Friday, May 31, 2019

WITH WALT WHITMAN, HIMSELF is a beautiful 200th birthday present to the Good Gray Poet.


WITH WALT WHITMAN, HIMSELF: In the Nineteenth Century, in America
JEAN HUETS

Circling Rivers
$34.99 trade paper, available now

THIS IS A LIBRARYTHING EARLY REVIEWERS BOOK REVIEW

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: WITH WALT WHITMAN, HIMSELF immerses the reader in the life and times of the poet called “America’s bard,” with over 300 period images and text including extensive quotes by Walt Whitman and his family and friends (and a few enemies). Explore the fascinating roots of Whitman's great work Leaves of Grass: a family harrowed by alcoholism and mental illness; the bloody Civil War; burgeoning, brawling Manhattan and Brooklyn; literary allies and rivals; and his beloved America, racked by disunion even while racing westward. The coming year 2019 will mark the bicentennial of Walt Whitman’s birth; this book anticipates the celebration with a perspective of Walt Whitman “in the nineteenth century, in America,” as he himself put it.

My Review: What an extraordinarily lovely surprise this book was to me. It is physically beautiful: Printed in four colors, with Whitman's own words highlighted for the reader's eye by being printed in a handsome shade of Process Blue; daguerrotypes and other photos printed in rich and period-appropriate shades of umber and sepia achieved by using the four process colors; paintings and archival materials reproduced in very clear and obviously carefully proofed separations. The paper is uncoated, but is a top-quality book paper; this means it isn't vividly bleached to an eye-hurting whiteness, thus making the text a chore to read. Instead, the whole package, in its design and execution, is meant to be an inviting visual and tactile experience. This makes its contents that much more appealing to view.

This is a coffee-table book about a poet, not about poetry. It would look very well on anyone's conversation-starting furniture of whatever description. The purpose of the book is to bring a modern reader, perhaps one not familiar with Whitman or, at most, glancingly acquainted with "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" or "To A Stranger" (if a gay man over 40), a sense of Whitman the man and the way he became that man. The 19th century brought huge changes to the USA, as your history class sledgehammered into your adolescent brain. The world Whitman was born into on the 31st of May in 1819—two hundred years ago today—resembled not at all the world in which he wrote his poems or in which he died, in March of 1892, at seventy-two well-lived years of age. Steamships, trains, escalators...a Civil War whose battles we fight to this day...a world that Whitman embraced with wide-open arms and eyes, with reservations he always set aside to be more fully present in his moment. We could all do well to live in imitation of Whitman's way.

If one approaches this volume in the spirit of an interested browser, it will delight and edify; those seeking A Life or, perish forbid!, a monograph on Whitman's poems, will go away dissatisfied, though certainly diverted. I came to the book informed about Whitman, and came away delighted at the quantity of insight I gained from reading it. I loved the images, I knew I'd be sucked in by the 300 or so lovely reproductions, but I was equally edified by the organization of the text into Walt, and his world. It is explicit in the title: You're going to 19th century America with Walt Whitman's life as your tour agenda. As I am a New York City boy, those sections resonated strongly with me; as a Long Islander, Whitman's experiences highlighted for me the unslackening pace of change in this vigorous and vibrant world. Whitman was born in Hempstead, where I spent a decade! Believe you me, if we resurrected Walt and placed him in the Hempstead of today, he'd love it for its vibrant urbanity and be shocked to learn it's his birthplace.

I found Pete Doyle's tale, with whose outlines I was familiar, to be unbearably poignant. Soul father Whitman, 45 at the time, met his 21-year-old life's love on the streetcar where the lad worked. The rest of Whitman's life, and of Doyle's I learned here, they were connected, they were in love. What that means to someone in an intergenerational relationship in this disapproving and minatory world...! The storms of life could separate their bodies, death could knock with her unignorable tattoo, they were in love:
I have Walt's raglan here...I now and then put it on, lay down, think I am in the old times. Then he is with me again. It's the only thing I kept amongst many old things. When I get it on and stretch out on the old sofa I am very well contented. It is like Aladdin's lamp. I do not ever for a minute lose the old man. He is always near by. When I am in trouble—in a crisis—I ask myself, "What would Walt have done under these circumstances?" and whatever I decide Walt would have done that I do.
I hope with all the fibers of my being that my Pete, my Young Gentleman Caller Rob, has occasion to remember as fondly after I am dead.

It was such points of commonality, uncommon to find in a work about a long-dead author, that kept me returning to the book with a curious mind and an eager eye. After reading WITH WALT WHITMAN, HIMSELF, I was soul-satisfied that I had found my spiritual ancestor. No poet I, nor truth to tell much of a poetry consumer; but Walt Whitman, comme d'habitude, pursued me down the street to talk to me.

I am so very glad that I stopped to listen.

GLASS, a récit written by a divagator...the more words you need to look up, the more you should read it


GLASS
SAM SAVAGE

Coffee House Press
$15.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Asked by a publisher to write a preface to her late husband’s novel, Edna defiantly sets out to write a separate book “not just about Clarence but also about my life, as one could not pretend to understand Clarence without that.” Simultaneously her neighbor asks her to care for an apartment full of plants and animals. The demands of the living things – a rat, fish, ferns – compete for Edna's attention with long-repressed memories. Day by day pages of seemingly random thoughts fall from her typewriter. Gradually taking shape within the mosaic of memory is the story of a remarkable marriage and of a mind pushed to its limits.

