Thursday, December 18, 2008

Scars on the Face of God

C.G. Bauer has a gift for conjuring memorable characters and creating a subtly-textured sense of place. His new novel, Scars on the Face of God (Drollerie Press, 2008) is a first-class example of this skill. The narrator and protagonist, Johannes "Wump" Hozer, is an expert at all things menial. For example, he knows, among other things, that "Dog shit has a natural chemical in it that helps soften animal skins during the leather tanning process." Of course, Bauer doesn't just insert such bits of trivia for fun (though they are, in fact, fun). They serve a purpose -- they make Wump's world come alive for the reader. And come alive it does. The plot of Scars on the face of God kicks into gear when a brick wall unearthed at the site of a restaurant collapses and a flood of raw sewage carries forth hundreds of human bones. Drawing heavily on his knowledge of Catholic arcana, Wump takes it upon himself to solve the mystery of the bones... And to rid himself of the haunting childhood memories that plague him. Overall, Scars on the Face of God is a fast-moving, highly engaging paranormal mystery with spooky undertones and a haunting aftertaste -- the perfect read for a winter evening by the fire!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

tomorrowland

The good folks at Dogzplot have just published the latest title in their Achilles Chapbook Series (whose slogan is a quote from the wrathful one himself: "Let no man forget how menacing we are... we are lions.") It's a flash-fiction collection called Tomorrowland, it's by Howie Good, and it's the most fun to be had anywhere for the paltry sum of $4.00. Throughout the chapbook, Good envisions a chaotic world of lost jackets, pyromaniacs, insomniacs, secret police, and search dogs, but this isn't just a post-modern exercise in "weird for the sake of weird" (apologies to Moe Syzlak). Good seems to be grasping at something throughout this collection, feeling around in the maddening crush of texts, images, myths, legends, and other mysteries that make up our world to get at some larger truth about the human condition. One of his biggest concerns, it would seem, is the issue of identity. When asked for "some identification" in a piece titled "Late Innings," the narrator wonders whether the socket of a missing tooth trumps a driver's license. Likewise, in "Witness Box," the author notes that we never choose our own names, while in "Ancestors," a little girl asks her father who she looks like, only to elicit from the father a string of angst-ridden familial associations. We are what the world makes of us, this collection seems to say, even as we try desperately to make the world what we need it to be. Good stuff!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Night Battles

M.F. Bloxam’s debut novel, The Night Battles (Permanent Press 2008), uses a nuanced blend of history, legend, and mythology to explore the ways in which the past will always haunt the present. On the run from the wreckage of a career in academia, the novel’s protagonist, Joan Severance, escapes to Valparuta, Sicily, where she expects to put her skills as a historian to good use. The town’s archives are a treasure-trove of minutia from the lives of the long-dead, and while the records she uncovers reveal much about the lives of those who have gone before her, it’s the peculiar absences of information that lead to the biggest mysteries surrounding Valparuta. As her investigation deepens, Severance learns that the town has been the scene of an ongoing battle between the forces of good and evil for countless generations—and that this battle has taken place not on the physical plane, but on an astral one.

One thing that makes this novel stand out is that while its heroine is a historian, she neither falls into the Dan Brown Da Vinci Code mold of adventurer-historian, nor is she a female Indiana Jones. That is, Bloxam doesn’t attempt to wow her readers with vaguely scandalous information about the true identity of the Mona Lisa, and she’s not especially interested in giving the world yet another action hero. Rather, Severance is more in line with James Axton, the protagonist of Don DeLillo’s The Names who, like Severance, discovers hidden, haunting meaning in the forces of history and ruminates upon that meaning in intelligent and thought-provoking ways. Emotionally stunted in many respects, Severance is not just on a quest to discover the truth about Valparuta; she’s on a quest to discover her own humanity.

None of this, of course, is to say that the novel is purely a character study. Indeed, The Night Battles takes many unexpected twists and turns, and what drives it forward is both the sense of mystery that Bloxam has given to the town of Valparuta and the silent longing for some kind of emotional depth that she has given to her protagonist. In short, The Night Battles is a work of beauty, a curious cross between Umberto Ecco and Neil Gaiman-—mysterious, moody, and highly engaging.

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Dogzplot

I had the good fortune of running into Barry Graham, one of the editors of Dogzplot magazine, at the Push to Publish writers workshop at Rosemont College earlier this month. Focusing on flash fiction, the magazine is a gem of a publication whose latest issue features somewhere in the neighborhood of sixty authors. Pushing the inner-limits of word-count, the current issue opens with a six-word piece titled "Trash" before launching into a fast-paced journey across the physical, emotional, and psychological landscapes of America. Each piece in the collection is under 200 words, and each, in the immortal words of Spider-Man, really packs a wallop. Among the standouts are two by Florida author Dawn Corrigan titled "Nemesis" and "The Pin," which deal with pathological uncles and unrequited love respectively. Another highlight is Scott Garson's "Accounts Payable," which asks the immortal question, "Why does the ham and cheese croissant cost less than the ham and cheese sandwich?" Rounding out the issue is Graham's "All Together," which arguably presents the definitive ultra-short version of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. All in all, Dogzplot is a great little magazine to have on hand while you're waiting in line at the grocery store or for those late nights when you know you want to read something good but won't be able to stay awake for more than a few paragraphs of text.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Baby Jesus Pawnshop

About two-thirds of the way through Lucia Orth’s latest novel, Baby Jesus Pawnshop (Permanent Press 2008), protagonist Rue Caldwell experiences an epiphany. As Ferdinand Marcos is being inaugurated to the office of President of the Phillipines, Rue realizes that her position as the wife of an American counter-insurgency specialist renders her a willing conspirator in the political system that is responsible for all of the injustices, economic and otherwise, she has seen throughout her stay in that nation. In the author’s words, Rue “felt a dread, unnameable, that by not objecting, following life lived on an iron track, she was also a part of the farce and the horror.” This sentiment nicely captures the position of Rue throughout the novel and underscores the tension that drives this insightful and intensely humane political thriller forward.

Throughout the novel, Orth demonstrates not just a strong familiarity with early-1980s Phillipine politics, but a solid understanding of the relationship between the members of the rank-and file who live history as it occurs and the larger movements that get recorded in the history books. This gift is especially clear in the novel’s opening pages. As Rue wanders through a marketplace in Manila, she is forced to come to grips with the poverty that surrounds her, and the extent of this poverty comes across almost viscerally when a vendor offers to sell the protagonist an infant described as having “the unhealthy color of raw gray dough.” Juxtaposed against the festivities surrounding the aforementioned inauguration (not to mention the silk scarves and high-heel shoes favored by Imelda Marcos), the poverty that Rue witnesses underscores the absolute injustice of the economic disparity between the haves and have-nots—and, needless to say, serves as a telling explanation for why revolutions occur.

All of this is not simply to say that Baby Jesus Pawnshop is ripe for all manner of Marxist interpretation. Politics aside, it’s also a great read. Orth’s gifts for character and setting are apparent throughout the proceedings, and her political “agenda” (for lack of a better term) never tarnishes the story. Indeed, where a lesser novelist might stoop to the errant didacticism of moral high-handedness, Orth revels in parsing the complexities of ethical gray areas. Overall, a compelling and thought-provoking read.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Broad Street

The first thing I noticed about Christine Weiser’s debut novel, Broad Street, is the cover. Hot pink with an iconic Roy Lichtenstein-esque illustration of a woman in a blue evening gown rocking out on a bass guitar, the artwork struck me as fresh and bold—more Mexican wrestling poster (and I mean that in a good way!) than staid book cover—which, it turns out, makes it the perfect match for Weiser’s fresh, bold literary voice.

