Monday, November 26, 2007

Without Knowing It

In many ways, Ed Luoma's Without Knowing It (Readers' Forum 2007) reads like a lost Nabokov manuscript. At turns heartbreaking, funny, frustrating and infuriating, the novel is always intelligent, always searching for Truth with a capital T. Indeed, it is his search for Truth (and, of course, his insistence throughout the novel that such a thing exists in the first place) that separates Luoma from many of his postmodern contemporaries; in an age of doubt and cynicism, a point in our cultural progress in which "truthiness" and "knowingness" have supplanted true knowledge, Luoma strives to get at real answers about the human condition. It's no coincidence, then, that a love for Proust (among other giants of what might, for lack of a better term, be dubbed "pre-postmodern" literature) is at the heart of this book. Luoma isn't just trying to be clever, isn't just trying to demonstrate his facility with cultural references (pop and otherwise), but is instead earnestly and (at times) desperately probing the nature of love and friendship throughout this fine novel.

The plot of Without Knowing It revolves around two men and their interest in the works of Marcel Proust. One of the men, a bookseller named Ed, is gay, and the other, a printer named Scott, is (for all practical purposes) not. Not that such labels should matter, but as their friendship deepens and blossoms slowly into mutual admiration and, arguably, love, Scott grows increasingly uncomfortable, thus prompting Ed to meditate at some length on the true nature of love and the degree to which sex and sexuality factor into all relationships. In Ed's desire to love Scott deeply (yet, as the character insists, in a non-sexual way), one is reminded of the profound love shared by such nineteenth century Romantics as Emerson and Thoreau, and in Ed's frustrating efforts at bridging the divide that separates the men, one is also reminded of the doomed romance of Paul McCartney's "Michelle": speaking separate languages, as it were, the major players in this novel never truly communicatate. Nonetheless, it is the attempt that matters, and in this attempt, there is great beauty.

I am told by the author that Without Knowing It is his first and last novel. I can only hope that this is not the case. Luoma writes strong, intelligent prose that challenges the reader to reconsider the comfortable categories our world presents. We could definitely use more writers like him.

For information on ordering Without Knowing It, email

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Attack of the Jazz Giants

I initially bought Attack of the Jazz Giants to assuage my sense of guilt over kidnapping Greg Frost at the end of a Philadelphia literary event, keeping him tied up in traffic for a good hour and a half while I picked his brain regarding the publishing industry, and then dumping him off at a gas station well after sunset. As it turns out, however, the book -- a collection of short horror and fantasy fiction published by Golden Gryphon Press -- suggests that such turns are par for the course as far as Frost is concerned, or at least that the imaginative worlds he has created over the years are not too distanced from the frequently mad world that he inhabits along with the rest of us. To put it another way, Frost's fiction is lively, relevant and engaging because for as far out as it gets, its conceits and premises are always firmly rooted in the day-to-day stuff of reality.

Take, for example, my favorite story in the collection, "Touring Jesusworld," which first appeared in Pulphouse Magazine in 1995. As the title suggests, the story takes the reader on a tour of a Christian-themed amusement park, complete with animatronic saints and apostles. At the same time, however, the proprietor of the theme park continually points out that what he's giving the public is a highly watered-down version of Christianity and that the real history of Christianity is much too complex for the masses to understand. Yet this sly commentary on the state of religion in postmodern America is never didactic or preachy; rather, Frost attacks the issue with wit and humor, as when the proprietor of Jesusworld places a call to one of his technicians to repair a malfunctioning John the Baptist: "Ernie, get someone to reset John the Baptist's timer, would you? Yes, he's just drowned Jesus."

For my money, this may be one of the funniest phone calls ever made in a short story.

Frost's humor aside, what really makes this book work for me is the fact that the author offers commentary at the end of each story, so what we get is not simply a fine collection of fiction, but an informative meditation on writing as well. In each of his "Afterwords," Frost explains (among other things) what inspired each story, how he went about writing it and/or how it initially found its way to publication. By providing this sense of context, Frost allows his readers to see that stories don't just happen, that there is, in fact, a process and quite a bit of work behind writing, and that the life of a writer is a journey best shared with other writers.

Attack of the Jazz Giants is a wonderful book -- not just for the fan of fantasy and horror fiction, but for anyone interested in the craft of writing. The stories are tight, the commentary is engaging, and Frost's dark wit is apparent on every page.

