Monday, December 3, 2012

Kid's books for Gifting...and One Tech Toy

Taking a detour from poetry and fiction, here's some kid's books that have been a huge hit at our house lately...requested nightly, at times more than once.  And this are actually the kind you don't mind reading over and over.  Need a gift? These are vetted and approved by a picky kid...

First off, the all-time favorite for my five year old is Crustacean Vacation, by Brian Benoit,where a crabby family goes to the shore.  It's full of one-liners and clever lines, and not a single one fails to amuse.  What is Grandma up to?  What happens when little crabs (crablets) meet the infamous arcade game, the Claw? It's simple: "A gamewith a crane that both scuttles and grabs, Was plainly designed for the mind of a crab". Spoiler alert: as in real life, no one wins The Claw.

What about the Luge de DeLuge? The shark that runs that tattoo parlor?
Next is Scaredy Squirrel, a cute creature I met at the library (we ended up finding a stuffed animal plush version!) that has various stories to tell.  He deals with his rampant paranoia with checklists and worst-case scenarios, comforting himself with the fact that "when all else fails, panic".

My son enjoyed him so much that we looked for more by the same author, Melanie Watt.  We found Chester, an annoying and bossy cat that thinks he's an artist. He's clearly gunning for a Caldecott.

Watt also wrote You're Finally Here, that was so popular my son took it to Kindergarten for the class to read.  At this point, anything she writes appears to be a winner in our book.
An unexpected surprise was from Lane Smith, always a great author, but in a new snarky direction with It's A Book. Perfect for kids who like their techie gadgets and a parent will laugh at the hidden lesson.
Going on two years now, Shark Vs. Train by Chris Barton is still hugely popular.  It tells the story of two boys trying to determine who will win at any number of contests: shark or train?  Which would be the best ride at the fair? You decide.
Lastly, it's been on the blog before, but I adore any and all Dahlov Ipcar. These are the heirloom books I intend to keep forever. The latest is Stripes and Spots, employing her usual milky colors and dark backgrounds that look anything but childish. Our all-time favorite is The Cat at Night, followed by One Horse Farm.  Both are unique, elegant, and the most artistic of all kid's books out there.


Hopefully these can be helpful in finding some great books. I could make a list of lousy ones too but that'd get me in trouble.  Just avoid celebrity-related children's books (blurgh) or the tired old series that keep getting churned out ad nauseum.
Special thanks to Islandport Press for the Ipcar and Benoit books.  The rest were titles I purchased or borrowed from the library. 
One more thing: for the ultimate in kid fun, we bought my son a Leapfrog Explorer when he was four.  Now he has an LeapPad.  These are ideal for trips, quiet time, etc and he's even doing little kid algebra and it's helped his reading.  Check these out! The games are expensive but well worth the money! The LeapPad is only slightly more than the Explorer but does more, like a mini-Ipad. You can get them for around $80 with holiday sales. (Not a paid spokesperson!)


Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, Fourth Edition

consider it a treasure map!

Slavko Mihalic, Aleksandar Petrov, and Ferida Durakovic may not be household names in the US, but if you’re a fan of global poetry, you may be delighted to discover their work.  Consider them treasures to find as you explore a new treasure map for poetry enthusiasts: The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics has released a new fourth edition.  The time that has passed since the third edition appeared  (in 1993) has meant dramatic changes in the political and geographical atmosphere, and this new edition explores a host of new names to research and discover.

Given that I prefer to focus on Eastern European and Russian literature, I decided to explore the entries for nations that didn’t even exist or were brand new entities when the third edition came out.  First, some general information about the book:  this is not an encyclopedic collection of poets.  There are no entries for Whitman or Dickinson or Ginsberg.  Rather, it focuses on the literary terms and styles of poetry, including sections for the poetry specific to certain nations and cultures. 

The sections on smaller, new nations are comprehensive and complete, containing a bit of the political scene but focusing more on the influences and poets before and after major crises occurred.
From Slovakia:  Mila Haugova, Jan Buzassy, and Daniel Hevier are listed as contemporary poets, and reference is made to a 2010 release “Six Slovak Poets” (available here: that promises to explore the seriousness and humor unique to the region. Yes, I must have it!

Slovenia:  Gregor Podlagar, Maja Vidmar, and Lucija Stupica.
Croatia:  Slavko Mihalic, Daniel Dragojevic, and Drago Stambuck

Bosnia:  Abdulah Sidran, whose poetry the editors remarked as “imbued with a sadness resulting from his perception of disharmony in the world.”  Given his locale, the exploration of this poet should be fascinating while likely tragic.  The editors state, “His poems give the impression of settling accounts with life.” Comparing his work to those of the same region but differing political bases should make for a fascinating study.  It would also be interesting to use the Encyclopedia to compare these contemporary poets with early 20th century poets in the same regions suffering other types of oppression.
Czech Republic:  Petr Borkovec writes about the “upheaval in Czech culture” that occurs with the disintegration of political lines while the peoples and culture remain in static.

Serbia:  Novica Tadic and Aleksandar Petrov
Albania:  Dritero Agolli and Ismail Kadare (also known for his fiction).  Fun fact:  despite chaos in the region and the intellectual suppression of dictator Hoxha, “verse collections…account for more than 50% of literary output” (31). An astonishing amount, considering that an expert in poetics in the US, Maggie Balistreri, estimates about 2100 books of poetry are published in the US per year ( while according to Wiki (I know, sorry!) the remainder of published works runs well over 300,000.

Another worthy mention is that this version lists useful websites for further research, notably The Poetry International Web Net ( that allows you to search by country.
I think my only disappointment was that Belarus didn't have it's own entry, as it was combined with the Russian section, and that makes for the lack of mention of Valzhyna Mort, an amazing poet and ardent supporter of freedom in Belarus.
But, to it's credit, there's a great section on Flarf.
Special thanks to Casey LaVela for the Advance Review Copy.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Giveaway! Three Books, All New Releases!

