Monday, September 26, 2016

GOD'S LITTLE ACRE, a Banned Books Week sale from Open Road Media


Open Road Media
$1.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The University of Georgia Says: Like Tobacco Road, this novel chronicles the final decline of a poor white family in rural Georgia. Exhorted by their patriarch Ty Ty, the Waldens ruin their land by digging it up in search of gold. Complex sexual entanglements and betrayals lead to a murder within the family that completes its dissolution. Juxtaposed against the Waldens' obsessive search is the story of Ty Ty's son-in-law, a cotton mill worker in a nearby town who is killed during a strike.First published in 1933, God's Little Acre was censured by the Georgia Literary Commission, banned in Boston, and once led the all-time best-seller list, with more than ten million copies in print. (This is the edition I read in 2012, which has a foreword by Lewis Nordan that I consider very important to read.)

Open Road Media Says: Caldwell’s blockbuster bestseller: In the Depression-era Deep South, destitute farmer Ty Ty Walden struggles to raise a family on his own

Single father and poor Southern farmer Ty Ty Walden has a plan to save his farm and his family: He will tear his fields apart until he finds gold. While Ty Ty obsesses over his fool’s quest, his sons and daughters search in vain for their own dreams of instant happiness—whether from money, violence, or sex.

God’s Little Acre is a classic dark comedy, a satire that lampoons a broken South while holding a light to the toll that poverty takes on the hopes and dreams of the poor themselves.

This ebook features an illustrated biography of Erskine Caldwell including rare photos and never-before-seen documents courtesy of the Dartmouth College Library.


My Review: First published in 1933, when the author was a mere slip of a thirty-year-old, this novel starts in a hole and keeps digging deeper and deeper. Literally, not metaphorically. Well, literally AND metaphorically.

Ty Ty and his sons are poor white Southern Americans in the grimmest economic times of the 20th century. There was revolution brewing because of the depth of the economic crisis, and the complete absence of any safety net for anyone at all. Ty Ty and his boys, like modern-day conservatives, are digging for gold in their unpromising Georgia home's unyielding land, and finding lots of dirt and not much else. The womenfolk are trying to keep food on the table and as many rapists as possible outside. The ones at home, well, we all have our crosses to bear, don't we?

Since the land's being dug up for gold instead of farmed for food, the boys go off to work in the textile mills. Yes Virginia, there once was a textile industry in the USA. Now it's all in Pakistan, where a couple dollars a month is a (barely) living wage. Mill owners naturally want to keep their costs down to maximize profits, and families are going hungry to make sure the rich get richer (is this sounding familiar?), until the unions come to town. With predictable results.

There's death, there's misery, there's hard work followed by failure, there's more misery, the end.

And what an end! What a beautiful piece of writing this is, and how very grim the picture it paints in its simple shapes and clear colors. There is nothing unclear or muddy about the book, except the minds of the characters, and that is by the author's design.

The search for gold isn't as stupid as it sounds. The Georgia north was Cherokee country until white folks found gold in them thar hills and booted the native inhabitants off the land. In the novel, some few flakes are found, but never enough to do what Ty Ty wants, which is free him and his family from want and dependence on others. It works well as a metaphor for the frayed and threadbare Murrikin dream, too: Keep working keep working keep working and the rewards will (not) come! Or if they come, at what cost, and ultimately to what end?

The title, God's Little Acre, refers to Ty Ty's gift of one acre of his farmland to God to support the church. But because Ty Ty wants gold for himself and his family, he moves the location of the acre at will, so he'll be sure not to give his gold away. Not so unfamiliar here, either, is it?

Murder, betrayal, lust, rage, and that's all before we get to the workplace! Is it any wonder this book was called obscene by the forces of reaction? It *was* obscene! The horrible exploitive relationships in every single nook and cranny of the world the characters inhabit is obscene. The dreadful ignorance, the grinding and maliciously intentional poverty, all of it obscene!

Sadly, with the slow withering of liberalism, the story's outlines are rapidly recrudescing in the modern Murrika being carved from the living flesh of the unwashed masses too drugged on the crack of an American Dream they will never, ever attain by Lotto or hard work or virtue rewarded. The horror is we've been here before, and a few brave and good men tried to steer us away from this hideous abyss. And here we are, back again.