Is Edna’s memoir a homage to her late husband or an act of belated revenge? Was she the cultured and hypersensitive victim of a crass and brutally ambitious husband, or was he the caretaker of a neurotic and delusional wife? The reader must decide.

The unforgettable characters in Savage's two hit novels Firmin and The Cry of the Sloth garnered critical acclaim, selling a million copies worldwide. In Edna, once again Sam Savage has created a character marked by contradiction--simultaneously appealing and exasperating, comical and tragic.

My Review: Page 18:
In fact, after reflecting on it some more, it is not clear to me how a thought could ever be summoned, as I seem to have suggested then. After all, I would scarcely be in a position to summon a thought, pluck it from the enormous heap of all possible thoughts, were I not already thinking it, in some sense of thinking, in some sense of already, and of course it is less a heap than a tangle, an enormous tangle of possible thoughts, like a jungle. Summoning a thought would be like summoning a stranger from a crowd in order to find out his name. Well, I suppose you could do that with gestures or by shouting or by going over to him and plucking his sleeve, as you might do if one day you were to see someone in a railroad station whose name you would like to know, perhaps because he looks like the kind of person you would want to be friends with. To make the analogy work you have to imagine that yo are not able to go over next to that person, perhaps because you are crippled or horribly tired or under arrest and are handcuffed to a policeman. You see this person you want to know, perhaps someone famous who would be able to help you out of your difficulty, but you are not allowed by some mysterious force which we won't go into now to shout or wave or even move your eyes in a significant manner. The only way you are permitted to get his attention is by calling his name, and that is just the thing you don't know and were hoping to find out. Of course we have to assume also that the people you are with, the policeman or doctor or whatever, don't know his name either, or if they do they are refusing to tell you, because they think it would be harmful for you to contact that person or perhaps harmful to them, to their position in society, especially if you are being wrongfully detained, or perhaps they just do it out of spite. I feel that I am not making myself clear.
***
If reading that passage was less than pleasant for you, do not read this book. 220 pages later, the character of Edna Morton is still going on in this manner. Edna, widow of famous writer of sporting life Clarence Morton, has been asked to write a preface to her late husband's book. She declines, and decides instead to write the book we're reading.

Edna is the older-lady version of Ellen DeGeneres's comedic character, the stammering disorganized ditz. Edna is a life-long divagator. That drove her husband crazy, and if you're like Clarence of the brutal and direct prose, don't even start. You'll hate it from first to last.

For me, it was not hate but pure happiness that washed over me, leaving a little giggle and a wry smile and a sad little sigh at every changing swirl and tide. Her narrative voice is the creation of Sam Savage, whose death in January 2019 alerted me to his existence. Glass is a late work, published after Savage became a worldwide bestseller with the 2007 publication of Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife in 2007. I hadn't heard of that book before he died, so the US must've been an exception to the bestsellerness of it. As is so often the case...look at how much the French adore Jerry Lewis, known in his native land as the telethon guy most of his career.

Anyway. Glass. It's a lovely and funny and poignant and tragic tale of Edna's life before, during, and after Clarence with his sporty-dorty ways and his romper-stomper books. I suspect it's Mary (the last wife) and Ernest Hemingway's life, but I can't prove it. I can say that, wherever the inspiration struck Author Savage from, I'm glad he sat at his typewriter (I'm morally certain it was a typewriter, though again I can't prove it, because of a passage about typewriter ribbons) and left it for me to find. You'll know from the above page from the book whether it's for you or not.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

WEST, a concentrated, almost freeze-dried, tale of the American West and its casualties


WEST
CARYS DAVIES

Scribner
$15.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.9* of five

The Publisher Says: When widowed mule breeder Cy Bellman reads in the newspaper that colossal ancient bones have been discovered in the salty Kentucky mud, he sets out from his small Pennsylvania farm to see for himself if the rumors are true: that the giant monsters are still alive and roam the uncharted wilderness beyond the Mississippi River. Promising to write and to return in two years, he leaves behind his only daughter, Bess, to the tender mercies of his taciturn sister and heads west.

With only a barnyard full of miserable animals and her dead mother’s gold ring to call her own, Bess, unprotected and approaching womanhood, fills lonely days tracing her father’s route on maps at the subscription library and waiting for his letters to arrive. Bellman, meanwhile, wanders farther and farther from home, across harsh and alien landscapes, in reckless pursuit of the unknown.

My Review: A lovely little book, a slip of a thing that has the gravitas of a far longer book in a far more concentrated and sharp novella.