It's been awhile, so how about a new giveaway?  These are all new releases to keep you busy through fall and winter.

The package:

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison, from Algonquin Books (hardback):
Next, The Island of Last Truth by Flavia Company, from Europa Editions (paperback):
Last, The Spy Lover by Kiana Davenport, from Thomas & Mercer (paperback):
Here's the deal:  be a follower of this blog (if not already) and enter by leaving a response in the comment box for this post.  Include name and some form of contact information.  If you want extra entries, Tweet or FB the post and include the URL in another comment on this same post.  A random winner (US ONLY) will be selected December 1, 2012 and have 72 hours to respond to my email.  After that, another winner will be chosen.  All three books are brand new and ready to ship.
Special thanks to publishers for sending extra copies!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Half in Shade, Judith Kitchen, Coffee House Press

originally published in "The Quivering Pen" 11/7/2012 with link

Half in Shade: Family, Photography, and Fate 
By Judith Kitchen 
Coffee House Press 
Reviewed by Amy Henry 

I became aware of a kind of triangulation: me, the photograph, and its subject(s). From temporal advantage, I found I could supply what my subjects would never know—the future. I found myself in a kind of time warp in which I knew more than my subject, but less about my subject.  My interest was not in uncovering a hidden narrative, or in enhancing a known story, or in revealing a specific character.  I wanted to ponder how each individual life was/is framed by circumstance, how we are sometimes called to act, and sometimes to merely reflect.
Judith Kitchen is going to convince you to dump your digital camera in the nearest garbage bin and head to the attic in search of boxes of old photos.  Because while technology now permits us to take better photos and delete the unflattering ones, it has stripped us of a heritage found only in the outtakes, the unflattering depictions, and the failed photographs that never make it into the family album.  Her collection of essays, Half In Shade: Family, Photography, and Fate, takes an intensive look at the intent behind 20th-century photography in general, with specific reflections on what any photo can tell us.  Hint: it’s usually more than we can “see.”  It makes us ask, before we click the shutter, what are we trying to preserve? 

Kitchen has researched scores of family photos and the notes attached to them, piecing together ideas both actual and fanciful about those depicted.  At times using a magnifying glass and at times using only her imagination, she studies the details of the photos that usually get lost, even if they are of someone we care deeply about. She notes that just the way someone folds their hands, or how their clothing is adjusted can be revealing about their character and life story. The placement of individuals within a group shot also can reveal friendships and feuds, and she seems to find the most telling of details in pictures that are considered the least important. 

Fortunately, she also shows us the photos that she dissects.  In one, “Double Exposure,” she studies a forgettable photograph of an old shop.  She goes beyond simply detailing the tin ceiling and phone booths in the back that a casual glance would miss. Instead, she notices the posture (one man had a bum leg), the status implied by a gold watch chain, and the contents of the cases.  Is it an apothecary?  Sure enough, it’s a drug store in Chicago in 1912.  Explaining what she knows about the characters in the picture, she then proceeds to play with the imagination…where is that man going, the one outside the door reflected in the glass, as he strides by on that sunny day?  Will he be in the War soon to commence? Kitchen can’t say, we can never know, and she leaves him to “disappear below the surface of the page.” 

The photographs and their notes, along with family diaries, are linked together by time as well.  Placing each person within their community and family, she also looks to place them in their geographical location in concert with the time period they were living.  This is most poignant in “Where They Came From, Where They Went,” leading us to contemplate her distant kin in Bavaria. A 1937 photograph shows a boy with his parents sitting formally at a table, fully facing the camera with frozen smiles. With the knowledge of what would soon come to pass in that region, Kitchen’s perspective on the photograph becomes a study of personalities more so than faces.  She notices details in what is on the table, how they are dressed, and what these tell us, before she then asks the reader the big question implied:
What will happen to them all?’s hard to decide if cousin Karl’s son is called Friedrich or Wilhelm. And what will it matter in a few short years when he will be called nothing at all, when there will be no one to call him? If he comes back, he will come back to a diminished thing…If he comes back, he will come with all he has seen clouding his eyes, carrying that lockstep method he’s learned to look away. If the camera catches him, it will catch the phantom of the man he might have been, staring emptily into a garden gone to seed.

Of course, it’s all conjecture…we have no idea what really happens.  But it leads us to ask, as she does, “What were their real lives? All the maybes hurl themselves at me.”  The “maybes” are investigated in this collection in a journalistic fashion, with as much research as to factual evidence as possible before Kitchen inserts her own speculation.  The overlapping of names and relations, expanding westward across the United States and back again, tells a story of both a family and a nation. 

Rather surprisingly, it can leave even the least nostalgic of readers wishing they had paid more attention.  The downside of film in the early years was that it was only for special occasions, so few photographs existed.  Then, when film photography became a household medium, everyone took gads of photos.  It often took many shots to ensure one would turn out, and many of the excess were left in boxes to deteriorate or get shuffled through family members (ironically, most people find them difficult to throw away, perhaps sensing value).  Kitchen believes that after an amount of time has passed, it’s these uncelebrated shots that are most telling. 

However, with today’s technology, digital photography seems more efficient, as it eliminates waste and offers editing options.  If desired, only the “ideal” shots are printed out.  Yet, ultimately, this editing capability can deprive us of the secret and flawed stories that may tell the most about the past we are intending to document.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Brenner and God by Wolf Haas

Translated from the German by Annie Janusch

“Personally, I prefer to look on the positive side of life these days. Not just Murder He Wrote all the time, and who-got-who with a bullet, a knife, an extension cord, or what else I don’t know. Me, I’m far more interested in the nice people now, the quiet ones, the normals, the ones who you’d say—they lead their regular lives, abide by the law, don’t mistake themselves for the good lord when they get up in the morning, just nice tidy lives.