Sick-making, isn't it? Read the book, and use it as a cautionary tale.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

ARE YOU AN ECHO? stuns with its poetical economy and perfect pitch

ARE YOU AN ECHO?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko
(editors and translators)
Chin Music Press

The Publisher Says: In early-1900s Japan, Misuzu Kaneko grows from precocious bookworm to instantly-beloved children’s poet. But her life ends prematurely, and Misuzu’s work is forgotten. Decades later her poems are rediscovered—just in time to touch a new generation devastated by the tsunami of 2011. This picture book features Misuzu’s life story plus a trove of her poetry in English and the original Japanese.


My Review: Whenever a package arrives from Chin Music Press, I know that everything else has to go to the Later pile. As always, I was *so* richly rewarded when I opened these covers.

This gorgeous and extremely touching sampler of Kaneko Misuzu's poetry is perfectly illustrated. It is introduced by a brief recounting of Kaneko's unhappy life. While I would most definitely want my grandkids to read the poetry, I'd want to read Kaneko's story to them, and make sure I was fully present to gauge their need for explanation and/or comfort as the tale unfolds.

Even if you have no kids, grandkids, nieces, nephews, or strange kids you can borrow, buy this beautiful object for your coffee table. You will be the coolest kid on the block.

Big Catch

At sunrise, glorious sunrise
it’s a big catch!
A big catch of sardines!

On the beach, it’s like a festival
but in the sea, they will hold funerals
for the tens of thousands dead.

Friday, September 23, 2016

YOKOHAMA YANKEE, the burden and blessing of Being Other in one of the world's most homogeneous societies

YOKOHAMA YANKEE: My Family's Five Generations as Outsiders in Japan

Chin Music Press
$16.95 trade paper, available now

The Publisher Says: Leslie Helm's decision to adopt Japanese children launches him on a personal journey through his family's 140 years in Japan, beginning with his great-grandfather, who worked as a military advisor in 1870 and defied custom to marry his Japanese mistress. The family's poignant experiences of love and war help Helm overcome his cynicism and embrace his Japanese and American heritage.

This is the first book to look at Japan across five generations, with perspective that is both from the inside and through foreign eyes. Helm draws on his great-grandfather's unpublished memoir and a wealth of primary source material to bring his family history to life.


My Review: It's the "to life" part of the book description that I want to discuss. How many of us have family secrets? Okay, silly of me to ask. How many of us wish we could spill the family secrets and get away with it? Helm decides to take a look back at the whole sweep of his German-Japanese-American family's riot of repression and dysfunction so as not to have to write Yet Another Adult Child of Alcoholic Father story. I don't like Helm's father Don, not because he's an alkie but because he's a mean drunk. Got no time for that. Me, I'm a happy drunk, I like to laugh and screw and do pep-u-uppo drugs while drinking. Still not someone who should engender and "raise" four kids as Helm senior did. Or didn't, exactly.

So Helm sets out to put the whole sad affair into a multigenerational context that stops this from being cringe- and yawn-worthy, going into detail about the life of his ancestors in Germany and Japan before and between the World Wars in a well-documented and quite vividly drawn way. It's here that the narrative launches itself into some very interesting territory, and here that the stars are earned. Once we get to Don and Barbara, I don't care anymore because we've heard it all a zillion times and nothing makes this iteration any more interesting than the others were. Leslie and his wife facing racism in Japan was fascinating to me; the sheer incomprehension of Japanese people as to why these weirdos would adopt *strangers* which is to say the children of people they aren't related to makes me a lot clearer on the reason Japan's such a strange place, so much duty and honor and ceremony and so little welcome for the other, the different.

I won't quibble with the odd absence of wartime tales and stories. It's a great deal like Memoirs of a Geisha in that way; a paragraph or two of musings and oh will you look at the time it's 1945! What is it that exerts such a very powerful repulsion on those who write about Japan, let alone the Japanese, when WWII comes up?

This trope, or rather tropelessness, aside, the book is an engrossing and edifying read, and a pleasure to look at, and a very entertaining way to spend a day or so. The photos throughout are well-chosen and the design accommodates them exactly as one wishes all publishers would require it to do. This being a Chin Music Press title, that statement could easily go without saying, but I enjoy saying it.