I can't blame anyone for finding the story sad, it surely is; but with an ending so deeply felt and so beautifully wrought that the most size-conscious reader can't come away feeling gypped. Old Woman from a Distance, the teenaged Shawnee veteran of the Trail of Tears, is a beautifully rendered portrait of The Survivor; Bellman, the red-bearded widowed dreamer, is the portrait of The Fool. Deveraux the French fur trader and Aunt Julie Bellman are sides of the coin that shifty neighbor Elmer and faithless frontiersman Hollinghurst steal with simple, transparent tricks. I knew I'd loathe Aunt Julie on p23:
After a month {Bess} asked her Aunt Julie if they could go to the library so she could look at the big journals of the President's Expedition and see the path her father had taken into the west, but Aunt Julie only looked at her in a kind of irritated amazement.
"And when, child," Bellman's sister demanded to know, "do you suppose I have time to sit in a library?"
Yeah, no. We ain't a-gonna be book-besties, me'n'Julie, no way no how. Nor does Bess, Bellman's amazing daughter, find much to love in her father's sister:
Aunt Julie said what a pretty girl Dorothy had turned into and she wouldn't be surprised if Sidney {a rich-but-loutish boy Bess told off some time ago} and Dorothy weren't a married pair a few years from now. What did Bess think of that?
Bess said she thought nothing of it. Bess said that was the last thing in the world she'd think of thinking about.
Aunt Julie in a nutshell; Bess to the teeth an anti-Julie like anti-matter is to baryonic matter. A horrible life to live, one with someone who simply isn't capable of connecting with you. But worse is to come, as we know.

When events unspool in the second half of the book and several separate tragedies unfold, it's Author Davies's skill at telling the story that keeps pages turning. You see, this is a tale told, not a life lived in prose. This book is the well-written story of the story. It's a distancing narrative strategy. I don't mind it too awful terrible much when the sentences are lovely and the paragraphs lead me to the finish line without becoming arch, or unfocused. Archness is perhaps the bigger danger, since Author Davies is an experienced hand at writing short stories (eg, Some New Ambush, The Redemption of Galen Pike). In fact, this feels like a novella that sprang from a short story which simply couldn't contain the entire necessary plot.

So I'm a fraction off ecstatic, but on the high end of very well pleased, at the end of the read. I recommend it to anyone who needs a dose of a truly spunky and resourceful character (Bellman) and a stern, steely hero (Bess) who meet their fates without a single illusion between them and reality. The illusions have all burned away. This explains their differing ends.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

THE SECRET OF THE STRATEMEYER SYNDICATE, a 32-year-old study of the *business* of the Nancy Drew publisher


THE SECRET OF THE STRATEMEYER SYNDICATE: Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and the Million Dollar Fiction Factory
CAROL BILLMAN

Out of print
$Oooodles and Gobs

Rating: 3.75* of five

What The Publisher Says must remain a mystery, since I forgot to copy the flap copy and the Amazon description is pointlessly brief. It is also the source of, or copied from, I can't say which, all other online descriptions of the book.

My Review:This is Author Billman's only book publication that I can find. An academic paper of hers on the virtue and values instilled by McGuffey's Readers and Horatio Alger Jr's grit-and-character novels, published in a 1977 edition of the journal Popular Culture, appears to be the remainder of her internet-accessible output. I am led to believe that she had a career as an English professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio during the period in which she published the Alger paper. So the question of why she wrote a book on the business of the Stratemeyer Syndicate is answered: Her interest in children's literature and its purposes through the years was deep enough to make it a career.

It says something about that fact that I am a bit sad more didn't come out of it.

My pleasure in reading this odd, out-of-the-way volume was deep.
For young readers, it would seem, mystery fiction represents an especially clear case of what any reading of a story involves. The process of reading is still an uncertain enough proposition. Thus the series mystery—replete with characters who are unmistakably good or evil, easily recognized clues as to the crime's solution and to the way the story is told as well (for example, cliffhanging chapter endings), and a writing style that is both familiar and undemanding—offers extraordinary inducements for apprentice readers just coming to feel at home with the idea and act of reading a novel.
No wonder I still like mysteries. The experience of reading the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew was designed to scratch that specific itchy place in me. It was my training ground for decoding stories. Simple words, obvious clues, and a strong linear plot gave me a track record of success in analyzing stories for their payoffs. Author Billman makes this memory fresh by going into the act of creating the novels I read. I re-experienced through the memories her book called up the sheer joy of reaching the solution to The Shore Road Mystery before Frank and Joe did. It was a story about stolen cars, and Mama figured that alone would get me going. How right she was!

The boys' slightly louche friend Dodd (first name escapes me) is being framed for car theft, along with his dad. The boys know he's innocent, so his dad must be too; Fenton Hardy, their dad, gets involved because this little drama is a side-show to one of his own, adult-therefore-important cases pursuing an interstate car-theft ring. The solution to both cases involves baiting a trap to get the thieves to lead the cops to the cars. It works, of course, and there's even some gunfire (no one's injured, naturally) to spice it up. I knew that the cars were hidden in the area before this coup de foudre struck the heroes. That was a wonderful feeling, as witness I can call it up more than a half-century later.

Author Billman's thesis, that this experience of mine was carefully designed and multiply repeated, isn't original to her. Bobbie Ann Mason's 1975 feminist work, The Girl Sleuth, gives voice to much the same idea when she says of the Syndicate's house style, "The series are so carefully styleless that you can't point to bad puns, strained metaphors, overloaded descriptions. There is an absence of language: there is vocabulary, but not language." It takes care and attention to detail to make that accurate assessment of Syndicate novels work over many hundreds of books. The Syndicate's business purpose, to make and sell as much storytelling as they could, followed a tried-and-true path of building brand loyalty:
First, Happy Hollisters readers move on to the Hardy Boys and/or Nancy Drew...readers do not simply abandon those books they once regarded so highly...They also carry over the confidence gained from stories about successful young discoverers and a literary template--a sense of how stories are constructed and proceed--that will be helpful later. Schooled in the elementary virtues of fiction and having fully discovered all the secrets of the series mysteries for themselves, they are ready, in both senses of the word, to explore what is beyond.
For many, many of us readers, this ladder of consumption was a step-ladder to a lifelong joy in reading. Millions and millions of delighted young story addicts spent billions of hours ignoring chores and avoiding busybody siblings by shoving out faces in a book. The Syndicate's profit motive, set by Stratemeyer all the way back to when he was ghosting the last few Alger books that had been outlined before the man died, was to create and then satisfy demand for stories.