Look at Kressdor’s chauffeur, for example.”

That chauffeur is Brenner, or Herr Simon, a former police officer now assigned to be the personal driver of a two-year-old little girl whose wealthy and high-profile parents need to make sure she’s safe from being kidnapped. It seems a lowly task, except that right off, Brenner admits that his most interesting converations in life so far have been with Helena, the babbling child, and he’s paid well for what he finds comforting and solid work. His biggest challenge appears to be how to sneak Helena a chocolate bar without her parents finding out. But, it’s this very chocolate bar that gets him in trouble, because in purchasing it, he lowers his guard, just the once, and she is taken.

Brenner is a brooder, and his instinct is to tear himself apart with guilt, and go back to figuring out how to find her. Now, there’s no shortage of brooding, ex-cops turning into vengeful detectives in modern fiction, but Brenner is compelling because he’s brought to light by the omniscient narrator of the novel, who lets us in on Brenner’s inner struggles. He’s suffered recent depression, gets really excited about clean sheets, seems an linguistic expert in dialects, adores Jimi Hendrix, and can’t keep his eye off the clock…counting the moments since she’s gone missing and hoping against the worst. And we learn why he loves to drive:

“…Because that’s one of the many advantages of a car. You can listen to music in private, you can enjoy nature without exertion, and when in despair, you can let out a cry.”

As the reader learns about Brenner, and watches him search, they soon begin to wonder about the narrator as well. Because this isn’t some neutral observer: this narrator is an in-your-face and aggressive voice who tells the reader to “listen up” and “pay attention”. He’s clearly on Brenner’s side even when the kidnapping plot gets messy:

“Between the seventy-fourth and the eighty-eighth hours, Brenner did some first-rate investigative work that was never fully appreciated afterward….a detective can’t be praised for everything he did right. But because everyone glossed right over it, I’d like to at least touch on it briefly. I have to say it was brilliant... […] He achieved peak detective form there, and there’s only one thing to be said: hats off.”

For those who enjoy detective novels, this is no procedural. Much of the actual work of solving the crime is left out in favor of developing the plot: mainly, what is going on with Helena’s parents, an abortion doctor and a mega-developer, that may be related to her disappearance. Brenner’s musings on both of their occupations gets far more time than chasing down forensic evidence, which keeps this from feeling like so many popular crime novels that appear to be repeats of CSI episodes, where the story is lost in the jargon.

My only minor qualm about the story was the curious introduction of one character, a police officer named Peinhaupt. He’s all set up to be a prime character, and drawn with incredible detail. I was surprised to see that his character sort of vanishes in the action of the mystery, only to reappear later in a minor scene. While this is part of a series of books about Brenner, the seventh in fact, it is the first Brenner novel to appear in English. I’m curious if Peinhaupt might have had a role in earlier Brenner novels that might explain his appearance here, or if he may be in line for a series of his own.

Time, in minutes, hours, and days, plays a huge factor in the plot…the narrator and Brenner both dwell on every hour that goes by (pay attention, you’re reminded). And while Brenner searches and the narrator speculates, these time stamps are the real events that make up this fast-paced story:

“Then the worst thing that can happen to a detective happened to Brenner. Fifty-seven hours after the girl’s disappearance, he became innocent.”

Special thanks to the German Book Office for the Review Copy.

Wolf Haas

Additionally, Haas is the author of another spectacular novel translated into English, The Weather Fifteen Years Ago, reviewed here: It's not a detective novel, but until the other Brenner novels are translated, enjoy!

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul, translated from the Danish

Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken

Okay…there’s the unreliable narrator. Annoying but usually enlightening. But what about a protagonist who is an unlikeable narrator? One that has you, more than once, considering tossing the book across the room? Well, meet Bess. She’s awful. Ghastly. A terrible woman in so many ways I can’t even list them all.

She’s married to Halland, who is murdered immediately as the book begins. It’s a shock, because the brief time he’s mentioned makes him seem like a decent guy. And yet, there’s the sense that we, the reader, may be grieving more than Bess. She’s a cold fish, and the first big question is, is she really just a brat or is this grief overwhelming her? She’s left her child for this man…but she worries about what her search engine may contain. She kisses her neighbor before Halland’s body is cold. She’s appalling, and yet:

"I loved reading and had always thought of it as a refuge. I even read the labels on bottles, if only to keep myself occupied on trains or in restaurants. I read in bed at night. If I lay awake for more than two minutes after switching off the light, I switched it on again to avoid lapsing into thought. To avoid thinking."

Wait. That’s exactly what I do. Can it be that I have more in common with Bess than I’d like to think? As the story unfolds, author Juul makes us ask this question over and over again. Subtly, of course. Because no one wants to admit who they are, deep inside, not even to the character in a novel. That’s what makes Bess so compelling. She’s unlikeable, but then again, so is virtually everyone in her little world. She seems to have no real connection with another human…did she even have one with Halland? While she has lovely flashbacks of him, how tainted are they by grief and how real are they? Was he as messed up as everyone else she deals with? There’s a hint that he was seriously ill…but little to tell us how long she’d been caring for him. Was she at all?

She gets many visitors, all who seem to point her to her own failures. Her ex-husband, her daughter, neighbors…all seem to show up and make her look bad. Who is the mirror and who is the reality? Why are all the reflections so skewed? Why does she say that she “experienced the world with provisos”? What holds her back? And, then again, lest it be forgotten, who killed Halland?

