distorting the facts, of malicious insinuation. Angrily he asked her why she always had to destroy everything, even in death! Now she had gone and spoilt even this sad day for him…”

A thought-provoking read, I wish it had been longer! In a practical sense, it made me never want to smell cut flowers again, and I certainly will make sure my pathetic short stories are password-protected. 

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

Monday, May 9, 2011

New Giveaway: Wicked Bugs!

Special thanks to Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill for the additional copy of Wicked Bugs by Amy Stewart.  I'm offering this as the next giveaway here, and the rules are below.  I am keeping the adorable little plush bug they sent with it...it's not often you can find a plush child's worm, way too cute! A bookworm, of course!  I rev'd the title on May 4, 2011 if you want to see what it's about!

Additionally, Martha Lawton was the winner of the West of Here giveaway that ended May 1, 2011.  She's been notified and the book has shipped.

So, to enter to win Wicked Bugs, please leave a comment below.  A random generator will pick one name on May 20, 2011 to get the brand-new, just released hardback title of Wicked Bugs, a nonfiction nature title.  The book is for US or Canadian followers only, and with your comment please leave contact info (email or GFC) so I can let you know.

Unless it Moves the Human Heart by Roger Rosenblatt

The Craft and Art of Writing

Roger Rosenblatt is a huge name in the world of writing.  He's written magazine columns, plays, essays, and books and is a master of language.  I've always enjoyed his articles in Time-he's a favorite of mine.  In this book he describes a semester of teaching several students to write, by having them experiment with different forms of fiction and poetry.  In an interview for his book, he describes the concepts he wanted to bring to the classroom to inspire his students:

 "In one instance, I closed the door and the sound of the closing door would be another sensory stimulus. Once I did it, then I saw that they launched into their work with an entirely different vocabulary and an entirely different zest and a feeling of themselves. Then I began to think, there are other things one can really do to teach one to write in a more sophisticated way. And I started to pay attention to such things. I started paying attention to [things like] the power of the noun, to using anticipation over surprise, imagination over invention, things like this that are not exactly nuts and bolts of writing but they are related and they work in the service of a larger goal." 
------------CSMonitor 2/6/2011

Being excited to read these slim guidebook, I was hoping to find ways to improve my own writing with useful advice.  I've already learned that I need to be more succinct and edit more carefully.  I appreciate what his purpose is, to help writers find humanity in their writing and go beyond the easiest cliches and visual images.  I'm sure the actual students that he taught enjoyed the class (I know I would have loved taking it), but reading about it second-hand, almost as if eavesdropping on the class, is incredibly disappointing. 

I'm not sure if it's because the dialogue (which must have been recorded for him to have so much detail?) sounds stilted or because the students sound artificial, but it just doesn't feel real.  Many times he'll ask a question of the class as a way to open a conversation, but often his advice came off as contrary to what he just stated.  It's almost as if it would have been simpler to say "there are no hard and fast rules to writing", because that's the message the book gives.  While the involved conversations and arguments in the classroom show intelligent students with a challenging teacher, hearing his interpretation of them and their work is annoying. 

I'm not sure who would most enjoy the book.  Perhaps for someone looking for motivation to write more experimentally, it would be useful.  But for those of us still working on the basics, it wasn't that helpful.  I know, I know....I'm setting myself up by saying that about such an esteemed writer.  It pretty much guarantees that this post will be full of typos and bad grammar. In any case, for a better experience, his book Making Toast is far more enjoyable and insightful.

Special thanks to Ecco for the Advanced Review Copy.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Before the Troubadour Exits by Jeffrey C. Alfier

In Jeffrey Alfier’s latest collection, "Before the Troubadour Exits", hawks survey a desolate landscape where solitary people play hide and seek with their own identity. The unforgiving desert, with its cloak of dust and haze, alternates between camouflaging and revealing the quiet souls who drive its empty roads. Using the sparest of prose, with close attention to the concrete visual elements, Alfier creates a vision that is stark and punishing while remaining moody and somehow dreamlike. While the drinks served to the locals may be watered down, the poems remain concentrated and tight.

In “No One Like You”, he frames the snapshot of a early traveler as he makes his journey, or possibly, his escape:

…Puddles he’ll step in
Will blur reflections of passerby,
Like rain-smeared addresses on
Unforwarded mail….

…In a predawn hour
He’ll hear sirens before alarm clocks
Go off and wonder who woke so early
On a Sunday just to die…

“To a Friend Gone Fugitive” is an appeal to return, a plea to close the distance that can appear because of loss, misunderstanding, or fear:

Listen: I know your gig has long decamped;
You’re on the bum, or lam, bad hours afoot-
Like both jokers shuffled into your deck.
Return to friends. No one breaks your heart here.
Welcomes may be shaky but seldom worse.