Stratemeyer's idea wasn't, however, the first sally onto that field. Billman explains his own experiences as a juvenile-fiction writer were in service of the established leaders in the field like Grosset & Dunlap (now a Penguin Random House subsidiary and still in business!) with the Rover Boys stories. Thirty titles strong, this series began in 1899 and ended in 1926. It was Arthur M. Winfield's pseudonym that launched Stratemeyer's original idea: Hire the writers to work to his detailed plan for the particular story in a simple, pared-down style. While Stratemeyer wrote all the Rover Boys titles, he simply couldn't write all the books that a successful book packager would need to keep the demand for juvenile books (what today we call YA) met. Dozens of series were begun, many survived, but a few thrived.

The Hardy Boys series began in 1927 with The Tower Treasure, written by Stratemeyer himself. There followed a flood of titles, rewrites, and spin-offs in other media. The series was substantially rewritten beginning in 1959 to modernize its language, concerns, and attitudes; the world had changed a lot in the intervening 32 years. Another 20 years passed before further modifications became urgent; the series itself was rebooted in 2005 without the original titles and plots so RIP The Hardy Boys 1927-2005. Seventy-eight years!

Nancy Drew's adventures began in 1930 with The Secret of the Old Clock, again penned by old man Stratemeyer himself. As he died that year, he was unable to continue the series...his daughter Harriet Adams was the principal of the firm until it was finally sold in 1984. Nancy Drew was the unequivocal monster success of the Syndicate: Over 200 titles across several series! Aside from the obviously necessary tartings-up any book series over 80 years old (1930-2013) will need. The character survives to this day, though in unrecognizable form if one goes back to the ur-text of 1930.

Billman also details the Ruth Fielding series and the lessons it had for the syndicate. It lasted from 1913 to 1934 for a total of thirty books. Like the earlier Rover Boys series, the characters in this series aged at something like ordinary speed. By book 30, Ruth was married and had a child. That was the kiss of death for a series aimed at juveniles, like the main characters finally hooking up is for TV shows (eg, Moonlighting). It was a lesson that the Syndicate learned well:
In short, the Hardys remain locked in that period between childhood and adult life that psychologist Erik Erikson has characterized as a moratorium—the quiet and deep sleep of fairy tale characters that precedes awakening into maturity.
So Frank and Joe are eternally 18 and 16, up from the 1927 ages of 16 and 14; Nancy Drew is 18, having started at 16. And their audience, per much publisher research, got younger by two years with each reader generation. Now the audience is tweens, through 12 years old; in my day, I lost interest in the books at about 11 or 12. It's my observation that the need to puzzle out mysteries gets more urgent as the decades pass, so it's natural that the audience for lessons on the subject gets younger as well.

Ruth Fielding's thirty-book run sounds amazing to mere mortals; Nancy Drew, whose character is in the same moratorium Author Billman identifies, blows that record apart. The other part of the Syndicate's genius was in focusing its output on mysteries. Most of us like to solve puzzles, on some level. There's enormous satisfaction in the effort being rewarded for adults; for children, the pleasure is sharper and more immediate:
Psychoanalyst Lili Peller has commented that stories about uncovering secrets are naturals for children, for whom life is full of secrets adults are guarding. More specifically, {another author of psychological studies on the Hardy Boys} has suggested a Freudian fascination in the Hardy Boys series with yawning-mouthed caves.
Lots and lots of caves and tunnels in them Hardy Boys books...yep...but anyway, the point is well-made that kids need puzzle-solving as well as problem-solving skills and the Syndicate's output was tailor-made to satisfy both needs. Author Billman, writing in the early 1980s, saw the evidence of this successful meeting of a need leading to commercial success at flood tide. After the Syndicate was sold to Simon and Schuster in 1984, the books kept coming. The series, of course, were ruthlessly trimmed to the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew; this makes sense as the nature of mysteries is to be addictive.

Ask any Salvo Montalbano or Meg Langslow addict.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Blogging about versus Reviewing the Book

I just read 13 Common Mistakes in Book Reviewing and How to Avoid Them by Jay A. Fernandez, and ran across this item:
So it follows that every statement is an opinion of yours. Trust me, more authority is communicated through a confident omnipotent voice than through narrow personal asides that the reader has no reason to consider.
I laughed and laughed. Wow, thought I, this dude's never, ever been on the internet before! As an opinionated old cuss, I've run afoul of the "HOW DARE YOU" folk many a time, and not one of my friends is innocent of joining in at some point. But the annoyance to me has always been the troublesome assumption that if one disagrees with a point of view, it must be wrong, and the person expressing is therefore Wrong and Must Be Corrected.