HURRICANE STORY, five-star art from painful ational tragedy


Broken Levee Books
$18.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Hurricane Story is a spellbinding odyssey of exile, birth and return told in forty-six photographs and simple, understated prose. This first-person narrative told through dreamlike images of toys and dolls chronicles one couple’s evacuation from New Orleans ahead of the broken levees, the birth of their first child on the day that Katrina made landfall, and their eventual return to the city as a family. Shaw’s photographs, at turns humorous and haunting, contrast deftly with the prose.

This clothbound hardcover edition includes an introduction by Rob Walker, author of Letters From New Orleans and former “Consumed” columnist for The New York Times Magazine.

My Review: Very, very pregnant photographer, husband, dogs, and cats, all escape New Orleans barely ahead of Hurricane Katrina. Son is delivered, family is displaced, much of New Orleans is destroyed, to our lasting national shame, and family returns to rebuild and resume living in the place they love and call home. The story isn't new, and it's not the first time anyone anywhere has told it in this words-and-images fashion.

But no one else anywhere has Ms. Shaw's extraordinary and amazing eye; her terse prose style, so beautifully suited to both story and images; or her quite astounding luck in being published by this amazing press, Chin Music via its New Orleans-centered imprint Broken Levee Books.

The book itself is worthy of being purchased simply to put on your front room's most prominent table. It is gorgeous. Bound in real cloth (my dog is still sniffing it, she's never encountered real cloth binding before) which is printed (let me assure you that this technique is far from simple, and its failure rate is significant; the technical demands on the printer, the designer, and the person making the color separations are quite significant; and the aesthetic that demanded this *exactly*right* production is quite rarefied) with an eerie, atmospheric image of great subtlety, the object itself begins its acquaintance with you by offering an uneasy glimpse into the mind of its makers. This will not be a candy-coated, literal, easy-to-process exercise in the journalism of indignance.

Opening the book, one reads the perfectly serviceable prose of two brief essays, one by Rob Walker, a former New Orleanian, and one by Ms. Shaw. Now we are mise en scene (oh, the badness of the pun), and the next page-flip takes you to spread 01: "We left in the dark of night." That's all she says in words. The photo facing the page bears a moment of painful clarity, expressed in a simple image of a red toy truck's tailgate retreating down a highly textured, shining road. The dark world closing in claustrophobically around this single spot of life, vividly red, the beautiful shining cobblestone-like texture of the road, the smoothness of the chiaroscuro...well, I could wax rhapsodic until you beg for mercy, but I won't. No point. Has to be experienced.

The use of toys and models to create the photo story is delightful. If I see one more image of people on a roof waving at the news copter while their house gives way beneath them, I shall scream blue murder. I avoid picture books of 9/11 for the same reason: I can't bear it. I've seen it! I've seen it! Stop smacking me! I won't look! But Shaw doesn't smack me. She wallops me ten minutes after I've seen her images. Dolls, with their awful starey eyes, usually make me uneasy. They still do here, but they are meant to, and they are deployed in simple, uncontrived story-telling, not some absurd, doomed effort to be archly Commenting On Life. The documentary "Marwencol" has much the same effect on me, and the same affect on its medium, as Shaw's dolls do.

And I must mention one thing in particular: Shaw's son is represented here by the King Cake baby. It's a nice, quiet, unpretentious symbol of her son's heritage. To someone without New Orleans knowledge, it's invisible and unnecessary to appreciate the story; to someone who knows what the symbol is, it's poignant and fitting.

Love New Orleans or loathe it, care about personal stories or not, this beautiful object should be in your home if for no other reason than to demonstrate quietly that you have excellent aesthetic taste and a real love for the object we call book. And the best part? It's only $18.

Buy one. Tell me I'm wrong. I dare you.

HOME, AWAY by Jeff Gillenkirk is a four-1/2 star corrective to the woman's point-of-view divorce novel


Broken Levee Books
$15.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: How much is a father's love worth? Jason Thibodeaux has a $42 million contract to pitch for the Colorado Rockies and a romantic bachelor lifestyle when the son he lost in a searing custody battle reappears in his life. Home, Away follows Thibodeaux's colorful rise to the pinnacle of Major League Baseball and his agonized decision to quit in the prime of his career to care for his troubled son. Their evolving relationship and resulting confrontations—on the baseball field and off—test the limits of loyalty and the meaning of fatherhood itself.

