-- It is a notebook. It is a journal. It is Froot Loops. (I have to love it; I live less than 50 miles from Kellogg's.) The Junior Mints version is pretty cool too, if you're like me and giggle about Kramer dropping a Junior Mint into that dude getting surgery during that one episode of Seinfeld, or if, you know, you like Junior Mints. Some other cool journals: A Reader's Journal, if you are into tracking what you read, and my favorite -- a journal made out of recycled card catalog cards.
-- Also from Etsy: My book club can beat up your book club. I really like this. Now all I have to do is join a book club.
-- Slang flashcards. For when Urban Dictionary isn't enough.
-- Need your books to stop falling over (or know someone who does)? How about some bookends? Not just any bookends. Thurber's dog bookends.
-- Never underestimate the power of a really cool pen.
-- This kind of freaks me out, but it's a pen holder.
-- How could you go wrong with a librarian action figure? I ask you.
-- Keep they're/their/there straight, even if you constantly have to check your shirt. And I don't know how literary this is, but maybe you should get this t-shirt for the hipster on your list.
-- Who doesn't love stickers? Shut up, Holden. (Amen.) Or Only YOU can prevent comma splices! (Do your part.) Or Prufrock is my homeboy. (In a minute there is time to stick this on your car.)
-- Does this count as an homage to Oscar Wilde? I think so, yes.
And if it seems like I'm stretching for a literary reference here, maybe that's just because I've been to the Book Expo before and I know how completely insignificant a devotee of fiction and poetry can feel at this convention, which is most definitely not called the Literary Expo. It's called the Book Expo, and most of the attention goes to books that sell: cookbooks, celebrity tell-alls, sudoku puzzles, how-to manuals, self-help guides, movie tie-ins, gimmicky pop-culture fads, airport bestsellers. It's a rough but informative confrontation with reality for anybody who thinks the book publishing business revolves around its most original literary voices.
That's not to say alternative fiction and poetry won't be represented (it just won't be emphasized). At past Book Expo gatherings, I've chatted with the likes of Chuck Palahniuk, met numerous small-press masterminds, and collected far more loot, yo-yo's, frisbees, pens, buttons and galley copies than I really needed. I'm not going to wait on line for anybody's autograph this year, but I do hope to attend some great panel discussions, go to some trendy parties (yeah, I usually hate book parties, but that doesn't mean I won't show up) and meet a lot of interesting and smart people.
Speaking of parties, the Litblog Coop is hosting a casual hangout at the historic Kettle of Fish in Greenwich Village, on Thursday night from 8 to 11. Whether you're attending Book Expo or not, please come down on Thursday night and say hi if you can.
2007 has been a controversial and somewhat crazy year so far for the book biz. Bonfires are being lit, innovative publishers are closing up shop, newspaper book critics are being fired, bloggers are getting more and more uppity by the minute. And every once in a while this dysfunctional industry even manages to turn out a fresh and important new work. The 2007 gathering may turn out to be the most lively Book Expo of all time. And people in glass buildings shouldn't throw stones, so I'm going to try to keep my expectations in check, enjoy myself and hopefully learn a few things I didn't know.
Fifteen years dead Larkin is still a looming presence so I will try and be terse. He writes with clarity and a determined ordinariness that does not exclude (and often underpins) the lyrical. He is always accessible, his language compact, though occasionally arcane. Fond of compound adjectives -- air-sharpened, rain-ceased, bone-riddled -- he shares this with Hardy, with whom he invites comparison though his sentiments are less gawky, what they have most in common a deep, unshiftable despair.
2. The Clarks of Cooperstown, a new book by Nicholas Fox Weber about a family of influential art collectors, has been getting lots of attention in the art world, though it seems the attention is unwelcome by those carrying on the Clark legacy. The book details an admirable long history of art patronage, but it also details some gay relationships in the family as well as a few interesting political associations. Word on the street is that parties close to the wealthy Clark family are leaning on major art institutions (including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is running a major exhibition from the Clark collection right now) to not stock Weber's new book, published by Alfred A. Knopf, in their museum bookshops. All of which just makes it sound like a book I'd really like to read. You can't buy it at the Met, but you can buy it here.