The novel opens with the recently-single protagonist Kit Green making a drunken pact with her friend and partner in crime, Margo Bevilacqua, to start an all-girl band with the express purpose of pissing off the musical men in their lives. From here, the novel is a roller-coaster ride through the ups and downs of life in the independent music scene. As the author’s bio notes, Weiser herself played bass in a Philly girl band called Mae Pang back in the nineties. The experience obviously left a lasting impression, for all of Kit’s struggles come across as genuine and heartfelt. In short, the woman has walked the walk, so she knows exactly what she’s saying when she talks the talk—and this fact comes across on every page.

While the Philadelphia music scene circa 1994 provides a brilliant backdrop for this novel (and Weiser imagines that setting vivdly), Broad Street is about so much more than Kit and Margo’s adventures in the music industry. It’s about their individual struggles to find their respective places in the world at large. Indeed, it’s a quest for identity. Both women desperately want to declare independence—from the men in their lives, from their families, from the dead-end jobs they work just to make ends meet—and in so doing, to emerge fully into adulthood. And if they have fun while they’re doing it, then so much the better!

Bottom line: Broad Street is a great, fun book about coming of age in the often seedy and always exciting world of rock ‘n’ roll. Imagine the women of Sex and the City strapping on guitars, and you’ll get a sense of what it’s all about. The perfect survival guide for anyone considering a career in the music business.

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Friday, September 5, 2008

Head Wounds

Perhaps it’s the passing of legendary voice actor Don LaFontaine last Monday, but I can’t help wondering what the trailer for Chris Knopf’s latest mystery, Head Wounds (Permanent Press 2008), might sound like if the book were made into a film. In fact, I can almost hear the so-called “Voice of God” tantalizing us with the following: It was just another day for Sam Acquilano when his whole life suddenly turned upside-down.

As with many great Hollywood thrillers, Head Wounds follows a familiar pattern. The grizzled hero with a shady past is framed for a murder he didn’t commit. Yet while the pattern is certainly familiar, at no times does Knopf appear to be re-treading old ground. Indeed, his prowess as a storyteller allows Knopf to apply Ezra Pound’s mandate to “make it new” to the detective genre. Thus while the novel certainly hits many recognizable marks as Knopf weaves his version of a classic trope, it also takes a number of unexpected turns, most significantly with regard to setting and character.

Knopf’s facility with setting is apparent. The novel is set in the fabled Hamptons, summer playground of the exceedingly well to do. At the same time, however, Knopf’s vision is of the seedy underbelly of the Hamptons. To put it bluntly, I seriously doubt anyone will ask Knopf to write a travel brochure for the region anytime soon.

With regard to character, Knopf does a wonderful job of populating his fictive world with memorable and exciting characters who do everything they can to resist the bonds of cliché. Yes, protagonist and narrator Sam Acquilano is a dark, brooding chain-smoker who enjoys a good drink, but he’s also a pragmatist at heart. When asked why he never drinks in the vicinity of power tools, he replies matter-of-factly that it’s “hard to maintain a respectable drinking habit without fingers or thumbs.” Similarly, while Acquilano abhors the “plague of sophistication spreading through the Hamptons, infecting even indigenous dive bars,” he’s still not above (or perhaps below) brewing a pot of gourmet Viennese cinnamon coffee to fortify himself against the peril and deception that besiege him from all sides. In many ways, the man is a walking contradiction, yet it’s this inherent and ongoing state of contradiction that makes him so interesting to watch as he goes about trying to clear his name while simultaneously doing everything within his power to destroy his own life, such as it is.

Throughout Head Wounds, Knopf proves himself as a superb writer who is highly adept at taking the old tropes and making them new. His characters come to life vividly, his sense of setting is spot-on, and, last but not least, the man can craft a real page-turner. A great read for the fan of hard-boiled mystery.

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The Sacred Sin

My apologies to Estevan Vega. He was eighteen years old when he sent me a copy of his second (second!) novel, The Sacred Sin, but I took so long to review it that I’m fairly certain he has to be at least forty-seven by now. The novel opens with its protagonist, Los Angeles detective Jude Foster, lying on the therapy couch and resisting every effort his state-appointed counselor makes at guiding him through the therapeutic process. Foster, after all, is a complex, brooding anti-hero who looks (or so we’re told) like Hugh Jackman, so no amount of talking through his problems is going to help him deal with his demons. Instead, he needs action, and when a spate of mysterious murders lead him to a face-to-face showdown with the devil himself (or, more accurately, Azrael, the angel of death), Foster learns just how far his spirit needs to sink before he can begin the long, hard work of crawling back to life. Though the prose relies somewhat heavily on adverbs to convey emotional impact, the story itself is taught and fairly complex, and I can easily see this book being made into a Hollywood film along the lines of the 1999 supernatural thriller The Ninth Gate. Vega has a natural talent for creating believable characters and imaginative situations, and I look forward to seeing more from him in the future.

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Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Fallen Nation: Babylon Burning - Review by Tom Powers

Yet another fine review from my friend and colleague, Tom Powers:

Fallen Nation: Babylon Burning (Mythos Media 2007) is the type of revolutionary fiction that may inspire you to take a visionary road-trip across the South-West searching for the America you’ve only heard about in rock ‘n roll songs or saw while under the hallucinatory influence of some illicit substance and/or the works of Philip K. Dick, Thomas Pynchon, Hunter S. Thompson, and comics instigator Grant Morrison. An impressive hybrid of words, illustrations, photography, pseudo-interviews, and one well-drawn comic strip, Fallen Nation: Babylon Burning’s storytelling both entertains and educates. The latter may immediately turn off the “I’ll learn when I’m in school, thank you very much” crowd, but author James Curcio is by no means preachy when he shares with you his knowledge of philosophical concepts. The author, after all, who holds a B.A. in Philosophy from Bard College, is creatively applying his education to his fiction. Not to digress, but it is not very often that we see a writer effectively reap the fruits of a liberal arts education through the lens of prose as Curcio successfully has done with a confident understanding that intelligent ideas, both classical and contemporary, still have a voice and meaning applicable to perhaps the last undiluted and uncensored of print mediums – the novel.

In terms of clearly drawn narrative lines between hero and villain, Curcio does not, thank goodness, offer easy, predictable answers. Instead, he intricately crafts an atmosphere of intrigue and paranoia via secret governmental agents who are unclear as to the identity of their true masters and ex-asylum inmates, rock stars Babalon, who are on the road as they head toward a literally explosive gig. Fallen Nation: Babylon Burning is also not afraid to transgress boundaries as it challenges our assumptions of morality, sexuality, and nationalism. If all of those facets have not yet intrigued you, however, the character of Lilith herself, the enigmatic, consummate seductress and lead singer of Babalon, will justify the time you devote to consuming this rewarding read.

Then there’s Curcio’s dialogue – sharp and cracking – the perfect complement to his lyrical prose, philosophical ruminations, and innate understanding of what drives the essence of the American dream – our shared love of its sometimes-alien landscape, which exists geographically across its states and internally within all of us who chase that dream and continuously struggle to grasp its ever-shifting definition.

For lovers of wild sci-fi, intriguing concepts, not to mention sex, drugs, guns, and rock ‘n roll, Fallen Nation: Babylon Burning, accordingly, is the apropos new-millennium text that will awaken the sleeping counter-culture beast within.

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Craven Deeds - Review by Tom Powers

Once again, my sincere thanks to renaissance man about town, Tom Powers, for contributing the following review.