As for Frost himself, let's just say I hope he made it home from the gas station in one piece.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Diary of a Writer in Mid-Life Crisis

The following is a compliment: After reading Jill Sherer Murray's chapbook, Diary of a Writer in Mid-Life Crisis, I can honestly say that her husband is a saint, a prince among men for putting up with the author's neuroses and foibles. And, by way of comparison, Diary also made me realize that my wife must also be a saint for putting up with my own writerly quirks. Sure, I don't wake my wife up in the middle of the night (as Jill does to her husband) to obsess over whether we have too many throw-pillows, but I definitely empathize with nearly every agonizing dark night of the soul through which Jill suffers (with wit and charm) throughout this short, funny, warm and at times heartbreaking book.

Composed of entries from Jill's widely-read blog on, Jill's Diary is part In Her Shoes, part Marely and Me, and part Taxi Cab Confessions (without the cab). That many of the passages take place in some of my favorite restaurants in New Hope, PA, is certainly a plus for me, and the fact that she speaks so freely about her own misgivings as a writer -- the doubt, the procrastination, the desire to write, the struggles with writer's block -- takes some of the mystique away from the writing life. Indeed, this may be why the book works so well. It's pretty common to find books on how to conquer the publishing world by people who have already done so, but it's tough to find books about "the struggle" by people who are currently caught up in it: the struggle to write, the struggle to find an audience, the daily struggle of sitting down at a computer (or typewriter, if you're so inclined) and staring at the blank screen. Although Jill is a successful writer in her own right -- she has published many articles in national magazines over the years -- it's her desire to become a working novelist that moves the book forward, and her realization that there's much more to life than writing that lends the book its emotional core.

One final note: If you happen to pick up this book, don't read the entry for April 21, 2006, right before you're about to address a large audience, teach a class or do anything that might require you to maintain at least a modicum of composure. It's a very Marley and Me sequence, and I made the mistake of reading it just minutes before heading off to teach a section of Freshman Composition. By the end of class, there wasn't a dry eye in the place.

More information on Diary of a Writer in Midlife Crisis is available at

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Species Crown

I just finished reading Curtis Smith's The Species Crown a couple of days ago, and as far as glowing reviews go, let's just say that it inspired me to start this blog. Before I go on, though, a bit of background is in order: I met Curt a year or so ago when we were both doing a reading at the University of Pennsylvania's Kelly Writers' House. The program for the evening included a number of writers who'd had work published in Philadelphia Stories magazine (an excellent free publication highlighting works of writers from the Philadelphia area), and Curt's piece was a touching memoir about the birth of his first child. More recently, I saw Curt at a local writers conference, and he was talking about the value of small presses and where they fit into the big picture of the publishing scene. Intrigued, I thought I'd take a look at his own work in the small press field, so I ordered a copy of his collection of short stories, The Species Crown, from his publisher, Press 53.

And I loved it.

What Smith does especially well throughout his book is to combine pathos and comedy. Without fail, his protagonists aren't simply flawed; they are failures. Failures at jobs, failures at love, failures at life in general. And not just failures either, but grandiose failures, masters of failure, failure virtuosos. In one piece, a petty criminal can't even manage to get a fair shake on a heist that he organized. In another, a bush-league basketball player hits rock bottom when his team falls apart during a tour of Japan. And the novella that lends its name to the collection, "The Species Crown," opens with the protagonist losing his job and moving in with a severely handicapped cousin whose brain injury occurred as a direct result of the protagonist's carelessness.

By placing his protagonists at the end of their respective ropes, Smith does an important thing as far as storytelling goes: he forces them to find new ropes. And as they grasp madly and (more often than not) blindly at potential lifelines, his characters come alive. The petty criminal murders his partner. The basketball player finds a job as an actor, donning a rubber suit and playing Godzilla in Japanese monster movies. The protagonist who lost his job... Well, he has to deal with a lot of issues. But the point is that the solutions in each of these cases invariably open doors to more challenges, and Smith's characters deal with them in realistic and often heartbreakingly comedic ways. This, I think, is the beauty of Smith's work. Time and again, his fiction demonstrates that we are human, we are frail, we are flawed, and we are funny despite (or perhaps because of) it all.