3. I said that nobody seemed to care about Soft Skull's sudden announcement that it was being folded into a larger publishing company, but it turns out many do care. Soft Skull publisher Richard Nash posted a thoughtful explanation of the changes on Soft Skull's blog. There should be no mistaking the fact that this sale is not an attempt at creative or financial synergy, but rather a necessary consequence of a major book distributor default several months ago. There is a positive angle here, though, in that the merger gives Nash control over Counterpoint Books as well as the future Soft Skull. Richard Nash publishing Gary Snyder? Looks like that's in the cards.
1. Soft Skull, probably the best alternative/independent publisher in the USA right now, is being sold and merged into a large holding company managed by Charlie Winton, who has also acquired Shoemaker & Hoard and Counterpoint.
Once again, I'm disappointed that not many of my fellow bloggers seem to be paying attention to stories like these, because the Soft Skull news has not made much of a ripple. Are literary bloggers afraid to write about finance? Can it be that nobody thinks this is relevant news? Google Blog Search turned up only one blog post following GalleyCat's story, and I just don't understand this.
In sounding alarmed about the news, I'm not trying to cast negativity on the business decision Richard Nash and Soft Skull's management team have made. I think very highly of this team, and if any executive can continue to squeeze greatness out of Soft Skull under the watchful eye of a corporate finance overseer, Richard Nash is that executive. But I have to say that I'm worried, and I'm skeptical. Even if Nash succeeds for a while, don't corporate mergers always end at the same sad cul-de-sac, when eventually the winds change?
I wish this team good luck, but ... thank god City Lights and Akashic are still independent.
1. A Return to Mother's Love is a fanciful surprise by Daniel Patrick Helmstetter. What looks at first like a regular illustrated poetry chapbook turns out to be a "concept piece", a photographic/poetic record of a private art project involving children's balloons. Daniel Patrick Helmstetter seems to like balloons a lot, and he seems to have a lot of friends who like balloons a lot too. We see photos of the author carrying a balloon around various cities. We learn factoids about balloons, which (we are told) can rise up to 5 miles in the atmosphere, at which point they shred into tiny spaghetti-like pieces that float back to earth. Damn. My only complaint with this beautiful poetry chapbook is that some of the poetry itself is rather trite. As an objet d'art, though, this is one of the better chapbooks I've ever seen, and there's nothing wrong with objets d'art.
Mother's Love has its own website. Or you could just go to Daniel Patrick Helmstetter's myspace page and become his friend, because he seems like a friendly guy.
2. I have very mixed feelings about The American Dream by Mike Palecek. This is a fast-moving, hard-hitting political satire about a controlled suburb called Homeland. It's Orwellian in a funny kind of way, as when we hear wacky modern echoes of Big Brother's slogans:
Hats Are Caps
Work Is Play
Goodbye Is Seeya
Kinda Is Sorta
Streets Are Roads
Wrestling Is Rasslin'
Lunch Is Dinner
This is funny stuff, and I love the epigrams that litter the book, from Sally, Dick and Jane to Stephen Colbert, Kurt Vonnegut and Harold Pinter. All good, but does it work as a novel? Mike Palecek, who has written a whole bunch of underground-press novels, does not have a strong command of the reading experience he is providing. There are good bits, but I can't find the glue holding it together. The American Dream kicks off with a whole bunch of material about Robert Kennedy, and yet nothing on the book's back cover text or cover image indicates that this is a book about Robert Kennedy. As we read on, I can't get a grip on who the narrator is or what's going on. Am I confused? Is the novelist confused? The narrative veers and crashes, and soon the only Kennedy I'm reminded of is Ted -- specifically Ted at the wheel of a big car on a dark night. I am truly sure that there is a good novel inside The American Dream but this is just too chaotic, the presentation is too sloppy, the printing quality is amateurish, and the whole thing has the potential to be much better than it is.