Pia Juul’s writing is never dull…she also throws in quotes from everyone from Eugene Ionesco to Charles Dickens to Hans Christian Anderson. The pithy little quotes fuel a mood for the chapter that they precede, and yet…are they steering the reader in the correct direction? It’s significant that she also has a quote from Agatha Christie, who would have winked at the way nearly every character mentioned could have been the killer. And is that Bess flirting with the detective again?

At one point, Bess craves the simplicity of a television crime, not real life.

"All I needed for happiness was a detective series….Simplicity was a virtue. First a murder, nothing too bestial. Then a police inspector. Insights into his or her personal problems, perhaps. Details about the victim. Puzzles and anomalies. Lines of investigations. Clues. Detours. Breakthrough. Case solved. Nothing like real life.

The puzzle attracted me—the solution left me cold. Nothing like real life."

There it is again…that perplexing bit of humanity (who hasn’t been soothed by a rerun of Law & Order or Inspector Frost??) that makes Bess almost likeable again.

Peirene Press has produced yet another startlingly sharp novel. It’s the first of theirs that I wanted to throw, that had me arguing out loud over a character's bad decisions and pouting at their lack of response, but one that immediately pulled me back in.  Who killed Halland is only one question that will arise....

Special thanks to Meike for the Review Copy.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Short stories from Aleksandar Hemon and Vladimir Nabokov

Love and Obstacles by Aleksandar Hemon

Nabokov’s Dozen by Vladimir Nabokov

I purchased Love and Obstacles after seeing a bit of an interview of Hemon a few months ago. One of the blurbs inside from the Washington Post stated, “Reviewers find it difficult to resist comparing Aleksandar Hemon to Nabokov, since both men [have a] preternatural facility in their second, acquired language….” Frankly, I didn’t catch what they were referring to, completely missing the point on “acquired language”. Immediately, I ordered the Nabokov short story collection too, just to read both and see how they related. The fact that Hemon is terribly handsome never influenced my purchasing decision. It was his voice.

Reading Hemon’s book first, I found myself constantly checking to see the genre, that little word on the back, again and again. Was this really fiction? It felt so autobiographical, because several parallels exist between some of the protagonist’s in the varying stories. Links to Sarajevo, the immigrant experience for a Bosnian in the US, and the writer’s experience all felt like direct references to Hemon himself. His writing is humorous, uncanny in the showing the little details as they relate to the whole, and almost eerie in how the violence of the past leaves a person intact and moving forward, even when it seems like it’s all destructive.

By far, my favorite story is “American Commando”. In it, he combines several elements: a teacher attempting to teach English to a classroom of Bosnian boys by using the tune “Catch a Falling Star”, Stallone’s Rambo archetype, playground warfare by nine-year-old boys, an obsessive film student, and a boy swimming far past the view of his parents, out into the deep sea. It all comes together in what can only be called stunning. The theme of it is a film student wanting to chronicle his escape from Bosnia to the US:

“I told her the stories of my life, embellishing here, flatly making things up there, for I frankly wanted to help her write a good script and get the funding for her project. I even meekly nudged her toward a short film in which I could play myself in various situations from my life—one of those brainy postmodern setups everybody likes so well because it has something to do with identity—but she gently rejected the idea. I flirted with her too, for, as everybody knows, the job of the writer is to seduce his readers.”

So, for her, he talks. And talks. He tells of the “Garden War” that he and his buddies vehemently engaged in, which perplexes her as she sees the focus of the ‘real’ war, one that killed many of those boys later, as more relevant. The war was fought over a patch of playground and later over the rightness of the “Workers” to build a utility shed. The boys called themselves “The Insurgents” and stopped at nothing—but being just nine and ten, the soldiers didn’t get far. Yet their urgency never waned:

“...for us, the war was elating, the freedom inherent in erasure, the absolute righteousness of our cause—we loved it all….And the life of stealth and deception, the feeling that we knew far more than the people around us.”

The story winds through present and past, and even this “writer” who knew so much on the playground is still surprised by details of his own family that the film student had gleaned. Important things that never occurred to him while in battle. And that other battle, the one that left the real Sarajevo in shreds, comes into play too.

Other stories in his collection have a similar feel, and “The Noble Truths of Suffering” also nudges heavily towards what I imagine is Hemon’s real life. In it, he meets a famous American author at a Bosnian dinner party and tries to figure out what is behind the famous name. Ultimately, he asks the author if he’s read his story, “Love and Obstacles”, when it was in the New Yorker. (It actually was: returning to back flap, is this really fiction???)

The author is more complicated than our narrator expects, one claiming to be Buddhist while writing war stories. He even comes over for lunch. And while this author never becomes pals with that author, he still looks for clues in his work, to see if his story is ever hinted at in the work of the other. The contrast of an aging (washed up?) author with smart-ass Bosnian author is well-crafted. It made me keep reading it in wonderment of what Hemon was getting at about writing, books, and literature in general. Is it disguising his personal fears at becoming successful without substance? Quantity without quality? (IMHO, not a chance).

But back to that blurb…the one that mentioned Hemon with Nabokov. Still, I was clueless what that meant, until I went to write about Hemon’s book and found no note of a translator. Surely, English couldn’t be his second language…could it? And what did that have to do with Nabokov, the Russian great? I threw a question out online and got several responses that stated Nabokov also wrote in English, not Russian. For both, English was a second language and makes both of their works that much more stunning. Their grasp is not amateur but surpasses most any English writer I can name.

Reading Nabokov’s Dozen was in many ways, then, similar to Hemon’s. Subject matter, time periods, style, and voice all felt different (Hemon is snarky and fun, Nabokov a teensy bit arrogant and above the masses), and yet they are united by stunning word usages and pictures of humanity, both the humor and the suffering.