Factual errors should be pointed out, preferably politely; but no one is Wrong about their opinion. It's impossible. It's their own opinion. Your disagreement with same is, with the greatest possible respect, irrelevant. An interesting and spirited discussion can be had over the said opinion. But converting others to one's point of view is a side-effect, not a goal, of the spirited discussion.

Unless it's y'all misguided dupes who insist on venerating Chuckles the Dick. That's a failure of intellect and must be rooted out with vigorous and pitiless applications of contumely. But, this being self-evident, it need not be belabored.

Then the author of the piece wrote this:
If it reads as if it’s been written for a blog, then it belongs on a blog.
So...no blogger can be a real critic? I beg to differ, sir! Though on sober reflection I came to the quite simple realization that I was misreading the entire article.

It's not about people reviewing books, it's about Book Reviewers. Those paid to do the job. The pros, the vanishing tiny cadre of them remaining.

Oh.

That's very different. Never mind.

Careful reading is so often, in my experience, about the willingness to revisit your conclusions. Reread your source material. Re-evaluate the entire focus of your reading...are you reading for analytical reasons or for the experience of the story? Both are valid, of course, and each can lead to wonderful reviews. So can any of the many other prompts to read a story. Too often, I find, I switch reading gears and so lead myself astray by not clarifying in my own mind why I want to write about a book. And this article put my mental finger on the source of the problem for me: Focus.

As always. Focus. I'm a blogger, not a Book Reviewer. I do my best to explain my opinion in such a way as to make it relevant to your search for the next great read from your immense number of choices. I don't think that's Book Criticism. I don't think it's pointless or useless, either, and am always thinking about how to express my opinion in such a way as to make your experience of it helpful and/or useful.

If people keep reading my ideas, I guess I've succeeded.

EDITED TO ADD
This BookMarks piece about Gabino Iglesias (follow him on Twitter!) has him making what I consider to be the pithiest distillation of the issues besetting the bookish world:
We have to share the term, but a two-line review on Goodreads and a nuanced deconstruction and analysis of a text that contextualizes a narrative within a genre or genres and the culture at large is not the same thing.
We need a new word for what bloggers do. My aim is to give you some help winnowing the immense and ever-growing choices for your reading pleasure. I assume you're already a reader. Why else would you even have heard of me? I'm not going to pretend I'm anything but an amateur...but the space I occupy is weirdly threatening to professionals:
You need to read, write, and then distribute your criticism. And you have to keep it short and punchy. Write a long review and you will lose your readers because you're competing with Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram for their attention. This has sadly led to venues dropping criticism. ... {W}e have the best free platforms and yet can't get people to read criticism as much as we'd like to. I hope we crack that code soon.
My audience isn't large, but y'all are book readers. The audiences Iglesias and other professionals write for are larger, more general-interest readers. The two are intersecting less and less often, and that makes me both sad and worried. The internet has been a boon to me personally; I am painfully aware that's not so for everyone everywhere. It's so new, so unprecedented in human history, that I'm not surprised there are kinks to work out.

It's important to me personally that the old tech of the book and the new tech of the screen play together nicely. There is too much at stake for them not to.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

THE ART OF DYING and WHAT ABOUT THIS, two collections by two poets you need to know about

Happy Hump Day, everyone! I'm reading poetry books, plural (hence the double review below), on this positively sun-struck breezy day.

Pick y'all's selves up off the floor at your leisure. Meanwhile let me explain.

THE ART OF DYING
SARAH TOLMIE

McGill-Queen's University Press
$16.95 trade paper, available now Amazon link for US purchasers

Rating: 5 stars...yep, all five!...of five

The Art of Dying was one helluva wallop. Y'all might remember that I fell in love with its cover, enough that I used A Dear Canadian Friend's gift to me to procure a copy after an article about the AUP Book, Jacket, and Journal Design show showed it to me.

So I was reading the short, super-concentrated poems. "Self," I said to myself, "this is the Sh...tuff. This is why all those pretentious pit-sniffers whose only love is self-love (in all its meanings) write their vapid maunderings with silly line breaks."
Most books of poems are far too short.
It's hard to get your money's worth.
How does it make sense in the marketplace

To pay twelve quid for sixty pages?
Or fifteen euros, or twenty bucks?
So poets are shit out of luck.
first two stanzas of poem 22
I know, right?!

Memento mori...and does Doctor Sarah Tolmie, academic, medievalist, un-sniffing poet extraordinaire, ever put memory through its paces. I was, and am, compelled to think deeply about five-line, ten-line, multi-page word paintings. That's not the commonest impulse for me. "You too will die" is my preferred translation from the Latin (pace Latinists with exact translations) of the phrase and that thought is ever with me. I think a lot of people shy away from the idea of Death when what they actually fear is the process of dying. We're divorced from its realities by the medicalization of illness (an issue Tolmie deals with in multiple facets). The process is part of Life, not of Death...and that's a Tolmie thought that I think makes the whole fear industry tremble.
Hate to tell you, but you're going to die.
Quite soon. Me, too.

Shuck off the wisdom while it's warm.
Death does no harm
To wisdom.
It's the very first poem, in its entirety; it sets a tone for this collection that the remaining artistry very much delivers on.