3. I'm sorry I'm not my usually cheerful self, but I'm also having problems with The Red Book by Ben Barton, a chapbook of plain-speaking, innocent poems, many of them only half a page or so long. The book is attractive and well-designed (especially if you like the color "red"), and all of the poems win points for clarity and simplicity. But I'm missing the depth of long, difficult words, the fascination of tough themes and cross-matched rhymes, the intensity of conflicted emotion. At their best, though, these poems are enjoyable to spend time with:
It's taking its toll, I'm beginning to feel
That life is too short, too nose to the wheel
And I feel like Winona strolling the mall
But I wear the brightest smile of them all
4. Aaron Howard, who occasionally shows up here on LitKicks as a poet named mindbum, has launched a new publishing operation called Oilcan Press. I can't find a web page for this low-tech underground outfit, but I hope you can find a way to get a copy of A Portrait Of New York By A Wanderer There by Edgar Oliver, who has been a significant and haunting presence in New York poetry and theater for many years. Edgar Oliver specializes in surreal washes of emotion:
I was made from the muck inside my mother somehow,
My father opened a door in an old house
and saw a staircase.
Oliver's typewriter-typed and ink-splattered (or is it blood splattered) texts are well-matched with patchy collage backdrops featuring newspaper articles, photos, remnants and sheet music. I wish there were an Amazon page for this chapbook, but for now the only way to get a copy is to send an email to email@example.com pledging to snail-mail 10 bucks. While we wait for the website to get built, here's something about Edgar Oliver.
5. Holding Hands With Reality, a poetry chapbook by Curran Jeffery, offers straightforward free verse mostly about the struggle to keep one's head together in the modern world. We hear about political aggravations, family tragedies, and we observe an old man in a restaurant whose mind is slowly slipping away. One poem describes a playground full of blind children, and the next instructs the reader in how to talk to trees. But reading these poems, I regretted not being given any information at all about the poet. Whether this was an intentional omission or not, I think it forced me to squelch my interest at a point when I was just becoming curious enough to wonder who the human being behind these aphoristic verses was.
That's it for the Indie Grab Bag, people. You know I'll be back with more stuff soon. If you want to send me your own review copies, check the info on the right nav panel. Please be forewarned that I'm way backed up and I may not be able to write about what you send me at all. But I'm always worth a try.
1. Lance Tooks is a veteran cartoonist, and the Lucifer's Garden of Verses series of graphic novels represents only one fraction of his life's work. Tooks' comix offer an interesting merger between apocalyptic fantasy and hiphop street humor. It helps that he draws people with such warmth and affection. I find his books very pleasing, even though my literary antenna has never really been tuned to graphic novels. I find his thoughtful blog even better, even though he only seems to update it once a month.
2. I'll say it over and over again: if you're a small publisher, appearance counts. Ken Waldman's poetry chapbook Conditions and Cures looks great (the cover seems to evoke for me an old 70's country-folk record album), and this helps me look upon the poems inside with favor. Ken Waldman writes with taste, humor and expert rhythm. The author is a bluegrass musician, and you can hear the banjo rhythms in moving sequences like this:
Most evenings, she practices martial arts,
the slow process a physical cleansing
after speedy freeway days. A tensing
and an untensing. Sometimes, as she starts
a kick, she's in the dirt bikes and go-carts
of junior high. Or flashed forward, dancing
a dance she's not supposed to know. Sensing
the future, she remembers to breathe. Hearts
are like hands, she thinks, as she makes fists,
then releases, clasps thing fingers as if
in prayer. She almost feels her right hand insist
a man awaits -- this man dreams her -- as her left
demands she continue. All night, she fists
and unfists, fists and unfists, fists and unfists ...