Nabokov’s Dozen features two that are considered autobiographical, “O Mademoiselle” and “First Love”; the rest are pictures of rather simple events made complicated and deeper by the ideas Nabokov hints at. In “Spring in Fialta”, his main character meets up occasionally with an old lover. But far beyond any character studies is just how he describes things:

Regarding a train trip: “…with that reckless gusto peculiar to trains in mountainous country, [doing] its thundering best to collect throughout the night as many tunnels as possible.” Later he talks about the “elbows” of the train tiring, humanizing the transportation that appears so frequently in his works. True, he could have said “connecting rods” but where’s the art in that? Train travel in his stories is elegant, life-changing, and ultimately, far more than just a way to cover distance. Much of what happens in the story set in just a day in Fialta isn’t directly said: he alludes to it and lets you connect the dots. And when you do, it’s with a sharp blow to the chest.

In “Signs and Symbols”, he uncovers the complete irrelevancy of much of what makes the human exist: “Aunt Rosa, a fussy, angular, wild-eyed old lady, who had lived in a tremulous world of bad news, bankruptcies, train accidents, cancerous growths—until the Germans put her to death, together with all the people she had worried about.” He only infers how useless all that trembling worry became. Throughout this story, the images can be read different ways…in fact it’s the basis of an entire anthology ( that I am coveting from Continuum Books.

I loaned the Nabokov book to someone who felt understanding the “simple” stories was too much work—too complicated to read for pleasure. (Groan.) He’s not spare, but at the same time, it’s not like he’s being paid by the word. His usage is detailed but perfectly so, each word adding depth to what only appears simple.

“First Love” is sweet, with its image of Biarritz and the vacation of a wealthy family. Of course the boy will fall in love with the little French girl, and in his mind, the “gold coin that I assumed would pay for our elopement” would take them far away from her bourgeois parents to someplace more in keeping with his family’s wealth. But despite expecting that, knowing that it will come to an end, the story is still fresh. Retelling it, he bemoans his inability to remember the name of the little girl’s dog, and that failure of memory troubles him. Somehow, that simple loss changes his explanation of the whole affair, and when he can remember it, the ending naturally can be put to rest.

Reading these, I was reminded of the enjoyment of short stories, the way you can be transported, albeit briefly, into another place. I hadn’t felt this enthused since reading some of Tim Winton’s short stories that have a more earthy yet still compelling glance at humanity.

Friday, July 13, 2012

San Francisco and the Bay Area, Photography by Dick Evans

The Haight-Ashbury Edition

Foreword and Introduction Commentary by Ben Fong-Torres

"GG Bridge
      Not the usual angles"

This comment by photographer Dick Evans serves as a theme for exploring his book, San Francisco and the Bay Area-The Haight-Ashbury Edition, because his focus is not on the expected and typical presentations of this gorgeous city by the bay. San Francisco has an image in pop culture that focuses on the Golden Gate Bridge, the hippie scene from the 60s in the Haight, and occasionally the Victorian “Painted Ladies” that often serve as a backdrop for commercials and movies. How accurate is that image versus the reality?

The beauty is undeniable in either case, and Evans does have a few shots of those iconic places. But more than that, he explores the lesser-known images that ultimately have a deeper connection to the viewer simply because they are more unusual. Instead of distancing himself and shooting those cityscape skylines (where you could move a few buildings and have virtually any city), he is up close and partaking in the action instead of simply observing. He gets street-level, with shots of everyone from tourists to bums, and shows them in a variety of lights: sometimes ironic, sometimes silly, but always magnetic. It’s less clinical, and more personal, like discovering an old box of photos you suddenly find of distant family.

Ben Fong-Torres writes in the Foreword, “What you get is a strong sense of the neighborhood’s roots; its unending interest in artistic expression as part of the streetscape.” This is another factor that makes the photographs unique: they serve to document the artistic interaction that the city itself has with the art community, priding itself on promoting street art rather than eradicating it. Thus, Banksy can be found over Broadway, and nearly every surface has an element of art included. It makes for a strange juxtaposition: one trendy mom pushes a designer stroller up a street while gothic and frightening faces peer out from Howl. What does that baby see, while mom is chatting about the grocery list for Whole Foods? Images from nightmares? Or simply images of the neighborhood? Because over and over it seems that these shots reveal how multi-dimensional the city as a whole is, as well as each neighborhood, such as the Haight. It’s sort of a circle back to the individuals who participate in the daily life here.

Some photographs feature the same neighborhood at differing times of day, which is a simple trick to give a place a greater sense of depth. Yet, Evans use of light and shadow seems to reveal more than just a different image, but almost a different mood. They show variations between quiet and melancholic to blustery and loud, with moments of panic and goofiness thrown in as well. That one place can have all those feelings gives it an organic feel with an almost discernible pulse.

My favorite is CAL SURPLUS, a chalky storefront that is boarded up with bright cyan paint. The mind immediately registers surplus as excess, yet the closed store doesn’t follow through—there is nothing to purchase or see. What is the surplus here? Or is Evans gently hinting at California in general, with vast attributes but often operating at a bare minimum? The irony of the street scene is implicit.

Another  great shot is EVOLUTION AND THE KHARMANN GHIA, featuring the iconic car in pale yellow, classic and curvy, parked in front of a large wall mural featuring abstract art in the colors of jewels. They don’t fit together—the car looks almost bashful while the art intimidates it from up above, yet it tells a story of time and change. The scene simply wouldn’t work with any other car or any other mural.

The biggest surprise is the picture entitled WHERE BEAT WAS BORN, showing the Beat Museum on Broadway. It looks implausibly banal and institutional compared to the street art that surrounds it, more like a Planet Hollywood than the location of a historical literary site. Evans seems to capture a point where a viewer has to ask, whose art? How does one decide which artistic vision gets exposure in the Haight? Is it enough to make the attempt at some sort of intriguing image, or is there a standard somehow required? Because as the photos show, you just sort of know, intuitively, what fits and what doesn’t. How does that work in real-time? How much involvement does the city and neighborhood have in keeping the Haight-Ashbury from descending into theme-park placidity?