You're not afraid of Death. I can almost promise you that you haven't thought about Death much at all. The pain and enfeeblement of illness are the things that inspire most people to flee screaming from the mere mention of Death. Its reality is possibly more terrifying: The Great Unknown, the place we're all going but no one has ever come back from to tell us about. (I am not religious and I don't believe y'all's bedtime story is in any way factual.)
It continues to be fashionable to mourn the death of ritual.
We miss the Neolithic ochre, smoking censers, silly hats
Cthulhu and Harryhausen prayers, all the mystic flap.
first stanza of poem 10
A Facebook chat with Gemma Files, an author of horror novels, that I participated in very recently made me think again about why horror has no fear for me. The silliness of the rituals surrounding Death has always struck my funny bone. I save my sadness and longing for the living. They can make use of it, they can feel my empathy and my lovingkindness and my appreciation. The dead? I suspect they survive in some form. I doubt very much its a form we'd recognize. But the body horror and supernatural horror of the storytelling world, the world that Author Files (and to an extent Poet Tolmie, though she with an ironically raised brow) and many like her inhabit, have little actual potency and their imaginative powers exert force on our imaginations in proportion to our fear of Death (which, I said above, I believe to be a fear of the process of dying).
Death looks a lot like success.
As in, "I killed that test"
"She slays me" and the rest—

Though it's the act and not the state
Whose power we appropriate,
All us murderous wannabes
In our casual hyperboles.
Poem 42 in its entirety
The attentive will note my approbation of a rhyming-couplets poem.

Pick y'all's selves up off the floor at your leisure.
The New York Times photo
WHAT ABOUT THIS: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford
Michael Wiegers, ed.

Copper Canyon Press
$40.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 5* of five

So then, after that delight to my literary sensibilities arose from the quantum foam, I read this article from The Millions and was reminded of Frank Stanford, whose 1978 collection Crib Death I found on my then-boyfriend the much older alcoholic abuser's shelf.

The Neighbor's Wife
Four a.m. and she's still gone
But I'm not going to call.
It's not so bad, until just before morning,
When I see a truck driver
Take a smoke out of his lips
And throw it out the window
And I watch it go to pieces
All over the road.
I read that as a teen and was shocked to my still-forming core that someone out there Got Me. The obsessive need for someone's presence. The intense internal fire that only comes to the surface when mundane reality offers a single, fleeting, unremarkable image of one's inner state and thus crystallizes reality in the same stunning, unexpected way that a chemistry demonstration creates shocking clouds of sharpness from water.

I don't mean to give y'all the impression that I can just *poof* summon up a poem from 40-year-old memories. I got the text from my memory of the older book's and the specific poem's title, then checked this book out of the library. This kitten-squisher of a volume...750 pages!...collects a thorough and informed sampling of his magic mountain of work both published and unpublished. I got re-interested in Stanford after reading in the above-referenced article that Stanford had committed suicide at 29.

Twenty-nine.

Imagine the life unlived, the art unmade; the world's loss is incalculable when Death takes some unhappy or unwilling soul away from whatever Reality finally turns out to be. Assuming we ever find out, that is.

So the book...elephantine tome!...slogged home in my shoulder tote on a cold and rainy day. I sat right down to look for this deeply meaningful memory, but being a bookish sort, was unable not to read both the Introduction (by one Dean Young, previously unknown to me) and the Editor's Note by Copper Canyon Press publisher Michael Wiegers. I discovered this unlikely-to-be-memed aperçu in Young's Introduction:
Many of these poems seem as if they were written with a burnt stick. With blood, in river mud. There is something thankfully unexamined in their execution. I say "thankfully" because we have been through a long century of self-consciousness and irony, and while their brand of rigor and suspicion have brought intelligence to American poetry they have also brought rigor mortis, they have deadened the nerves and made poets fear the irrational.
What is more irrational than Death? Dying is rational, can be subjected to analysis and quantification, is possible to construct a schema to slot into one's syllogistic understanding of Life.

Death is the Great Unknown. Frank Stanford got that, and wrote with its reality up front and up close and personal:
Putting Up Fence
I believe the moon wades a creek
Like an albino with a blade
Fixed to a stick.

It rises, red as a place
Where a chigger's been.

Voyeur in the loft, leaving your gum
Stuck to a fork in the barn,
Like a porter paid to listen
With his head in a portal
Of a ship returning before it's due.

Then I come down the road with ice.
An unpolished scream of a betrayed husband, a howl of the pain of being unwanted and still alive, a rage-filled hate-fuelled moment in time that Stanford lived and left uncollected on his paper alp. He's dead, he's dying in front of our horrified eyes always and forever.

Or is he the moon.

Or the chigger.

The reddener of millions of feet, ankles bending to bring them within frantic scratching distance of fingers long ago rotted away. The annoying, irritating, sometimes sickening (in all its senses) reminder that we're alive and Life is a Death sentence. Irrationally clawing at the reddened surface of our living corpses, we read poems by artists like Frank Stanford who just couldn't endure the long way home.

These poets spoke to my unpoetic Poetry-hatin' heart because they practice poetry without the dead, deadening blanket of Poetics across their faces. Their mouths, unmuffled, speak and can be heard by this Death-addled dying man. Since y'all're dying too, I want you to know we can listen to what the souls of our compatriots feel without unnecessary intellectualizing complications.