3. Darrin Duford's Is There A Hole In The Boat? is an account of a haphazard but rewarding journey across the nation of Panama (without a car). Duford is a talented travel writer, and does a good job of mixing political/social context with human observation. I'm not sure what it takes for a travel writer to break through with a book like this one, but I hope Is There A Hole In The Boat? finds a way.
4. I always want to see an independently published book succeed, and I have to complain when I see an author or small publisher use self-defeating tactics. I was initially intrigued by a gloomy gray paperback with a woebegone suburban ragamuffin on the cover called Almost Columbine, by Alexander Hutchinson. The back cover promo text promises a realistic high school story with echoes of Colombine-like violence. We're off to an okay start, but then I'm stopped dead by a bunch of frontpaper and introductory text explaining that this volume is the second volume in something called "The HAWKS Series", and that it continues the story of an earlier volume titled "The HAWKS Foundation Mission One" (this volume is apparently "Mission Two"). It's not a good idea for a publisher to alienate readers of a new book by making them feel stupid for not reading the previous installment. After this off-putting introduction, I found it difficult to get into the story. I do believe Hutchinson is working up to a heartfelt and possibly important statement with this material, so I hope he will try again.
5. I don't usually review music here, but I've done poetry shows with Baltimore's native poet (and frequent LitKicks Action Poetry contributor) Mark "Wireman" Coburn, and I'll make an exception for Play That Funky Raga White Boy by his Raga Celtic Delta Blues Band. This ensemble sounds sort of like Michael McClure and Ray Manzarek, Captain Beefheart, Ravi Shankar and Howlin' Wolf all together in a mellow elevator. I'm not sure if the Mississippi delta runs through Baltimore, Maryland or not, but this troupe makes it sound like it does.
The Indie Grab Bag ain't empty yet, folks! Come back tomorrow for some more titles worthy of checking out.
I'm in the Brooklyn home of Danny Simmons, artist, novelist, poet and creator of HBO's groundbreaking Def Poetry. Danny's living room is like an art gallery -- no, it's like three art galleries all packed together in one room, and the good-natured eclectic chaos I see around me reminds me of the welcoming attitude of the long-running TV show I'm here to ask Danny about.
Danny doesn't seem to care if anybody thinks of him as a media mover-and-shaker or not, but the facts speak for themselves: the only successful TV show about poetry ever created has just begun its sixth season on HBO. But Def Poetry wasn't born from a business plan or a power-lunch napkin sketch. It grew and evolved out of a nucleus of Danny's friends, who would gather and perform open mic's at art galleries (visual art seems to be Danny's original passion) in the early 1990's.
Yet I commend Penguin for attempting this, and for continuing to see this adventure through. Even though nobody's figured out how to make collaborative online writing fly just yet, many brave souls keep trying. Take Dennis Cooper, for instance, editor of an Akashic Books anthology called Userlands: New Fiction Writers from the Blogging Underground (an excellent editor's introduction helps explain the project's goals). This is a smart collection of short fiction, most of it transgressive or confessional in nature. Every single piece feels strong, but as I hold the thick book in my hand I feel somehow alienated from the social community that created this book, and this makes it difficult for me to enjoy the book.
This is an inherent problem with books created online: it is very difficult to transmit the strong sense of connection that permeates an online community to a book reader who isn't there. Reading Userlands, I meet one fascinating voice after another, but it all flashes by like a party where I know I won't be staying long, and where everybody but me knows everybody else.
Maybe we need to adjust our expectations when we explore these territories. Walter Kirn is another adventurer in internet-based literature, having recently completed The Unbinding, an online serial novel that ran at Slate and has just been published in an attractive paperback edition. This is a funny and thought-provoking fable about an employee of an advanced satellite personal security system who begins to get too deeply involved in "the grid". Walter Kirn wrote the book "on the grid" too, and he explains in an introductory essay that when he began this online writing project he expected to become captivated by the ability to use hyperlinks freely in his fiction. But, Kirn says, once the project began he quickly realized that it was the real-time aspect of online writing -- the immediacy of the exchange between writer and readers -- that made the most difference, while hyperlinks turned out to be a creative dead end.