A neuroscientist by trade living in San Diego, author Heather M. Elledge, in her debut novel Craven Deeds (Infinity Publishing 2008), crafts a fantasy world that is paradoxically familiar and unique. This assessment itself could be criticized as sounding trite, but, once you’ve read Elledge’s work, you’ll see that this statement honestly captures the tone of her writing. The author begins her tale with the freshly orphaned Carla attempting to adjust to her new ostensibly mundane existence living with her wealthy grandmother Hanna, whom she’s never met hitherto now due to familial estrangement. Hanna, however, with a subtle wink-wink to the audience, is not as simple and boring as Carla believes the woman to be as she introduces her granddaughter to an object Carla’s mother once owned – an old snow globe. On this side of reality, the globe appears as a nostalgic remnant of Carla’s mother’s childhood – but this is the world of fantasy; consequently, the globe becomes the magical catalyst that propels young Carla on a quest accompanying a gnome rescue party as they go in search of their kidnapped King Ruben.

Elledge then rapidly introduces a world that echoes well-revered fantasy tropes –quirky creatures, ancient royalty living in mighty castles, dark, mysterious forests, and treacherous mountains. Elledge indeed applies these fantasy traditions in her writing, but the novelty in this first-time writer’s approach to these elements is the sense of joy she brings to her world-building. Along these lines, she offers such creations as gongors – a sort of fantasy horse – and sand pouches that represent a gnome’s soul married with magic. She also taps into contemporary fantasy reader needs, in a manner similar to the cross-genre short stories found in last year’s Bad-Ass Faeries collection, by combining adventure-fantasy with murder mystery in a successful recipe for continual page-turning on the reader’s part.

Despite enjoying Craven Deeds’ brisk-paced narrative, I must confess that Elledge’s ending leaves me wanting much more, as the story’s tantalizingly unfinished by the novel’s end and certain characters remain underdeveloped and their motivations unexplained. Of course, there’s an apparent method to Elledge’s circumvention of these necessary storytelling elements – she’s wisely committing trilogy, assembling the narrative scaffolding for her projected “Gnome King Trilogy,” the second part of which she has already begun composing. For this reviewer, then, the literary expansion of Elledge’s world awaits…

Available September 5, 2008, from Infinity Publishing.

-Review by Tom Powers


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Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sound and Noise

As a rule, I don't read books on my computer screen. The strain on my eyes gives me a headache, and there’s something about holding a bound volume in my hand that’s simply too intoxicating to give up for the cold, lifeless experience of interfacing with a machine. I say all of this not so much to rail against technology but to underscore how much I enjoyed reading Curtis Smith’s new novel, Sound and Noise. My admiration for his storytelling skills (see, for example, his wonderful book of short stories, The Species Crown) was enough for me to bend my hard and fast rule against reading novels on my computer just once, just for him, but it was his gift for imagining characters and their settings that kept me coming back for more--blindness and aesthetics be damned!

The novel presents the parallel lives of two characters for whom heartbreak is no stranger. Tom is an artist who pines away for his comatose wife while life ostensibly passes him by. Jackie is a former backup singer in a classic rock band whose life has settled into a rut that consists largely of tending to the bar she inherited from her family and prowling the aisles of her local grocery store in search of the meaning of life. Or love. Whichever comes first. Bereft of joy, both characters struggle with loneliness and its various cousins—depression and despair, chief among them—only to find hope in each other and, perhaps more importantly, in the flaws that make them so human.

While the basic premise of Sound and Noise may sound a little gloomy, Smith is as adept at tackling weighty subjects with a light touch as he is at breathing life into his characters. Indeed, it’s the “extras” in the world that the protagonists inhabit that make their struggles not only bearable but ultimately so enjoyable. The small college town Smith envisions is teeming with well-meaning if not always reliable compatriots for Jackie, and despite ingesting mind-altering substances on the least opportune occasions, Tom’s friend Blaine, an otherwise down-to-Earth novelist approaching middle-age, gives the proceedings an atmosphere not unlike that of a classic buddy-film.

Granted, I’m a big fan of Curtis Smith, but I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that this is a wonderful work of fiction that will allow even cynics (such as myself) to find a deeper appreciation for the day-to-day miracles inherent in every life. Available soon from Casperian Books, Sound and Noise is a winner.

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Friday, August 1, 2008

Alive

Weighing in at 95 pages and typeset in what appears to be 14-pt Times New Roman, Alive by Jeffrey Murray (Trafford 2007) follows the efforts of a young African-American male to “understand blacks, whites, the whole universe, and how it is designed to intricately work together.” Early in the purportedly true story, Murray-as-first-person-narrator writes, “Thursday, twenty years ago, a rage of pure hell was ignited within my mental capacity from racial broadcastings of black people struggles in America.” As the book progresses, Murray takes the reader through a number of racially-charged incidents that helped to shape his attitudes toward race, life, and the universe: moving from school to school, interracial romance, violence, bigotry, the death of a family member, and a personal near-death experience. Throughout this very short memoir, Murray punctuates his life-story with footnotes explaining the greater significance of each incident. This strategy produces an interesting result: two narratives running almost simultaneously, one depicting events in the narrator’s external life, and the other charting his emotional and intellectual growth. Overall, Alive is a quick read that offers an interesting and personal glimpse into the mind of a young man coming of age while exploring the significance of race in America.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Theatre of Incest

Once again, my good friend Tom Powers, co-author of The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, is helping me out with a review. This time around, the book is titled Theatre of Incest. Hmm...

Alain Arias-Mission’s short novel Theatre of Incest (Dalkey Archive Press, 2007) presents a man who indulges in a lifetime of incest with his closet female relatives. As an apprentice being introduced to the dark art of incest, the narrator learns the ropes of control and submission from his mother – a delineation chronicled in the first part of the novel. In the subsequent part, we witness how the narrator takes on his own incestuous apprentice – his daughter – and initiates her into a world of unbridled, graphic sexual acts. The final part then shows our sexually intrepid narrator find a strong counterbalance, both mentally and physically, in the form of his sister, whom he deems his “sweet witch.”

The term “witch” appropriately channels the tone of the novel, whose back cover copy calls a “primeval fairy tale” that “burns with icy passion.” To be honest, Theatre of Incest is a read best suited for lovers of poetic language, and, more importantly, for readers who honesty possess open minds. Arias-Mission’s words dance on the page as his narrator shares his life with us – sans dialogue or multiple perspectives. This approach could lead some readers to wonder if the narrator is indeed an unreliable one – but the author’s words are so seductive and the twisted, erotic world he crafts so beautiful and shocking, that the reader will often be caught up in the flow of events instead of wasting too much time judging the man.

Since Arias-Mission’s approach to his subject matter does not pretend to pass a moral verdict upon his narrator, or hint that the man’s actions are in any way mitigated by mental illness, one may seek to understand why he wrote this book. Perhaps the author is inverting Freud’s tired-and-true “Oedipus Complex” in a working metaphor applicable to our contemporary, complex family relations. Instead of repressing sexuality, a la Freud, in an emotional mishmash with his mother, daughter, and sister, the narrator, then, freely transgresses these boundaries in his attempt to understand these women better. However, in the absence of sexual repression, jealousies still arise, and the eternal power struggle between men and women is continued on a sexual stage Arias-Mission at one point literally presents as exhibitionist theatre. Likewise, he may be telling us that the various roles we may hold in our life as children, siblings, and parents will always confuse and delight us in manner that is more intimate than our most intense sexual relations.

Just as Arias-Mission does not offer easy answers concerning his character’s actions, it is probably fitting that this reviewer refrain from further trying to theoretically troubleshoot this sexually and emotionally daring novel.

