Thursday, January 15, 2009

Idle Talk

Although this space is usually reserved for books by independent publishers, I've just found a great new CD from an independent label and figured a little rule-bending never hurt anyone. It's called Idle Talk and the band is called Cleanfall. The tracks are upbeat and poppy in an indie kind of way. I'm almost tempted to say it's Guster meets Weezer, but there's more to the band than catchy hooks and plaintive vocals. Actually, what really does it for me is the band's lyrical sensibility. But how could it not? I'm a sucker for anything related to Kurt Vonnegut, and their fifth track, "Timequake" -- a conscious reference to Vonnegut's last novel -- offers a hypnotic meditation on the exquisite loneliness inherent in the human condition. Likewise, my ego is grandiose and self-deluding enough to allow me to believe, if only for a fleeting moment, that the third track, "Audrey," is a clairvoyant reference to the protagonist in my forthcoming novel, The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl. And did I mention the CD's cover art? Great stuff from local artist Drew Falchetta. Overall, highly recommended. If you're in the neighborhood, drop by Cathy's Books in Havertown to pick up a copy.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


Robin Chapman's latest collection of poetry, Abundance, is the winner of the 2007 Cider Press Review Book Award for good reason: Chapman's gift for seeing the human dimension of the natural world drips lushly from every page. Throughout the collection, Chapman's poetry insists that the wonders of the natural world not only demand that we view the world through new eyes on a daily basis, but it also allows her readers to recognize the striking similarity between ourselves and the world that surrounds us. This is especially the case in "The Evolution of Sleep" in which the poet traces the all-so human enjoyment of spooning with a loved one in bed to the primitive instinct that drives alligators to seek each other's company for warmth. Yet Chapman is careful never to slip too far into a romanticized vision of nature; indeed, in "What the Eye Supplies," she endeavors with great care to interrogate the relationship between nature as it is and nature as we interpret it. In many ways, this is the tension that runs throughout Abundance. That is, by exploring the relationship between humanity and nature, Chapman gives us perspective enough to recognize that what we see is not necessarily what is, and that in the big picture, we are ourselves as animal as we are human.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

After the Floods

About ninety pages into Bruce Henricksen's imaginative take on post-Katrina Middle America, After the Floods (Lost Hills Books, 2007), a pair of crows named Ruby and George debate the relative merits of various building materials for their new nest. Yarn or string? Old twigs for a rustic effect, or new twigs for resilience, strength, and pliability? More to the point, should they build a two-room nest in the unlikely event that they receive guests, or would a more traditional one-room nest be more appropriate? While the tone of this passage is certainly fanciful, it speaks nicely to the overall theme of rebuilding that runs throughout the novel. Despite its roots in the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, After the Floods is ultimately a hopeful novel that reflects the strength not only of the human spirit, but of nature as well: strength to survive, strength to rebuild, strength to move on.

The prominence of anthropomorphic characters like Ruby and George (as well as that of a number of dogs who speak among themselves of "the new phenomenon of thought" brought on by the hurricane), gives the novel a somewhat fanciful air, but Henricksen never stoops to Disneyfying his creatures. Rather, he imbues them with a strong sense of humanity by making them worry about the same things that we all worry about -- namely various forms of change like displacement and old age. In some ways, it can be argued that Henrickson's crows are distant cousins to the falcon of William Butler Yeats's "The Second Coming." But where the inability of Yeats's falcon to hear the falconer signals anarchy and that things can only "fall apart," Henricksen's crows are distinctly American in their independence. That is, they're wild birds and have no need for a falconer to tell them what to do; instead, they improvise and make their own order from a chaotic world (as do the human characters in After the Floods).

Overall, After the Floods is a thoroughly enjoyable novel. Its talking animals remind us of the fine line that separates humanity from its own base needs and animal tendencies (a la George Orwell's Animal Farm), and the near-stream-of-consciousness nature of the narration is in many instances reminiscent of James Joyce. A wonderfully imagined rumination on humanity's response to disaster.