Kirn is smart to let the project find its own way, and if you're planning to attempt your own online literary project I'd suggest you adopt the same posture. Provide as much structure as you can in advance, and then just let it go and hope for the best.
I speak about this with some authority because, well, it happens your friendly webmaster here has paid his dues on the online literary front. Coffeehouse: Writings from the Web, a book I co-edited with Christian Crumlish in 1997, was verifiably the first anthology of web-based fiction and poetry published in book form. We even got respectable (but small) reviews in the Los Angeles Times Book Review and the Washington Post Book World (we got ignored -- hah-- by the New York Times Book Review).
The book is now out of print and copies are hard to find, though it's pretty clear that Cory Doctorow's book designer owns a copy. Was Coffeehouse a good book? Looking back, I have to admit that I think Christian and I blew it. We had some great pieces -- some of my favorites were by Joseph Squier, Mia Lipner, Jamie Fristrom, Ben Cohen, Janan Platt, E. Stephen Mack, Walter Miller, Carl Steadman, Greg Knauss, Martha Conway, Jason Snell, Lee Ranaldo, Mike Watt, Robert Hunter, quite a collection -- but, like Dennis Cooper with Userlands, we failed to provide a compelling and unified product that readers instinctively wanted to own.
I think LitKicks did a better job with Action Poetry in 2004, though this book didn't fly off any bookshelves either. But we're getting somewhere! And so is Dennis Cooper, and so is Walter Kirn.
As for Artie with the bananas and the whales and the penguins, I guess he's getting somewhere too, but he's got a ways to go.
Anyway, since I am clearly drowning in review copies, here are just a few rules for anybody who is thinking of sending me something:
1) No audio CD's please. I don't review audio CD's. This place is about books.
2) Please send only one of your books. Not two. Not fourteen. How should you decide which to send? Send the best one. Doesn't take a genius.
3) I am happy to review either self-published, small press or large publisher titles. But it must be published. Please do not send me a stack of 8.5 x 11 paper, because I will not review it.
4) Please include the URL where readers can buy the book, so I can include it in the review. If you don't have the book for sale online, that can only mean you're not serious about trying to sell it, in which case I'd rather not review it.
5) No, I don't read every word of every book I review here. I have a day job, you know. I read the ones I like best, and I take a long hard look at the rest.
With that said, let's take it away with this month's batch.
1. Street Love by Walter Dean Myers
Jersey City poet and young-adult author Walter Dean Myers has a smooth, colorful style, and Street Love presents an appealing verse-dialogue collage of urban characters dealing with hard issues. The characters have names like Junice and Sledge and Damien, and the poems have titles like Junice and Damien, Kevin and Damien, Junice in the Supermarket and Junice with Damien and Melissa on the Bus to Memphis. At its best, this is hip-hop poetry, stirring and direct:
I have to open my sister's mouth
And fill it with thoughts as hard
As stones she can practice her lines
She needs to speek clearly
As she lies
"Melissa" I will say
"Miss Ruby will run the house
She'll make fried chicken and okra
Hamburger and broccoli
And when her mental hat flies
Off down some weird and wondrous
Street she will not chase it
Will not ramble as she talks
Or twist fragments of the past
Into a hopeless stew of
It's not always that good, and the street-chic imagery is occasionally overbaked -- but then, it is being marketed as a young adult book. I think this ultimately romantic book of story poems could make a great Valentine's day present for a grown-up too.
2. The Cat's Got Nothing On Me: How I Lived More Than Nine Lives by Conrad Boilard (as told to Sam Costello).
Truly, the cat has nothing on this spirited old codger, who is remembered by a delightful self-published book (and a classy website). Conrad Boilard served in the Army Air Force during World War II, raised a loving family back home, and battled lymphoma and other diseases as an older man. He has a great attitude, and this book truly serves to contain the spirit of a likable man. What better reason is there for a book to exist?