Review by Tom Powers

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Contractor

Charles Holdefer’s latest novel, The Contractor (Permanent Press 2007), opens with a single question that drives the entire narrative forward: Who are you? Posed by a prisoner in a Guantanamo Bay-style secret prison, this seemingly simple question haunts George Young, the novel’s narrator, and forces him to take a long, hard look at how his life has led him to a career as a civilian interrogator for the U.S. government. More importantly, perhaps, this question allows the reader to move far beyond headlines, political rhetoric, and theoretical generalizations about the use of torture to extract information from suspected terrorists and, instead, paints an intimate portrait of one man’s participation in the vast machinery that utilizes such techniques to gather information. In so doing, Holdefer forces us to recognize that wars aren’t fought by nations, but by individuals.

Significantly, very little of The Contractor takes place in the remote prison where George Young works. Yes, Holdefer does a superb job of bringing the details of George’s work situation to life, but the real power of this novel derives from the author’s exploration of the title character’s familial obligations. Forbidden from discussing his work with anyone outside of the prison, George has grown distant from his wife and children by the start of the novel. Indeed, as his wife slips into a haze of alcoholism and his children become increasingly mysterious to him, George’s most intimate acquaintance is with the family cat. Add a struggling brother, a crotchety father-in-law, and a claustrophobic holiday visit back home to the mix, and George’s life becomes a dramatic tangle of self-doubt and confusion. And, needless to say, his dogged efforts at untangling the deeply intertwined knots of work and family drives the novel forward to a searing, shuddering conclusion.

To put it bluntly, The Contractor demonstrates why the novel will always be a viable art form and why the small press is so important to keeping that art form alive. The novel, at its best, places the reader in the skin of the protagonist and allows the reader to understand the world from someone else’s point of view. As such, it removes us from our comfort zones and causes each of our worldviews to shift as if on an axis, if only for a brief period of time. Yet in that time when we inhabit the bodies of strangers, their struggles become our struggles, and the world becomes new for us. We emerge from the experience changed and look at the world through new eyes. This process, of course, is not always comfortable—hence the need for the small press, the press whose concern is not with providing mass-market thrills so much as thoughtful transformation. It is, however, always enlightening.

Like all great literature, The Contractor provides such enlightenment and then some. It does for the war on terror what Don DeLillo’s Falling Man did for the terror attacks of September 11, and what Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried did for the Vietnam War. It avoids saying "here's the story" and instead says "here's a story." And in giving us a story, the novel brings its subject to life in a way that is both disturbing and beautiful. As fascinating as it is moving, Holdefer’s novel is not to be ignored.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Cider Press Review

I’ll start with a confession. Many years ago, I dabbled in poetry. Haiku. Sonnet. Free-verse. Villanelle. Sestina. Name the form, I tried it.

But today’s world is no place for a poet, at least not for one with skin as thin mine, so I laid my quill aside and, with a sigh, set my sights on more prosaic pastures. My own failure as a poet, however, gives me great admiration for anyone who stays at it, and even greater admiration for anyone willing to provide poets with a venue, an area in which to be appreciated. Caron Andregg and Robert Wynne, the co-editors and publishers of Cider Press Review, have done just that, and their journal is not only a labor of love, but a bastion of hope for struggling poets and poetry lovers everywhere.

The latest issue of the journal opens with a poem titled “About the Type” by Marilyn McCabe. As its title suggests, the poem consists of an imaginary note on the type in a book set in a font called Requiem. Yet Requiem, the poet notes, has fallen out of use. The irony, of course, is that while the typeface is no longer used, it is, nonetheless, the typeface used in the book that the poet imagines. In many ways, it can be argued that this is the state of poetry in the modern world: while the pundits of cultural production and mass media may insist that the poem is a form of communication that is itself “now out of use,” poetry continues to resurface and prove that reports of its death are grossly exaggerated—as demonstrated, of course, by Cider Press Review and other journals like it.

Another poem in this edition of CPR that caught my eye was “Night of Broken Stars” by Brian Lutz. Ostensibly a love poem, this piece takes the conceit of William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 into the free-verse realm of a gothic American October. Where Shakespeare finds beauty in the black wires of his subject’s hair and the reek of his subject’s breath, Lutz finds beauty in “the undusted room” and likens it to the “second hand/of working things ticking.”

Overall, Cider Press Review does a wonderful job of collecting the poetry of new and exciting voices as well as that of award-winning poets from around the world. The latest issue is nearly 150 pages long, perfect bound, with a bright, beautiful cover. If you’re a poet, you certainly can’t go wrong in subscribing to this gem of a journal.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The First Sandcastle

Early in M.E. Delgado's debut novel, The First Sandcastle, narrator Marlo Clemente and his gruff father build a sandcastle, which, the father promises, will never fall. Never, that is, as long as the tide stays out. And here lies the crux of the difficulties Marlo faces throughout his life. The universe his father envisions for Marlo is perfectly idealized and completely inviolable--as long as real life doesn't seep in. The problem, of course, is that real life does inevitably seep in, and Marlo so believes in the admittedly misogynistic world his father has created that he's not sure how to reconcile it with the world that his senses and better judgment tell him is real.

At issue through much of the novel is Marlo's attitude toward women. According to his father, women are treacherous and deceitful, and nothing else. Even Marlo's mother, says the father, is completely untrustworthy. Initially, Marlo's experiences bear the father's theories out as a beautiful girl gets the better of his best friend. When Marlo himself falls in love, however, he begins to question his father's wisdom, especially upon realizing that the girl's mother has a similar theory with regard to men. For Marlo, then, growing up is a matter of recognizing that the monolithic theories we tend to build to explain the world have a tendency to fall apart under scrutiny--just like the sandcastles he loves to build must always fall to the tide.

Overall, The First Sandcastle works wonderfully as a coming of age novel. I wouldn't quite call it young-adult literature, but elements of the story will certainly resonate with youthful readers who are themselves attempting to navigate the choppy waters of romance for the first time. Indeed, Delgado's prose mimics the earnest tone of adolescence so faithfully that it's easy to forget that the author is an adult. This isn't, of course, to say that Delgado writes in a childish fashion, but that he beautifully captures that moment just before adulthood when we all believe that we have the world figured out, that all matters of ethics and morality fall neatly into simple categories. Just as abandoning this black and white world view to explore the moral ambiguities of adulthood is ultimately what growing up is all about, so too is The First Sandcastle.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Maps and Legends

Michael Chabon's first collection of essays, appropriately titled Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing along the Borderlands (McSweeney's 2008), charts the largely misunderstood, maligned, and unexplored territories of genre fiction and comic books, so it only stands to reason that this volume has itself been largely misunderstood, maligned, and (perhaps) not (completely) explored by those who have reviewed it in the mainstream media. As a longtime spectator of genre fictions, I was personally intrigued by Chabon's premise throughout the book: that while "mainstream literary" culture (whatever that means) has a tendency to frown upon such categories as the mystery, science fiction, and romance, works written within these genres tend to be the most adventurous and experimental. In other words, despite its bad reputation, genre fiction is what keeps literature alive. (Not to toot my own horn, of course, but I've been making the same observation about independent presses since day one of this blog...)

As the subtitle for this book suggests, invention happens in the "borderlands" between established genres. Thus, like e.e. cummings' Cambridge ladies with their comfortable minds who live in furnished souls, mainstream literary writers have a tendency to write safe literature that reproduces the status quo. By way of contrast, however, genre writers ranging from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Cormac McCarthy manage to challenge the status quo in various ways. Conan Doyle, for example, blurred the line between reality and fiction by having characters like Sherlock Holmes and his assistant, Dr.Watson, insist at almost every turn that they were not amused at the attention lavished upon them by the public as a result of the publication of the tales of their exploits. Along slightly different lines, McCarthy uses the form of the epic adventure (and, perhaps surprisingly, not the sci-fi epic, as many critics have asserted) to plumb the depths of humanity's will to survive in The Road.