Enjoyable as an art book, I can’t help but think it would also be useful to those involved with city planning to see, demonstrated and documented herein, what goes right when art is freed from traditional venues and is allowed to interact with the community. The only disappointment was the cover, which is of a mural featuring musicians Jerry Garcia, Jimi Hendrex, and Jim Morrison.  The likeness of each isn't so great, and something about it initially put me off.  Yet, the key is remembering that the point of the photograph is the mural's placement, showing neighborhood history right on the street, with the iconic faces likely an everyday view for residents.  Getting past that, one can appreciate that these are no ordinary streets.
Side note: I also found a new neighborhood for my dream home, Belvedere Cove, which is clearly out of my budget but still tops my current wish list! I could seriously drink some coffee watching that view! Stunning.

Special thanks to Rare Bird Lit for the Review Copy.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Pure by Andrew Miller

Jean-Baptiste Baratte is a modern man, well-versed in Voltaire and ready to leave his peasant upbringing behind. Eager to display his engineering talents, he meets the minister at Versailles to receive his first significant appointment. Confident, composed, although a bit cocky, he really can’t foresee any challenge his enlightened education can’t overcome.

But, all his plans of illustrious success are somewhat hampered by the assignment he receives, one that is couched in a veiled threat. His job will be to demolish a dangerously aged Medieval church as well as removing the entire cemetery attached to it, on the Rue de Les Innocents. The minister explains,

It is poisoning the city. Left long enough, it may poison not just local shopkeepers but the king himself. The king and his ministers.

Yes, my lord.

It is to be removed.


Destroyed. Church and cemetery. The place is to be made sweet again. Use fire, use brimstone. Use whatever you need to get rid of it.

Given such a grotesque assignment, he quickly realizes that the challenge lies in more than just removing bodies. The task itself is monumental, given the crowded city and the few who wish to work on such a gory task. Baratte hesitates to begin, and as he settles in to his new job, he finds avoidance is his first impulse. What better  time to buy a new suit and get drunk? A fashionable pistachio green suit that is purchased by trading in his father’s dark classic suit is a symbolic gesture that sets the scene for his new undertaking, and his new pal Armand, organ player at the Church, shows him exactly what and how to drink in order to forget the dead he’ll soon be faced with.

Thus, the novel begins, with Baratte and Armand and several other characters dealing with the sentimental and awkward removal of a beloved church. Each character is fully developed, and fascinating in the way they interact. Besides the intriguing plot, just seeing the ensemble of unlikely individuals become close-knit among grave circumstances makes the narrative surprisingly enjoyable. Virtually everyone changes in some way, and none more than Baratte.

But are his ambitions what they were? Are they, for example, less ambitious? And if so, what has replaced them? Nothing heroic, it seems. Nothing to brag of. A desire to start again, more honestly. To test each idea in the light of experience. To stand as firmly as he can in the world’s fabulous dirt; live among uncertainty, mess, beauty. Live bravely if possible. Bravery will be necessary, he has no doubt of that. The courage to act. The courage to refuse.

Given his thoughts above, you may imagine the fate of the pistachio suit.

The story is unique and clever, and astonishingly fast-paced. I’m not normally a fan of the historical fiction genre, and I’m completely unfamiliar with this period in French history, but I was completely absorbed. However, I have to mention, in hopes of assisting others, that some reviews of the book (most notably the New York Times) seem to imply a supernatural element, of vampires and some sort of wolf-spirit. I didn’t get that at all. One strong wind was described as howling like a wolf, but that’s it. Two well-preserved bodies are inexplicably uncovered in the removal, but no indication or allusion is made to them of being vampires. So, while there is madness and community resistance to Baratte’s assignment, there’s nothing that feels otherworldly about the story.

Special thanks to Europa Editions for the Advance Review Copy.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick, review and giveaway

"I still ask myself sometimes late at night, about what happened, how it all turned out, about the life I've led, you know. Everything. I ask myself the same questions they ask me, these people who've only heard about it, who weren't even around when it all took place.  What happened and why did it have to happen in the way it did?"

Long before we identify the narrator, as readers we find ourselves asking those same questions, even though we know it is 'just' a story, set in Brownsburg, Virginia in 1948. This small town feels familiar--you can imagine driving through it and stopping for soda on a long car trip.  Goolrick describes it precisely, from the simple customs of returning home each day for lunch to the evenings where families sat on porches listening to the single radio station playing.  In some places, it felt reminiscent of Scout and Boo's neighborhood in To Kill a Mockingbird, or as a less-jaded version of The Sound and the Fury.  The almost numbing perfection of homes and streets creates a sort of unexpected's not readily apparent where or when the inevitable conflict will appear in the story.

In any case, the town setting is almost a game board of potential friction, and when Goolrick adds his complicated characters to the mix, he enriches the story in varying layers.  There are seven greatly significant characters (I'm avoiding spoilers here, so I'm going to be as cryptic as possible) that each could carry the novel on their own, as they are so unique and unexpected.  Each could be a subject for study in the subtext of the overall story.

Charlie Beale is a newcomer to the town, quickly buying up land while working in a butcher shop.  He becomes very close to a married couple with a precocious little boy, Sam.  Sam finds a nearly mythic figure in Charlie Beale, and idolizes him immediately.  Charlie settles into this new town with every advantage and a mysterious box of money.  What could go wrong?

Things do go wrong, but not in the ways I was predicting.  I thought I knew where the story was headed and my assumptions led me astray, but I think Goolrick intended to mess a bit with what we may be expecting in this sort of story. 