My Review: I won this book in a LibraryThing giveaway in 2010. I was in a very raw and emotionally vulnerable state vis-a-vis relationships, marriage, parenthood, etc., so my review written at the time reflects that:

It's taken me *weeks* to calm down enough to write a review of this book that didn't amount to a woman-hating scream of fury at the stupidity and unfairness of a court system and a culture that privileges mothers to the exclusion of fathers.

So I don't intend to say a single word about that hugely important part of this novel. I can't be objective in the least on the topic. I limit myself to the broad observation that this is a much needed corrective to the man-bad, woman-good writing that infests family fiction like maggots infest a dead cat.

I can tell you that novels about baseball are seldom so deeply satisfying...a man who pursues his dream to become a major league pitcher, gives it up several times to be a father to his son, screws *everything* up and crawls into a bottle to stop the hurting, and then, and then—well, then a dream beyond dreaming comes true, and it's so wonderfully imagined and so movingly presented that I read the ending three times and cried each one of them.

I doubt a large number of women will read this book because it's so very honest about them, and who wants to read about *that*, right? And it's got LOTS of baseball in it. That's too bad, really. But it is what it is. I am very, very glad Mr. Gillenkirk wrote this book. I truly treasured it. I hope other divorced men, baseball fans, and frustrated fathers will find it.

So that's a quick take on me, my feelings and frustrations, and my misogyny six years ago.

What makes me happiest about this somewhat tough read, due to its subject matter, is that it is the first book I received from Chin Music Press and, in fact, was the first moment I was aware the press existed. I was delighted by the immediate and apologetic way in which the press's representative, David Jacobson, handled a minor issue I had with my first copy's quality: Instantaneous apology and replacement with even more helpings of mea-culpa soothing my ruffled feathers.

No one does that for a nobody reviewer over a truly tiny complaint (pages bound and trimmed oddly, a coffee stain on the front over). I was impressed, I made it my business to poke around their website, and decided I'd order some other books to see what they were up to. I ordered two novels, BUDDY ZOOKA IN THE FRENCH QUARTER AND BEYOND and LAST OF THE RED-HOT POPPAS; and a ghost story, BIG IN JAPAN. All three of these were enjoyable reads, getting three and a half to as much as four stars. (Reviews ill appear when my ancient hard drive renders up its secrets at last.)

Be sure of this: A book with the Chin Music Press logo is a book worthy of your attention, and most probably will, given that attention, become your own for its sheer irresistibility.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

MRS. CALIBAN, a sharp and tangy satirical novella with an amazing backhand


Open Road Media
$9.99 eBook edition, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: It all starts with the radio. Dorothy’s husband, Fred, has left for work, and she is at the kitchen sink washing the dishes, listening to classical music. Suddenly, the music fades out and a soft, close, dreamy voice says, “Don’t worry, Dorothy.”

A couple weeks later, there is a special interruption in regular programming. The announcer warns all listeners of an escaped sea monster. Giant, spotted, and froglike, the beast—who was captured six months earlier by a team of scientists—is said to possess incredible strength and to be considered extremely dangerous.

That afternoon, the seven-foot-tall lizard man walks through Dorothy’s kitchen door. She is frightened at first, but there is something attractive about the monster. The two begin a tender, clandestine affair, and no one, not even Dorothy’s husband or her best friend, seems to notice.

Selected by the British Book Marketing Council as one of the greatest American novels since World War II, Mrs. Caliban is a story of passion and loneliness, love and loss. Wryly subversive, it brilliantly combines surrealism, satire, and the female perspective.