My favorite is “Fidelity”:

A man married four decades
To the same woman has broken
All biblical records for forgiveness –
Even makes Jesus yank his hair out….

Coming and going, he meets
His own wanted posters, each one
Aged 6 months beyond what he spies
In any mirror. You see, a man
Beholden that long always takes
The long roads home, but jaywalks
Fast when the ambient voices
Say jack him up, lock him down,
Frisk him hard for loneliness.

Phrases appear that are unforgettable because of their composition:

“…knowing the last man to quit that woman/became a chalk silhouette in a Winslow alley.”
“Coyotes thrive by abandoned campfires.”
“Patrons drink their alibis credible.”

The poems are stories that hint of soft hearts hidden behind layers of scar tissue-tough guys that still want to play make-believe, if only till the bar closes.  There's not many words depicting emotion, yet the absence itself implies a strong sense of feeling, bottled up perhaps, like in the bottles that line the bar.

Special thanks to Kindred Spirits Press for the Review Copy. 
It can be purchased at www.sprreview.com.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Between Nine and Nine by Leo Perutz

Translated by Thomas B. Ahrens and Edward T. Larkin

"He belongs to a lower form of the human species.  An occasional game of poker is the only intellectual activity I have observed in him, and even then he loses most of the time.  You don't know him, but I always had the notion-even before I had met him and long before I knew who he was: 'This mandrill actually walks more or less like a human'.  It wasn't out of spitefulness...but I was really surprised that he was so good at walking upright....Well, this mandrill is about to snatch Sonja from me."

Poor Stanislaus.  To hear him describe Georg Weiner, you'd think that Georg was the creepiest guy in the world.  Why on earth would Sonja fall in love with such a cad?  Actually, the problem is the socially-inept Stanislaus.  Arrogant yet completely ill at ease.  His cagey behavior makes some assume he's a thief, yet he pays his way.  Some think he's an incredibly smart intellectual, but his actions are childish.  All of this combine to create a narrative that is both cynical and sweet.

One thing is sure:  Stanislaus loves Sonja, to the best he can, given that 'love' is undefined for him.  Sonja for her part is scared to death of this suitor, who turns charm on and off, and leaves everyone a bit off kilter.

"I often told her, a woman shouldn't go to a cafe.  To see a woman, you should have to climb four flights of stairs and ring the doorball, your heart pounding.  And then you don't find her at home - you've come in vain.  It's not until you're going down the stairs, disappointed, that you feel that you love her.  But a woman whom you can find at a cafe whenever you feel like seeing her...declines in value and becomes commonplace."

Against Sonja's opposition and against his own awkwardness, Stanislaus has to find the money to take Sonja on a trip to compete with the wealthier Georg.  His attempts are whole-hearted, as he sees no problem with stealing or evading the police.  In fact, it's only in those frantic moments, jumping over roofs, that Stanislaus comes even close to his image of himself.

This complicated novel features other intriguing characters (Steffi and Sonja being two) that never play to type.  I did get confused a few times as to what was happening in the narrative: was it actual or imaginary?  Yet I'd quickly find my place in the context after a few sentences.  Written in 1918 in German, the story is timeless as a good underdog story never ages.  An excellent title for the Eastern European Reading Challenge!!!  It's part of the 'Studies in Austrian Literature, Culture, and Thought Translation Series' from Ariadne Press. 

Special thanks to Jorun with Ariadne Press for the Review Copy.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Wicked Bugs by Amy Stewart (nonfiction)

You'll more than likely find this title in the Nature section of your bookstore, but it could realistically be shelved under Horror.  This book is seriously scary.  In a breezy, light tone and pace, it describes all sorts of frightening details about insects, especially in terms of what they will do to you if you run across them.  Covering various continents, there's really no place you are safe from these tiniest of creatures-sure, they may not hunt you down exactly, but the odds are with them that one of their kin will be dining with (or on) you.

Flies, caterpillars, spiders:  the diseases they carry and their methods of transmission are all detailed, with anecdotal stories illustrating just how effective they can be.  The book is a sequel to Wicked Plants by the same author (which I haven't yet read), and it's extremely well-researched.  One section details early forms of biological warfare, when soldiers would hurl hornet's nests or scorpion-filled baskets over the city walls of their opposer, causing havoc and sickening many.  Another section explains why you should be a cat-person, as the diseases that rats, mice, and vermin still carry (the plague in the past) are easily able to sicken you. 