In creating the fictional city, Goolrick worked in all-too-real issues that his characters were facing (the budding resistance to traditional gender roles and race relations) so that each of their stories felt authentic and fully developed. Beyond these issues, the novel itself, a simple story made up of complicated people, pushes us to consider the drama on our own terms.  Exactly at what point do you cut off a friendship that appears doomed?  If everyone is lying, how do you find the strength to tell the truth? How do you decide when to step away from a problem and turn your back?  Are you complicit if you don't?

Special thanks to Julia Bowen of Algonquin Books for the Review Copy.

Enter to win the hardcover final of the book, just released last week, by leaving a comment below.  A winner will be selected randomly on July 14, 2012 to receive the book.  Please leave contact info in comment.  US only.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Life of an Unknown Man by Andrei Makine (French translation)

Translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan

“He pours himself another whiskey, downs it with the grimace of one who has seen through the universal grubbiness of human nature, but, at the same time, with a writer’s reflex, observes himself and finds his own posture false and exaggerated.”

Andrei Makine’s novel begins by summoning the works of Chekhov in the narrator’s consciousness, a Russian voice that toys with his thoughts as he analyzes his doomed relationship with Lea, a woman thirty years younger who has decided to leave him. Chekhov becomes the touchstone that Shutov, our protagonist, keeps returning to, as both emblematic of his own career as a writer but also as a way of remembering Russia. Yet, he’s not necessarily a fan…the Russia he remembers, while now in Paris, is far more brutal than a toboggan ride with a girl named Nadenka.

The end of his relationship leaves him hungering for change, a return to something familiar, so he immediately books a trip to St. Petersburg, in order to reunite with an old lover there. Romantic in theory, but implausible once he arrives. Everything he’s known has changed, and it seems as if Shutov can only look outward at the momentous shifts. For one thing, what he remembers was Leningrad, the Siege, and the hunger of the Russian people just to survive. Now in St. Petersburg, excess is everywhere, and the conspicuous consumption and materialism of New Russia shocks him:

“This is the kind of apartment, the type of food, which in the Soviet era the Russians used to picture when they spoke of the West…And here it is, they have re-created a quintessence of the West that he himself never really experienced in the West at all. A paradox….”

His visit is unfortunately timed during the tercentenary celebrations, with heads of state from all over the world in attendance and with carnivals, parades, and general wildness taking over St. Petersburg. Rather than celebrating, he sees the crowds as chloroformed and participating in a mass “exorcism”. It’s in this position that the novel’s central question is exposed: is it better to celebrate a time wherein Chekhov wrote of rides in the snow and romantic pursuits, or to focus on the horror of the Gulag and the survival of the Russian people to overcome? Or, to leave both behind without a glance and focus on only what is new? It seems that Shutov is lost between these three time periods and can’t find one that fits.

Much of the story line involves writing and publishing, and Shutov questions how these relate to modern history:

“Wisdom after the the old days a collection of poems could change your life, but a single poem could also cost the life of its author. Lines of verse carried the weight of long sentences north of the Arctic Circle where so many poets died…

He imagines Vlad’s mocking reply: ‘And you think that was good?’ There it is. A na├»ve question like this is hard to counter. Why should the Gulag be a criterion of good literature? And suffering a measure of authenticity?....To these young Russians no book is forbidden now. They travel the world, they are well fed, well educated, free of complexes…And yet they lack something.”

Were it only his dilemma of place, the novel would probably get dull quickly. In fact, at times he does seem awfully bleak. But Makine adjusts the flow by bringing in another story, one that ties the three ages of Russian life that Shutov can’t abide into one narrative, shifting us into the story of an elderly man soon to go into a rest home that has been on the periphery of the story since its beginning. Finally (one thinks), the old man Volsky begins to tell another story, a love story of sorts, of his own with a young woman named Mila just before the Siege began. This is the story that connects all the dots that Shutov has been marking, while still leaving ambiguities for the reader to figure out.

Makine’s novel isn’t just about the state of Russia now, but looks at the position of relationships over time, and at the nature of age, in a similar three-stage layout. For example, Lea and Vlad are both youthful counterpoints to his middle-age, while Volsky stands in as the third age. Each action of these characters corresponds in many ways to the historical ages he presents for Russia. There are even levels to relationships by location: street views, balcony views, and within the innermost apartment homes and hotels that Yana owns. It’s no coincidence that Shutov begins the novel living in an attic in Paris with Lea, only to find himself in a spacious apartment in St. Petersburg and then back to his ‘dovecote’ in Paris. The changes he is slowly acknowledging fall into the same path as these locations.

The novel is lovely and atmospheric, but at times, the character of Shutov becomes more curmudgeonly than is appealing. He’s so dismissive of any changes, even positive ones, that his point of view becomes tiresome. It comes as a relief when Volsky begins his story within the story. When Shutov reappears, it’s with a more empathetic understanding of the very changes he was fighting against. The weightiness of the subject matter makes for serious reflection on change on other levels too: familial, political, and cultural.

Special thanks to Graywolf Press for the Advance Review Copy.
This title released yesterday.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Paper Conspiracies by Susan Daitch

"Taking on the role of animating but anonymous power that revitalized Buster Keaton as his eyes grew sadder and (I thought) more disillusioned, or pumping up a flimsy, short haired Myrna Loy revealed an odd kind of romance I sometimes had with these images.  Or maybe it was a case of antiromance, the romance of solitary, imaginary pleasures."

"Yet when I watched movies and cartoons made before 1939 I couldn't help but pretend to inhabit those faces known only through photographs, wondering if they had watched these too, and in that projection back, the ghostly clusters took on a mixture of strange and familiar features."

The magic and mystery of the film industry, and the restoration of old and damaged reels is the setting for this novel that examines both current attitudes and historical events with the same intense focus on what is hidden and what is revealed.  Intentions to divert, distract, and conceal are all a part of the discoveries Frances makes as she tries to recover films from the past.