Monday, May 13, 2019

THE HANGED MAN'S GHOST, first in a paranormal mystery series enhanced by bisexual male lead


THE HANGED MAN'S GHOST
MISSOURI DALTON

Self-published
$4.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: three fat stars of five

The Publisher Says: Detective Fynn Adder is embarking on the case that will change his life forever. The ghosts of murder victims are leaving him clues, his drinking problem is out of control, and no matter how nepotistic the Chicago Police Department might be, there are some forces his family’s reputation can’t save him from.

Just a few years ago, Fynn’s longtime partner Robert was murdered and the case went unsolved. As he gets deeper into a new investigation, it becomes apparent that somehow the two cases are connected. To make matters worse, it’s clear to Fynn that forces beyond this world have come into play.

Forces like Internal Affairs agent Daniel Voight, who’s determined to make dirt stick to Fynn any which way he can. The only real bright points in Fynn’s day are when he’s with Jack, his unfortunately straight partner. Fynn is going to have to pull himself together—because if the dead don’t kill him, his family will.

Edition includes the short story "A Girl With Two Faces"

My Review: I love series books that allow me to immerse myself in their made-up world. I adore mysteries that enable me to feel that Bad Guys lose, fail, get punished. I am a complete pushover for gay guys as main characters, a sucker for paranormal stuff that makes common sense, EAGER to see bisexual men in relationships...this book, in short, should light every fire in my mental hypocaust.

And it didn't.

I made forty (40) Kindlenotes, which is either Very Very Good or Really Really Bad news. This time it was both. This is a first novel, and begins the ongoing Night Wars series. There's a downside to revising first books, as was done for this one after its first publisher disappeared. The later books add to the series canon; that can require first-book additions. The author says in the Author's Note that the changes are minor. I wonder if one result of this is the strange choppiness of the narrative. As my most WTF-inducing example, why is Fynn's father "Da" sometimes and "Pops" others? In general, people choose a name for their parents and stick to it. My sisters and I called our mother by different names, but never by each others' name for her. (I called her Mama, Sister Old called her Mommy, Sister Middle called her Mom.) It's not A Rule to have your characters do this, but it's a distraction from the story when they don't. I don't like to have to take a moment to wonder who is being addressed.

The feeling of being popped out of the narrative also comes when details arise and disagree with each other but are never reconciled. An example of this is the first murder. The body has three bullet holes, the witness says four shots were fired with great confidence, which attitude is pointed out by the author. And nothing ever reconciles the mismatch. That's frustrating to a seasoned mystery reader accustomed to watching for clues.

A more macro-level issue for me is the damn-near real time narration of (particularly) the first third of the book. Fynn goes to a bar, sits on a stool, talks to the bartender, reaches for his wallet, gets out his money, pays the bartender, gets off the stool, goes out the door...you get what I'm talking about. It's purely a taste thing, not everyone is annoyed by this, but it isn't a narrative strategy I'd encourage anyone to use. Stage directions in a play aren't usually this detailed.

LOTS of coincidences and unsupported knowledge in here. How does Fynn know where his rescued almost-suicide is? Why is that individual's boss sitting there holding the kid's hand? And what astonishing luck that Fynn's in the same hospital, given that the city of Chicago fairly *bristles* with hospitals and people are triaged to different ones based on injury not on proximity. (This is true for all major metropolitan areas.) The sheer amazing stunning convenience of the existence of some blackmail materials used to manipulate Fynn is unaddressed. Why would these materials exist? In whose possession were they, how did they end up with the blackmailer, and WHY DOES NO ONE ASK THESE QUESTIONS in a POLICE STATION where chain of custody is an ingrained data point to be investigated?!

The latter issue is, I suppose, dealt with by the nature of the series: Paranormal. As in magical, as in manipulating the material world accepted. But this event occurs before the outing, so to speak, of the book's true nature. I can't accept that a cop, especially a senior cop like Fynn's boss, wouldn't bring this up despite the...spooky...nature of the blackmailer. He wants to save Fynn, a good cop from a cop family, from disgrace and dismissal.

Now for the biggest problem I had, and one that came close to closing the book to me for good: Jack, Fynn's cop-partner, serves a fresh-out-of-rehab drunk a drink, *overcomes the drunk's objection to being served a drink*, and proceeds to ply the drunk with four more.

BIG. HONKIN. NO-NO.

It's especially upsetting as this is the same person who expresses loving, tender concern for Fynn's recovery before and after this occurs. It's never mentioned again...like that's realistic!...Jack never asks forgiveness or makes amends. This would be a huge, huge issue in an alcoholic's trust inventory. As would the relationship between Jack and Fynn after this occurs. Not cool. Not realistic.

I hate smoking so I hate the mentions of Fynn lighting up. Personal peeve.

Anyway, from all the above, the question arises: Why'd you bother? What kept you reading, since this isn't a one-star rage review? Because the world the author's building appeals to me, like Charlaine Harris's paranormals appeal to me. I love the world-unseen-by-muggles trope. I grew up gay! In 1970s Texas! Of course I love unnoticed realities, I lived in one. And I understand viscerally the desire of the inhabitants of that world to be left the fuck alone to live as they are. The urgency of adopting a cover story. The skill at verbal deflection. The sensitivity to vibes, to the initiate's gaze identifying Our Own. This book strums my strings the right way in this regard.