Other "explorers" Chabon profiles throughout his book are comic book visionaries Will Eisner and Howard Chaykin, English writer Philip Pullman (of The Golden Compass fame, and himself. Indeed, Chabon's exploration of his own creative processes make for some of the most interesting passages in the book. From his childhood in Columbia, Maryland, where the maps of city planners always preceded reality, through to his ongoing efforts at creating his own worlds in novels like The Mysteries of Pittsiburgh, Wonder Boys, and The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Chabon's love for the realms of imagination he has both created and inhabited shines like a beacon. Additionally, Chabon's exploration of the biographical details surrounding many of his works sheds light not only on the relationship between his own works and real life, but on the relationship between fact and fiction in general. The realm of fiction, it turns out, is a realm that complements our own, a world that adds depth and dimension to the already complex day-to-day universe we inhabit. More importantly, perhaps, it is a realm that has the potential to reshape what we consider reality.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Philadelphia Book Festival/Philadelphia Stories/Cider Press Review/The Ecstatic Exchange/McSweeney's

On Saturday, I had a chance to stop at the Philadelphia Book Festival, and I'm really glad that I did. Not only did I get a chance to meet (and embarrassingly fawn over) Charles Burns, the writer/illustrator of Black Hole, but I also got a chance to meet up with a lot of people involved with small presses from across the country.

Considering that the festival was a Philadelphia-based event, it was no surprise at all that the publishers of Philadelphia Stories were in attendance, and the good news from them is that they're branching out into book publishing. Long known throughout Philadelphia for purveying fine short-stories, essays, poetry and art on a quarterly basis, the folks at PS will be launching their new books division this fall with Christine Weiser's Broad Street, a novel that's already getting a lot of buzz for its realistic, fun and engaging portrayal of the Philadelphia rock scene circa 1994.

Another bit of exciting news that the folks at PS had to share was that they're sponsoring a writer's retreat at Rosemont College this June. Among the instructors who will be on hand to share their expertise are Tom Coyne, Charles Holdefer, and Elyse Juska. (When, I wonder, do these people find time to sleep?)

In the stall next door to the Philly Stories tent, I had the opportunity to meet Caron Andregg, one of the editor/publishers at Cider Press, a small press specializing in poetry. Friendly, generous, and gregarious (as any small press publisher must be!), Caron gave me a copy of the latest edition of Cider Press Review. I'm planning to do a full review of the issue in the near future, but for the time being, suffice to say that if this collection of poetry is any indication of what the press has to offer, then it's definitely a winner.

Also on hand at the festival was my old friend Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore, whose poetry I've enjoyed since we worked together ages ago at a small publishing company that put out accounting textbooks. Now enjoying a slightly early retirement, Moore has been busy with his own press, The Ecstatic Exchange. In addition to publishing Moore's own work (which itself has been published and/or distributed by none other than City Lights Books and Syracuse University Press), The Ecstatic Exchange also publishes the work of other poets, most notably, Tiel Aisha Ansari, whose Knocking from Inside lovingly examines the relationship between the human soul and the Divine by way of sorrow, the natural world and the listening heart.

Last but certainly not least, the folks from McSweeney's were also on hand promoting their latest titles. What really impresses me about McSweeney's (aside from how friendly their sales reps are -- talking about everything from the joys of being a dog owner to the difference between Brooklyn and San Francisco) is how much care the publisher puts into designing their books. Take the Baby Be of Use series, for example; designed in such a way as to fit into the hands of any small child and, perhaps more importantly, illustrated so as to convey meaning even to the most pre-literate of toddlers, these books will have otherwise shiftless babies up and mixing drinks, fixing cars, and making breakfast in no time. And, on a slightly less whimsical note, the multiple dust-jackets of Michael Chabon's first collection of essays, Maps and Legends, hints at the many layers of meaning the author explores in the world at large. But more on this title in a future post...

In a word, my trip to the Philadelphia Book Festival was energizing. Seeing so many people who were so passionate about the art of publishing and the business of bringing interesting and otherwise marginalized voices into the public eye made me remember why I keep at it with this blog. Unlike the massive corporate publishing houses that evaluate potential writers the same way they evaluate stock portfolios, the small press publishers I met definitely weren't in the game for the money. They're in it for the sheer love of the written word. It's this love of the written word that keeps their presses going, and it's this same love of the written word that keeps literature alive.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

End Credits

Back when I was an undergrad at Saint Joseph's University, I had an English professor named Owen Gilman who defined an A paper as any paper that he wished he'd written himself. Reading A.F. Rutzy's latest novel, End Credits (Casperian, 2008), I couldn't help thinking of my former professor and how dead-on his definition was. Part mind-bending crash-course on the mysteries of the afterlife and part zany critique of the excesses of consumer culture, Rutzy's novel is, hands-down, the novel I wish I could have written. Combining Neil Gaiman's sense of magic, Kurt Vonnegut's wry wit and uncompromising moral compass, Thomas Pynchon's penchant for spiraling yet captivating narrative digressions and Don DeLillo's fascination with all things contemporary, Rutzy laughs wildly at the world at large while the rest of us avert our eyes in horror.

The fun begins when the novel's narrator, Raymond Kessel, dies while crashing the wrong funeral. The only problem is that the afterlife isn't remotely like anything his Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Simmons, promised. Instead of plucking a harp behind the pearly gates, he finds himself desperately trying to get a straight answer from a Grim Reaper named Cleo while inhabiting the body of a wealthy advertising executive. From here, the novel only grows curiouser and curiouser (to borrow a phrase) as Rutzy introduces us to a wide cast of memorable characters including (but not limited to) the previously mentioned angel of death, a desperate would-be rock star, a bumbling accountant, and a pair of wild hogs with an apparent fondness for sunglasses and shopping malls. Conjuring his vision of American excess with a careful balance of exuberance and aplomb, the Finnish author weaves an intricate web of characters and amusingly outlandish scenarios that had me hooked from the word "go."

Of course, that End Credits is such a good book comes as no surprise. It's the latest from Casperian Books, a press whose track record with such titles as Mouth of the Lion and The Tea House has made it one of my favorites. (And just to give a shout out to a favorite author of mine, Curtis Smith, I should also mention that his first novel, Sound and Noise, will be coming out as a Casperian title later this summer... I'm definitely looking forward to that one!)

Needless to say, End Credits earns an A in my book. And given the number of emails I've received from disgruntled students since the semester ended earlier this week, that's really saying something.

For a free sample of Rutzy's work, check out his short-short, Nolens, at Hecale: A Portal for Writers.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Sticks of Fire: The Turning Point

Reading Sticks of Fire: The Turning Point (Tumi Publishing, 2007) by Ricardo Estrada, I am reminded of the concept of the well-wrought urn, an idea invoked by literary critic Cleanth Brooks to discuss his criteria for evaluating the merits of individual works of literature. Despite trends in academia that called for works of literature to be interpreted primarily in terms of their social and historical contexts, Brooks insisted that some works, in a sense, stood outside of history, that these works might universally be described as "good," regardless of the age or context in which they were written or in which they may be received. The literature of William Shakespeare and John Donne leap to mind as examples of such works, as does "Ode on a Grecian Urn" by John Keats. In short, the well-wrought urn is the work of art that is perfect in terms of both form and content, and, for what it is and what it does, Estrada's first novel fits the bill.