I made the mistake of reading this before bed.  I don't recommend that, as you'll find yourself convinced something is crawling in your sheets.  Despite the light-hearted presentation, the book does a serious service by showing just how interlinked species are, and how extinction of some animals or insects causes a disparity that often increases the danger of illness and infection.  The balance of habitats is essential to keep most of these bugs manageable.  Really, there is no such thing as a "small" bug in the living world as all factor in somehow. 

A great gift title, but I would probably hold back from sharing with children.  The chapters on bug reproduction are, um, disturbing and graphic.  Clearly, a bug's life is not always fun, and (spoiler alert!)the males usually end up dismembered and dead.  For the most part, females rule the insect world and males are their underlings and servants. 

In terms of criticism?  I find none except that I wish some areas were even more in depth, such as to know exactly why these insects behave the way they do.  However, the information given is accessible and never loses your interest as it might if it became too much like a scholarly article or textbook.  This is my favorite kind of nonfiction title, and it's already been devoured by two other members of my family.

Mention must be made of the incredible illustrations that accompany the text by Briony Morrow-Cribbs.  They are hand-drawn and stunning. 

Special thanks to Megan and Kelly at Algonquin for the Advance Review Copy. 
This title was released yesterday.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Broken Blue Line by Connie Dial

It's going to be difficult to avoid sounding over-enthusiastic for this novel.  Because seriously, it's very good.  I haven't read this tight of a police procedural in awhile...years actually.  Several factors make it stand out-hopefully I can articulate these enough to explain why this is a great book.  So what's it about? A group of experienced detectives work with the Internal Affairs department to stop a crime spree organized by several lower-ranking officers. These have created a gang that stockpiles weapons and stolen goods and seems unhesitant to use violence against innocent civilians. Los Angeles is a complicated setting for such an investigation, as the freeway traffic and distance between key

locations serves to protect the gang and allow them an easy way to disappear into the city.

The Broken Blue Line has a complex plot with plenty of twists, yet the characters are built well enough to make it interesting.  Many novels, especially a crime novel, sacrifice plot for character buildup or vice versa.  This had an interesting balance of 'regular' policemen solving a crime: no hot shot renegade appears to solve the multi-faceted drama, but rather ordinary and somewhat average guys work together.  Of course, there's the usual friction between top level brass and the detectives in the street, but the author doesn't let that sidetrack the plot.  Best of all, even towards the end, when I usually can guess what will happen, I was totally surprised.  This is because the author, Connie Dial, doesn't go overboard in foreshadowing events, so the tension is propelled forward in a concise, riveting pace that doesn't give anything away.

Another factor is that while the story takes place in Los Angeles, there is no celebrity angle, nor reference to the cliche LA stories that appear in movies or books (no Russian mafia, no Japanese Yakuza, or Chinese triad).  The story is far more realistic and believable, most likely because the author is a former LAPD commanding officer with 27 years on the job.  The level of detail and protocol is precise, and I appreciated more about the details of the officers level of dedication.

I think I especially liked it because, unlike many female authors who write crime, she doesn't make the story all about one fashionably dressed female character who butts heads with her ignorant male coworkers.  In fact, for the most part, the main characters are all male.  Three women, significant to the plot appear, but none are typical.  The Patricia Cornwell books annoyed me, years ago, because it was always her main female character in conflict with her male colleagues in every single book.  The Sue Grafton novels feature some interesting plots, but the wise-guy female character seems to depend more on wit and cutesy tricks than actual detective work.  Then there are the ones who depend on layering their narrative with name-brands and emotional baggage that they feel are essential to make a believable female character.  Lastly, there are some who are incredibly vulgar and/or gory, creating a book more known for being explicit than for a great plot.  This story takes the male/female conflict out of the picture and makes it a complete non-issue.

It's a fast-paced read, with a satisfying conclusion.  There were a few elements that distracted me: one minor and probably petty observation was that most of the characters have names of six letters and are very bland sort of names.  I kept getting Connor and Cullen mixed up, and other similarities in the names of characters was a minor annoyance.  At one point, there seemed to be a minor plot discrepancy that stopped me in my tracks going, huh?  Lastly, the lead detective, Mike Turner, while wise on the job is especially knuckleheaded in his relationship with his ex-girlfriend who plays mind games endlessly.  But in all, I enjoyed the little bit of escape it provided, and not having to dive into a bunch of gore was refreshing.  It'd be a great movie!

Special thanks to the Permanent Press for the Advance Review Bound Galley.