I enjoy the Catholic parents of a gay kid making absolutely no waves about his sexuality. Their overbearing controlling behaviors are utterly unrelated to Fynn's man-lovin' just to his whoring around and drinking. Any parent of an addict will look at that and say, "that's exactly it, I love my child and want the self-destruction to stop!" Note the silence about gayness. Refreshing to see religious people portrayed as loving, nurturing, supportive parents. (If a tad on the meddlesome side.)

And last, most importantly, in fact crucially to my pleasure in the read, is the fact that the author dropped two...two!...w-bombs. One of which I felt was appropriate to the situation and was cheekily funny.

Anyone who can make ME, the arch-wink-hater, approve of a w-bomb, is a wizard and deserves a chance to make my eyeblinks focus on their work.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

SOMETHING TO WRITE HOME ABOUT, a story collection you'll have to work to find

Jacket of Harvard Common Press's 1988 hardcover edition

SOMETHING TO WRITE HOME ABOUT
RACHEL INGALLS

Out of print
Various prices

Rating: 4.5* of five

TAKE NOTE This Longreads piece describing Ingalls as "recently re-appreciated".

The Publisher Says: Devoted readers of this perceptive writer will recognize her subtle ability to reveal the most profound observations through seemingly small and ordinary happenings. Those not yet familiar wit her work will find themselves inspired by her magical craftsmanship to closely examine their own experience as they seek answers about the world around them.

My Review: Ms. Ingalls died this past March 5th. I've got this collection of her short stories out of the library for a short while longer. I want to absorb a bit more of what the inspired author left us, and this was the first book I found that I didn't have to get from a different library system.

Theft retells the crucifixion story from one of the thieves' point of view. Horrifying. The details of his dying, the cruelty of the world, all mashed up with the expectation that I was reading about the Jim Crow South suddenly morphing into clarity about the actual subject...the sheer, gut-churning *awfulness* of realizing this story's timelessness has many, many facets and not all of them are facile...the hideous way the world in its unchanging indifference crushes the already fallen and, uncaring, grinds on.

This Easter is a notable one. I've read something about the subject that has instructed me and edified me. All it took was a talented writer telling a coherent story!
2019 UPDATE I learned from the April 2019 Longreads piece that this was published as a novella and "{i}n 1970, Theft won the Authors’ Club First Novel Award in Britain."

The Man Who Was Left Behind follows Mackenzie, a WWI vet whose life was derailed by tragedies. I so empathized with him, I live among people like him, I am myself like him; a man whose life changed stations without warning or explanation or consultation, who carries on without a whole lot of interest in the proceedings and who, in the end, disconnects from the world so he can get on with living his span out.

It was poignant to me that Mackenzie left everything behind to be in the present which, for him, consisted of scraping off the detritus of his past. I liked Mackenzie, but I suspect lots of readers wouldn't and didn't. People who still have a lot to lose don't like people who don't, as a rule; the gulf is wide and the bridges few and far between. I liked that he read old books from the library to use his brain. But of course I would.

Early Morning Sightseer led me to ponder several things...I hated Tilney, and Barney was a bore; England really soaked into Author Ingalls ("pyjamas" and "moving house" from an Indiana boy? Never); and there are so many ways I felt Patricia Highsmith's fingers on this piece it was unnerving. None of those detracted from the essence of Ingalls's fiction: finely observed and beautifully crafted unhappiness in relationships. I loved several turns of phrase, though; it is, after all, a Rachel Ingalls piece.
How fast everything had seemed, and how special and different and sophisticated and rich. All the things that had struck me at first—the odd formality that would have been unfriendliness at home, the attitudinizing, the orgies of talk, the tension and snobbery—seemed to make life so complicated. But then you acquire a taste for complicated things, nothing simpler will satisfy you. Go back home, and it's a let-down, there's something missing, everything is slower, duller, the conversation makes you want to bang your head against the wall.
There's an easter egg for the previous story, The Man Who Was Left Behind, in a minor character's name; it made me smile.

St. George and the Nightclub endings are as awkward and full of mistakes and fearful silences and babbling idiocies as beginnings are; the end of a marriage never, ever comes easy. Don cheated, some sleazeball told; Jeanie hurt, then hurt him; no one does it right all the time.

Forgiveness? What's that? A Rhodes nightclub evening with fools and lushes? No. Abandon hope. Just...breathe. And be damned grateful you still can.

Something to Write Home About details the final moments of self-delusion in John's two-year marriage to Amy, whose increasing mental illness is no longer avoidable and ignorable. Their Greek holiday just bashes his nose into the trouble Amy is in, makes him wretched then hopeful then numb; he breaks and stays broken, but fronts so Amy can't tell. Saddest of the sad stories.

All in all, a collection of mournful reflections on the nature and perils of intimacy; to my knowledge, Ingalls was not married nor romantically linked to any one person. I wonder if her father, an academic at Harvard, and mother the homemaker were unhappy. I read these without the great pleasure I read Mrs. Caliban with, but still with a huge sense of their honesty. Ingalls does not seem, in my current experience of her writing, to be able to write a dishonest or malformed sentence or use a superfluous or ill-chosen image. Whence came this deep and fearless knowledge of intimate unhappiness? I'm of the school that says only one who knows can tell with such limpidity. Wherever she came by it, Ingalls understood and empathized with the unhappy. She bounded that experience with walls of words, fences of imagery, and made a dry, hot, bitter art out of unhappiness.