Before going on, I should point out that I'm not making an argument for placing Estrada alongside Shakespeare, Donne and Keats in the pantheon of English letters. (Of course, I'm not making an argument against it, either!) What I am saying, however, is that Sticks of Fire is the perfect specimen of books of its type. That is, it's an excellent addiction and recovery novel. Throughout the proceedings, Estrada advances his characters and settings like a master craftsman, providing his creatures with strong motives both for falling into and overcoming addiction, equally strong obstacles to defeat, and perhaps most importantly, a credible and complex depiction of the processes that go into recovering from addiction. It would be very easy for Estrada to give us a story of pure triumph over addiction, but because he explores the gray areas of recovery and the ambivalence inherent in living with addiction, Sticks of Fire transcends the typical after-school special tropes of addiction and recovery tales and, instead, rises to the level of art.

The basic plot of the novel revolves around a 27 year-old widower named Orlando, whose alcoholism stems largely from the loss of his wife and unborn child. Although he realizes on one level that his drinking is problematic, he is generally able to kid himself into believing that it isn't really a problem. Yet when various pressures related to a new job at a halfway house begin to mount, the tenuous control he has over his relationship with alcohol slips away, and he begins to recognize that he has more in common with the individuals he's been hired to help than he might initially like to admit. Once he recognizes this fact, however, Orlando can embrace not only his job but his life as well, and once he does, he helps the residents of his halfway house organize a basketball team, which both metaphorically and literally allows them to work together in order to find purpose in their lives.

Part Hoosiers and part Clean and Sober, Sticks of Fire is an engaging read, likely the best book ever written on addiction and basketball. The characters come to life, the settings are vividly depicted, and the story is told with enthusiasm. I can easily see this novel being made into a Hollywood film - or better yet, an indie. And, needless to say, I hope to hear more from Ricardo Estrada in the future.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

She

Melissa Frederick has done the impossible: she's written a love poem that men will immediately understand. The poem is titled "If I Could Move Like Jackie Chan," and it's just one of the exceptional pieces in her first collection of poetry, She (Finishing Line Press, 2008). Of course, using Jackie Chan's kung-fu prowess as a metaphor for love is only the tip of the iceberg as far as Frederick's facility with language and imagery is concerned. Among other figures who show up in her poems are Sylvia Plath, Zelda Fitzgerald, and a thinly-veiled White House intern (or, more accurately, the ice cream in her freezer). Additionally, Frederick's use of images culled from a vocabulary of pop-culture references, which runs the gamut from the content of the evening news to the stuff of science-fiction and fantasy, allows even the most resistant reader of poetry to feel at home in her world. Arguing, among other things, that space-stations should be run by single mothers on welfare and that the best ways to make an exit frequently involve healthy doses of red-faced embarrassment, She is the collection that T.S. Eliot would have written had he been a woman living in a world of cable TV and comic books.

For a free sample of Frederick's work, check out her poem "Minor Distinctions," which appears both in She and in the e-journal Diagram. Alternately, check out "Earth at Night," which appears in Philadelphia Stories. Or, if you want the full Melissa Frederick experience, buy a copy of She directly from Finishing Line Press.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Kaleidotrope

Just a quick note about Kaleidotrope, a great indie 'zine with a trippy underground sensibility. (Okay, so I may be biased since they published my comic strip "Eyes" late last year and just did a feature on the book I wrote with Tom Powers, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, but it really is a fine publication.) Featuring a diverse collection of short stories, comic strips, nonfiction and poetry, the latest issue runs the gamut in terms of style and subject matter. There is, of course, the interview with yours truly, handled deftly by radio telescope operator Betty Ragan (of Maximum Verbosity fame), and there's also a "Brief Introduction to Female Android Sexuality in Film" by film reviewer Eric Borer. Other highlights include poetry on the topic of house hunting on mars (in the appropriately titled "House Hunting on Mars"), a short story about a half-invisible girlfriend, and a comic strip on the dangers of cultivating a taste for H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu tales. Always a good read, Kaleidotrope is definitely worth checking out.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Tattoo: Tatu

My friend and coworker Dana Resente, who turned me on to Flann O’Brien a few months back, has a tendency to leave notes in Irish for me and my other coworkers whenever she gets a chance. For the most part, the members of my department regard this practice as endearing, and although we never quite know how to respond to Dana’s missives, we smile appreciatively when we receive them and hope that they’re neither shot-through with insults nor full of vital information like your car is on fire or the dean wants your head on a platter (again). Now, however, with the help of Nuala Ni Chonchuir’s stirring book of poetry, Tattoo: Tatu (Arlen House, 2007), I can at least reply with a witty (if non-sequitur) riposte of my own in the Irish language.

To backtrack just a little bit, Chonchuir is an Irish poet whose work is both sensual and provocative. Her imagining of Virginia Woolf’s suicide in “Virginia’s Last Walk,” for example, leads the reader through the final moments of the writer’s life in minute, intimate detail (without, it should be noted, recourse to the rubber-nosed costumery that marks the same event in the film version of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours). Likewise, her treatment of Western body-image issues in a poem titled “Pandemic” toys playfully with the odd language we use to describe our relationships with food and each other: “Fun-size women/ bite each other’s backs,/ every flesh-inch/ tasted and tested/ against their own.”

Yet while Chonchuir bares her soul and examines the world around her in visceral and challenging ways throughout the collection, what’s most fascinating about Tattoo: Tatu is perhaps the poet’s work as a translator. Professing a love for the Irish language throughout her introduction, Chonchuir juxtaposes many of the English-language versions of her poems with Irish-language versions of the same. And while I know absolutely nothing of the Irish language, simply seeing both versions of the poems side-by-side is an eye-opening tip-off to the vagaries of translation. What becomes clear in Chonchuir’s work as both a poet and a translator is that translation is never an exact science; rather, it is an art that speaks a language of its own. That is, in the gap between one language and the next, there is occasion, as in poetry and as none other than TS Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock might attest, for a hundred indecisions, a hundred visions and revisions, yet the translator, like the poet, must settle on only one.

Of course, there’s also a practical value to Tattoo: Tatu—at least for me. The next time Dana leaves a note in a foreign tongue on my office door, I can reply with a line or two from one of Chonchuir’s poems—something like “Ta me fuar i mo lui i lana daichead poll ionam stroichte o bhiorain!” (“I lie cold in a laneway, forty stab wounds pulled from needles!”).

Hmm… On second thought…

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Months and Seasons

Since I’ve started this blog, a lot of authors and publishers have been contacting me about reviewing their books. For the most part, I’ve tried my best to read the books in the order in which they arrive. Last week, however, as I put down Guacamole Dip by Daniel Reveles, I couldn’t take my eyes off the cover of Months and Seasons by Christopher Meeks. And although there were a good two or three books ahead of this one in the queue (and despite all of the old bromides about the dangers of judging a book by its cover), I couldn’t resist. Something about the angry black chick on the cover called out to me, almost dared me to read just one story in the book. Which is all I really intended to do—just read one story before moving onto the next book on my list.

Big mistake.

The stories in Months and Seasons are like potato chips: you can’t read just one. Just a few sentences into the first piece, “Dracula Sinks into the Night,” I immediately felt at home in the world Meeks has created—one in which it’s possible to find varying degrees of salvation in a fall from a second-story porch while wearing a Dracula costume or (as in a story titled “The Holes in My Door”) in a stray load of buckshot fired accidentally into one’s own foot. Throughout this collection of short stories, which reads like an odd combination of Raymond Carver and O Henry (heavy on the Carver), Meeks approaches the complexities of human relationships with wit and subtlety. Moreover, his understanding of the fragility of the human species brings depth to his work. Case in point: my favorite story of the bunch, “The Old Topanga Incident,” in which a writer stares down a natural disaster only to wonder how much fight he has left.