My Review: I was reminded of why I liked this novel when I first read it twenty-plus years ago:
"Have you ever seen so many tilted mirrors and hidden cameras?"
Gives me the creeps. Really. It's a Presbyterian's dream come true—you know, God sees it all, He's watching you no matter where you are and what you're doing."
"I bet he's really out in the kitchen getting a beer out of the icebox."
On this second reading, in my later fifties instead of middle thirties, I'm still smoothed and soothed by Ingalls's lovely prose and her razor-sharp tongue. Now, however, I see something I missed then: her rage. This is a deeply angry book, and not just on the levels I expected it to be. The passage of those years has taken things away from me that finally showed me the level of compressed outrage that Dorothy, the author's voice, must feel to live through this scene:
...[s]he was halfway across the checked linoleum floor of her nice, safe kitchen, when the screen door opened and a gigantic six-foot-seven-inch frog-like creature shouldered its way into the house and stood stock-still in front of her, crouching slightly, and staring her straight in the face.
She stopped before she knew she had stopped, and looked, without realizing that she was taking anything in. She was as surprised as if she had heard an explosion and seen her own shattered legs go flying across the floor. There was a space between him and the place where she was standing; it was like a gap in time.
Dorothy, average person in average home living under the radar of all the world including her husband, has this vision of a man-thing in the kitchen (her proper realm, being a woman) and doesn't decompensate, throw fits, scream, run...she invites the creature in, feeds him, makes love to him, and builds a life for the first time in many long years.

That takes (metaphorical) balls. What happens as this life unspools takes literal balls.

All in good time. Dorothy and Fred, her husband, haven't been in a marriage for a long time. Their son, Scotty, died several years before; during her grieving for Scotty, Dorothy lost their unborn baby; and, as is so often the case, the parents drift into their own worlds of misery and rage, unable to discover the back passages and sea currents that swept them together before their loss. While a commonplace story, it's not a cheerful one.

So much more cheerful is Dorothy's startled awakening into lust:
She was just beginning to convince herself that down at the bottom of the sea he was hurt or dying, when she saw his shape moving up out of the water. In that light and at that distance, he looked exactly like the statues of the gods, except that his head was slightly larger and rounder than it should be. And he walked with a rounded, swimming motion from hip to knee, holding his large, powerful shoulders and arms easily.
This isn't the way a woman looks at any old man, this is the attitude and the inventory a lover makes of the beloved. It's clear that Dorothy has no sense of wrongness about her six-seven green-skinned frogman lover, she is simply infatuated and lusty.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

LIZARD WORLD, a deeply bizarre Bizarro 4-star read


Livingston Press
$22.00 trade paper, available now
$11.00 via the publisher's website
$10.00 as a "We Gambled, You Gamble" SALE!

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: A dentist from New Jersey, marooned at midnight in the Florida swamps, makes the mistake of falling into the clutches of a hilariously depraved family of amateur surgeons devoted to a seventeenth century libertine whose discovery of an elixir has kept his evil presence alive for the past three-hundred years.

My Review: Three centuries of bizarro nonsense in the Florida swamps, featuring dentists who rob teeth from cadavers or maps from old ladies, English earls with horrifying maladies, German hunchbacks with one-eyed daughters who give rise to a dynasty of detestable Southern crackers, and a buncha buncha croakadells. (Gators to thee and me.)

Oh, and fiction's only known were-horsefly.

Not a big bizarro reader, me. I wondered sometimes what I was doing wandering in the humid swamps of Bazes' imagination. I found such repulsive images there as people being farmed for their organs, clouds of gator-musk inspiring ick-ptui sex, and a claustrophobic sense on nausalgia vu...the dear and familiar stomach-roiling horror of having been here before...that Florida inspires in me.

So why rate it so highly? Because, dear reader, in an increasingly bland and featureless literary and cultural landscape, where gay couples are the normal ones on TV and wacky neighbors on sitcoms are largely indistinguishable from the leads in a vain attempt to spice things up, Bazes takes us into places we haven't been taken since [book:A Modest Proposal|5206937]. The adjective "Swiftian" has been waiting for this book for many long, lonely years.

So, go buy it. I promise you no one will fail to remark on the unique cover art, and the erudite among your acquaintance will be gobsmacked by the fact the BARNEY ROSSET blurbed it. (Frankly, after one repugnant scene involving a wire hair brush and the aforementioned were-horsefly, this was the only reason I kept reading.) Oh, so did Charles Palliser and Peter Coyote, but BARNEY! If not for him, we wouldn't have smutty books to read at all!