Her own sense of romance about her job alters as she realizes, through her boss, that substantial historical secrets could be literally under her fingers.  Set on preserving and discovering the truth, she learns about the infamous Dreyfus Affair, a French scandal that involved anti-semitism, the Catholic Church, politics, the monarchy, and even the writer Emile Zola.  The connection between this still-bitter historical event and the novel is what the novel investigates as the films of George Melies. 

The damaged film may hold the key to incriminating details to the Dreyfus case, and Frances finds that her life is changed as she tries to sort out clues from what appears to be distractions set to throw off the search for the truth. Old letters, vengeful agents, and Frances' bulldog personality all make the search for the riddle's answers that much more difficult.

Everything about this book revolves around the mystery of film and using that as a motif, Daitch manages to reveal her characters in a light that makes us wonder if we are seeing them as they are or as another shadowy transparency. While the book is extensive in scope, the writing is sharp and lean.  It doesn't linger too long on any one facet, even at times when I wish it had.  There's so much going on, politically and historically, that I found myself checking Google often to try and piece together my own take on what was fact and what was fiction.

"...Fabien saw special effects as links that created logical connections between otherwise entirely disparate events or objects....While he searched for props, he created or participated in another event, a parallel set of circumstances and phenomena..."

There's probably an obvious, underlying intention for the reader to question what they see and the forces behind whatever images they are presented with.  While this focuses backwards, there's an instinctive sense of acknowledgement that makes us realize the Dreyfus Affair is being repeated under other names and in other media right in front of us.

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

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning by Hallgrimur Helgason

Originally published at The Quivering Pen

"Stieg Larsson marries Quentin Tarantino"....(credit David Abrams with the cool title!)

At least the man knows how to clean and how to straighten up a room. I’ll give him that much credit, despite the fact his tidying up is only a way to kill time, waiting on a woman who may end up a victim. Vacuum expertise aside, however, it’s difficult to find much else of interest in this arrogant and chatty assassin nicknamed “Toxic,” the main character of the novel The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning, who continually reminds us just how skilled he is at murder. Immediately, we start to wonder how this will play out: is he going to turn into a valiant hero, or will he maintain his tragic vision and become the rarely seen, fully fledged anti-hero? 
“…I’m really proud of my hitman work. I always try to do a good job. ‘Victim first’ is my motto.”
Determined to come across as a fully-accredited badass, the protagonist narrates his every thought and action as he flees the U.S. after a hit goes wrong.  Seeing the FBI on his tail, he quickly changes his plans, kills another stranger, and steals his identity. He awakes on a plane bound for Reykjavik, Iceland.  The odds are good his escape plan will work, except that his new identity is that of a well-known fundamental Christian leader with a schedule of appearances awaiting him.  Deciding to play along with the ruse, he manages to record some disturbing radio sermons and manipulate his somewhat confused hosts, all while looking for a way out of Iceland. 

Author Hallgrimur Helgason often channels Quentin Tarantino with action similar to the film director’s style: fast-paced violence, pop culture references, saturated with sarcasm.  This is completely intentional, as Tarantino gets mentioned (as do Beyonce and Creed) several times in the storyline. The frenetic pace makes it difficult to absorb just how despicable the character is, and I found myself grasping for some quality to make him likable, some redeeming quality that would explain his often disturbing actions. 
“Usually I don’t want to know anything about my victims. It’s like back in the war. I kill strangers. I don’t feel for them. They’re just another head to swamp my bullet into…Usually they have refused to pay their tithe, failed to deliver for Dikan, or they show up with the same tie as he at the Mafia Oscars.”
See that? He manages to radiate disinterest and boredom, while at the same time making a really bad joke.  Unfortunately, that becomes the theme of this novel.  When hiding in an attic looking himself up on Google, he jokes, “I’m Anne Frank online.” Upon remembering a group of beautiful women, he shares his wishes for “mass rape.” He is endlessly amused at the low murder rates in the country, and spends his time remembering the better days in the States where he celebrated each kill with glee. 

It becomes clear at the midpoint of the novel that there is a source of his internal conflict and external bravado: he served in the Balkan war, and with his father and brother, saw and participated in terrible atrocities.  Helgason inserts the details slowly, and it’s possible to feel a tiny bit of pity for the protagonist.  But it doesn’t last, as experiences of war don’t seem sufficient to mitigate his present behavior.  If anything, the arc of the Balkan storyline appears so far into the novel that it feels too late to make up for his actions. Of course, mindlessly killing a small dog doesn’t exactly make him appealing.  And yet his self-awareness grows, likely because he’s out of his element and who he had been can’t exist anymore. In one brief moment, he admits, “everybody must have figured out I am the monster who lives under the bridge.” 

On the surface, the premise of The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning is very clever, but the delivery is so unsavory that it is neither tragic nor comic.  The sarcasm and humor feels forced, almost like a joke told by a comedian who is trying far too hard to get a laugh.  I get the feeling that Helgason is trying to reinforce just what a “monster” Toxic is due to his past experiences, yet there’s no evidence that he’s left the past behind. The other characters he encounters seem flat, as if they are only tools to further reveal Toxic’s depravity. 

Perhaps this can be attributed to the Stieg Larsson effect. Scandinavian crime novels boomed with his “Girl” trilogy, but the dark mystery novels were nothing new.  Other authors, such as Jo Nesbo, Henning Mankell, Karin Alvtegen and Arnaldur Indridason have created suspenseful and imaginative crime stories in the same setting for years before the region became comparatively “hot” in the literary world.  While those authors don’t often present characters quite as colorful as Toxic, they usually succeed in developing deeper characters with a more compelling warmth. 

Review by Amy Henry