Perhaps the most endearing piece in this collection is the opening chapter of the author’s upcoming novel, The Brightest Moon of the Century, which Meeks includes as something he describes as a “bonus track.” Titled “The Hand,” this piece introduces the reader to a teenager named Edward and his distant, recently-widowed father. Convinced that the public school system is failing his son, the father enrolls Edward in a private school where the vagaries of tying a necktie and dealing with his over-privileged classmates only exacerbate his sense of loneliness. Driven by Edward’s desire to connect with his father in even the slightest way, the piece, like all of the stories in this collection, offers a touching exploration of the ties that bind. Indeed, if “The Hand” is any indication of what’s to come, I’m certainly looking forward to The Brightest Moon of the Century.

Months and Seasons will be available in late May.

Update: Available now at Amazon.com!

Monday, April 7, 2008

Guacamole Dip

My life has been a bit of a whirlwind of late. A few months back, my wife and I spoke with a real estate agent. In what seemed like no time at all, our house was on the market and we were looking for a new home. Not long after that, we had a buyer who wanted us to agree to make some repairs to our current home before she’d sign anything, and we were making similar demands upon a seller. And so began the calls to the plumbers and handymen, the asbestos technicians and chimney inspectors, the oil-tank removers and brickwork experts, the butchers, the bakers, the candlestick makers.

Then there was the mortgage to secure, and now there’s the whole issue of actually moving everything we’ve accumulated over the past ten years into our new home in the space of twelve hours. On top of that, there was the enjoyable if ill-timed trip to San Francisco; there were (and always will be) papers to grade, lessons to plan, conferences to be held with students in various stages of compositional meltdown, and all of my various and sundry writing projects to see to. I’m almost tempted to cry, “Calgon, take me away!” The only problem, however, is that my bathtub leaks (another thing the buyer wants fixed), and my students tell me they’ve never seen a Calgon commercial in their lives. Which might leave me at a loss if not for Guacamole Dip (Sunbelt 2008), the latest collection of short stories from Daniel Reveles.

Like Reveles’ previous collections (Enchiladas, Rice, and Beans and Tequila, Lemon, and Salt), Guacamole Dip is set in the border town of Tecate – a great place to visit, if only for minutes at a time amidst the hustle and bustle of modern life. Populated by a cast of vibrant, loving, giving characters, Tecate is, in the words of one character, “a long way from Krispy Kreme.” And thank goodness! Having Guacamole Dip on hand over the last few weeks has been like carrying an instant vacation along with me wherever I’ve gone. No Krispy Kreme, no Starbucks, no ATMs, no worries. Just the welcoming sound of sidewalk vendors hawking their wares, the hearty songs of strolling mariachis, and the constant banter of Los Cafeteros, the town’s brain-trust, which gathers daily to discuss philosophy and politics over endless cups of coffee. Sure, there’s some intrusion from up north - Monologo de una Vagina is playing in the local theater – but for the most part, the town is a world apart, with a logic and karmic ecosystem all its own.

Beautifully written and brought to vivid life by a master storyteller, Guacamole Dip is the perfect, relaxing antidote to the senseless stresses of the modern world.

William Faulkner had Yoknapatawpha, and Daniel Reveles has Tecate.

Guess which one I’d rather visit.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Grammar Today: The New American Language and Grammar Primer

I'm very fortunate to have a job that I love: I’m an English instructor at Montgomery County Community College. Because the school has an open admission policy, I see a very wide range of students, all of whom are bright, witty and clever in their own ways, most of whom are eager to learn, and many of whom have wonderful, innovative ideas that they can’t always express in a clear and meaningful fashion. The problem isn’t that these students aren’t smart. The problem is that the English language is so riddled with what seem (to them, anyway) to be arcane rules that don’t necessarily make sense. My biggest challenge, then, is frequently that of helping my students cross the great linguistic divide that separates their ideas from their audience. And since this audience consists of my fellow colleagues in various disciplines, who would be shortchanging my students if they accepted anything less than the best both in terms of content and form, I am always looking for new and interesting ways to allow my students to engage in what is widely known as academic discourse. Or, in plain terms, how to talk smart to smart people. Hence my excitement over the opportunity to review Richard Betting’s Grammar Today: The New American Language and Grammar Primer.

Eschewing the smarmy pop-pedantry of the fairly recent spate of grammar books like Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Betting takes a systematic nuts-and-bolts approach to the issues of teaching and learning grammar. Early in the book, the author discusses the shortcomings of traditional grammar instruction and argues that students first need to understand both the point and the power inherent in communication before they can fully appreciate the nuances of their language. It’s not simply enough to teach students the rules, Betting notes; we need to explain why the rules matter. Additionally, Betting sees a value in allowing students to understand the history of English itself: if we recognize English not as static but evolving, we can allow our students to see that language is, in his words, “a work in progress.” In the end, perhaps it is this observation that gives the book its strength. For Betting, there is no “right” way to speak and write. Rather, we choose various modes of expression for various occasions. What Betting ultimately proposes is that we need to teach students how to describe what they are doing when they communicate, how to recognize that engaging in that process involves making choices, and how to make appropriate choices when trying to achieve different effects or communicating with different audiences.

Overall, Betting does an excellent job of mapping the diverse territories of contemporary composition and rhetoric studies. At the same time, however, I’m not entirely certain that the book will appeal to those most in need of a “grammar primer.” While Betting certainly provides the aspiring composition-and-rhetoric scholar with a compact volume that covers not only the approaches to writing pedagogy that have fallen in and out of favor over the past fifty years or so but also a brief history of the English language as well, my own experience with students who struggle with grammar is that this book may be too theoretical for their liking. Nonetheless, I recommend it to anyone who plans to make a living in the composition and rhetoric field.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Big Hands 6

Just a quick post on a funny, free publication I picked up while in San Francisco, Big Hands 6. Weighing in at just about ten pages, this chapbook by Aaron L. Smith offers a frenetic set of musings on everything from the Moravians who settled Greensboro, NC, in the 1750s to breaking up, drunk uncles and sharing the gun collection one has inherited from one's father with the man with whom one's mother wishes she were in love. (Needless to say, the Freudian implications of this last issue alone are reason enough to give the author's work a second look.) Throughout the proceedings, Smith demonstrates a refined sense of self-deprecating wit and sophistication, as when he observes that reason he admires the Moravians is that they "fully grasped the indisputable suckiness of life here on Earth in ways that modern Americans simply cannot." Overall, a wild, clever read with a punk-rock, do-it-yourself, underground aesthetic -- well worth picking up if you can find a copy.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Off Kilter

First there was the house inspection, then the radon test, and by the time it was all over, it was time for me to get on a plane to fly out to San Francisco to give a paper at this year’s Popular Culture Association conference. The only problem was that the flight was delayed by about five hours, and the plane didn’t land until three in the morning. A scant five hours later, I was discussing the relationship between humanity, Daleks and television in front of a room full of strangers, and shortly thereafter, I received a message from my real estate agent stating that my roof needed fifty new slates, an oil tank had to be removed from my basement, my house had two cracked joists, and conditions in several spots on my porch were “conducive to rot.” Amidst all of this, I had the opportunity to read Linda C. Wisniewski’s memoir, Off Kilter, and have never been more thankful for the power of other people’s misfortunes to put my own concerns into perspective.

Writing in a style reminiscent of Frank McCourt, Wisniewski conjures the ghosts of a troubled and emotionally fraught childhood throughout the majority of her memoir so that she can exorcise them in the final chapters. As we walk with Wisniewski through her childhood, we come to cringe at every approach of her surly, eternally discontented father, to pity her long-suffering mother, and to admire the long journey the author has made from her small-town roots in upstate New York to the life she has made for herself in the present day. Indeed, what emerges most clearly throughout the memoir is the author’s ambivalence toward the economically depressed Amsterdam of her childhood: steeped in old-world Polish tradition, the town is both home and alien to her, the ground zero of an identity forged in self-conscious embarrassment and, ironically, the proving ground for the confident and self-sufficient woman she would become. Expertly balancing pathos and triumph, Wisniewski never wallows in self-pity. Rather, she gathers strength from her setbacks and finds a renewed sense of purpose with each curve life sends her way. In this sense, Off Kilter is a fine testament to the resilience of the human spirit and to the healing power of the written word.

Monday, March 17, 2008

While She Was Working

Although this space is usually reserved for book reviews, I'm willing to bend my own rules and review a CD just this once because this one deserves attention. While She Was Working by Scot Sax offers a fun and lighthearted peek into the mind of a working musician. If his name sounds a little bit familiar, it may be because of the Grammy-winning and (for a time) inescapable "Like We Never Loved at All" by Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, which Scot co-wrote. Then there were his various bands, Wanderlust and Feel chief among them, which earned Scot a loyal following with songs like "I Walked" and "I Am the Summertime," a fan-favorite from the American Pie soundtrack. Now that he's on his own, Scot can generally be found producing tracks for and touring with up-and-coming bluesy, folksy, breathy pop sensation Sharon Little, performing with his own traveling Saxploitation circus, or hosting Open Milk Night, which is, hands-down, the best open-mic series in the Philadelphia area. In short, the man never stops working, and it's a minor miracle that he managed to find the time to record the six quirky tracks on this CD.

Scot's previous musical outings found him exploring the ups and downs of life as an aspiring pop star. In 1995's "Stage Name," a track from Wanderlust's Prize, for example, Scot promised to take the fifteen minutes of fame that the rest of us would surely squander (a la Darva Conger) and do something remarkable with them. Later, with Feel and "Until They Close the World," he took on the guise of the quintessential rock hero who wouldn't stop rockin' until they... well, did what the title of the song suggests. And though Scot is now well into his [a-hem] mid-thirties, he's more or less keeping up his end of the bargain. Sure, he's not going after the brass ring of super-stardom anymore, but that's what gives his latest outing its magic. What we get with While She Was Working is a great-sounding, unpretentious snapshot of what a singer-songwriter does with his free time: have fun writing more songs.

The closest analogy I can make off the top of my head is Brian Wilson's "Busy Doing Nothing" from the Beach Boys' low-key 20/20 album. But the comparisons don't stop there. Throughout the CD, the influence of British Invasion bands is evident, and all of the tracks bear strong hints of The Beatles, The (latter-day) Kinks and David Bowie. I also detect faint traces of Daniel Johnston (the subject of the 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston) and even Bob Carlton (a.k.a. Carl Bobton), one of Scot's Open Milk faithful. Overall, an excellent (if brief) collection of songs.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Anonymous

Reading Jason Tanamor’s second novel, Anonymous, I am reminded of the passage from Homer’s Odyssesy in which Odysseus blinds Polyphemus, the Cyclops who has been eating the wandering hero’s crew. Before blinding the Cyclops, Odysseus says that his name is “Outis,” which translates to “no man” or “nobody.” As a result, when Polyphemus is blinded, his cries for help go largely ignored by his countrymen, who have more than a little bit of trouble understanding the one-eyed giant’s cries that “nobody” has attacked him. Thus, in a series of deft moves, Odysseus demonstrates the power of anonymity, a power which Tanamor explores throughout his appropriately titled Anonymous. Yet where Homer is content to present us with a single hero whose anonymity is only temporary, Tanamor presents an entire cast of nameless characters whose anonymity remains intact throughout the entire novel. As a result, we never know where we stand with these characters, and we’re never quite sure who to trust. Not that this is a bad thing. Reveling in the vagaries of unreliable narration, Tanamor proves himself a master of the existential mystery: the question is never whodunit, but who is the “who,” and how do we know that the “it” ever really got done?

While Tanamor’s writing may find its deepest roots in classical mythology, the most palpable spirit haunting Anonymous is that of Chuck Palahniuk. The novel is dedicated to “Chucky P,” and every page drips with Palahniuk’s unflinching fascination with the grotesque and disturbing-yet-true details of life in postmodern America. Moreover, the structure of Anonymous closely follows that of Haunted, Palahniuk’s disquieting parade of mangled freaks and the vices that frequently lead to their undoing. Where Palahniuk uses the occasion of a writers’ retreat to give his own unreliable narrators an opportunity to show off their prowess at cock-and-bull one-upmanship, Tanamor’s storytellers find themselves in jail, pleading their cases to one another through a network of drainpipes and empty toilet bowls. There’s “Unknown,” the con artist imprisoned for impersonating Brad Pitt’s manager. There’s “Ambiguous,” who killed his own child as payback for his wife's infidelity. There’s “Nose,” who insists he’s not psychotic. And then there’s the unnamed narrator of the novel who obsesses constantly over the woman who gave him herpes. They all have reasons for doing what they’ve done, they all have an astounding capacity for rationalizing the worst of crimes, and they all have stories to tell.

If there’s one criticism I have of Anonymous, it’s that I wish the book had been typeset professionally—or at least with a stronger eye for design. Set in what appears to be double- or perhaps 1.5-spaced Times New Roman, the book has a self-published appearance that may deter the casual reader from further investigating Tanamor’s prose. Tighter spacing, a less-common typeface (like Baskerville or Bodoni), and slightly smaller indentations at the start of each paragraph would go a long way toward giving this novel a more professional sheen. Aesthetic concerns aside, however, fans of Chuck Palahniuk (and especially of Haunted) will find a kindred spirit in Jason Tanamor.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Innocent

A cult of hooded villains powered by violent blows to the crotch. A lizard demon named Charles. An elfin medicine man known only as Zen. Welcome to the bizarre world of Innocent, a recent graphic novel from King Tractor Press.

Part Captain Britain, part Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and part Highway to Heaven (in a weird, brutal, absurd kind of way), Innocent is the story of a fallen angel who teams up with a bald, burly sociopath to set the world right. Yet where the divine duo of the early-eighties morality drama rarely found it necessary to parse the shades of gray that linger between good and evil, the basic tension that drives Innocent forward is that the title character is anything but that which his name implies. Yes, he can sniff out evildoers with uncanny precision, but his methods for bringing said evildoers to justice borders on… well, evil. As the fallen angel eventually laments, “It’s hard to fathom peace while looking through bloody eyes.” Wry commentary on American foreign policy, perhaps?

Equal parts magic and mayhem, the book reads like a frenetic walking tour through the graphic styles of classic indie comics from the late-eighties and early nineties. As the duo’s adventures progress, clean line drawings give way to wispy, ghost-like sketches and then to a style that borders on manga. This, of course, is because each chapter has been drawn by a different artist, the effect of which is to put a new visual spin on the main characters every twenty pages or so. In other words, we get to see Innocent evolve through a number of incarnations as his adventures continue. And continue they do.

Or at least I hope they do. The graphic novel ends with a cliffhanger in which the fallen angel’s life hangs in the balance. On one hand, it can be argued that this strategy robs the overall story of its natural arc; we’re not getting a graphic “novel,” technically, but an installment of one. On the other hand, however, by raising more questions than it answers, this volume does a nice job of planting the seeds for many adventures to come and certainly left me wanting more.