3. A Day of Small Beginnings by Lisa Pearl Rosenbaum
A Day of Small Beginnings takes place in a Jewish shtetl in 1905, where the spirit of a recently dead elderly woman is suddenly called up from the grave to help a young teenager in a horrible situation. This novel is very much in the tradition of Isaac Bashevis Singer, and the gorgeous cover art evokes Marc Chagall, a la Fiddler on the Roof. I admire the craftwork, but I can't get past the I. B. Singer/Sholom Aleichem connection. I've got at least two Singer books on my next-to-read pile, and how can I be convinced that a modern-day homage will provide me something the original won't? If you've already been through the old masters, though, you will probably enjoy this book.
4. City Woman by Linda Lerner
Linda Lerner, who I've seen and heard at many New York/East Village poetry readings, writes intense neo-Beat poetry with a driving urban vibe. Here, she confronts a hobo in front of a White Castle:
Damn you! your silence is asking too much ...
If I could make someone
rise up from his ashes
unmyth the phoenix
If I could do it & believe it is happening
I could give you the things that
hurt too much for words ...
Linda Lerner is an expert poet, and this is one of her better books.
5. You Are A Little Bit Happier Than I am by Tao Lin
What more can I say about Tao Lin, who I've written about before? There is only one word to describe his style, and it's French: faux-naif. He pulls it off very well, and sometimes he's very funny:
I'd like to see a movie and kill someone
I need to check my email then kill myself
I know that good news will arrive only by email
I'd like to see a movie with you then go home and check my email
can we kill someone in a supermarket
That's my kind of poetry.
6. Nam Au Go Go by John Akins
Okay, well, John Akins broke my second rule; he sent me two books. One is Nam Au Go Go, a raw prose account of his years as a Marine in Vietnam. The other is On The Way To Khe Sanh, which revisits the same territory in blank verse.
I like the way the two formats work together, the poems much more sardonic than the prose, which often takes off into tough-guy storytelling:
As I kneel filling the first canteen, a whoosh thuds into the bank just to my left. It's a dude, enemy, 92 mm mortar round. The barrage erupts up the slope and the 82 mortar rounds and 152 artillery roundswalk along our position. I light up in terror. Do I stay put or run for my hole?
Between the verse and the prose, a disturbing undertone of anger and anomie animates the author's true-life tale, which rings with poignant truth.
No, you didn't hear that, because the music industry isn't dumb enough to sabotage their profits by making audiences wait a year to buy new releases (that's right, even the music industry isn't that dumb). The book publishing industry, on the other hand, is that dumb.
I wrote last year in these pages that two-tier book pricing has got to go. Many people agreed with me that the common practice of publishing new books in expensive hardcover editions for the first year is archaic and elitist as well as an obvious buzz-kill for curious potential readers. But some people close to the industry explained to me why we are stuck with two-tier pricing despite the system's obvious flaws: publishers are addicted to the sugar rush of automatic library and book club sales, and they won't sacrifice the hardcover profit margin even if it means missing the chance to connect a great new book with an eager buying audience.
I think the "addiction theory" explains a lot, and I wonder if it's time for an intervention. For now, let me just state an obvious fact as simply as I can: $28 for a book is absolutely ridiculous. We live in an age where hit singles cost $.99 and new albums cost $9.99. Publishers wish that literary authors could be as popular as top bands, but they price their best talents out of that market.
I see it happen over and over: promising new writers who should be marketed directly to collegiate and alternative audiences are instead forced to cool their heels on the "rich people shelves" for a full year (the year in which the book might be getting great reviews and endorsements). By the time the paperback comes out, nobody remembers that it got great reviews. It really doesn't take a genius to see that this system doesn't work for either readers or writers, and it doesn't seem to work very well for publishers either.
Here's the good news: many publishers do get it, and we're seeing more and more literary paperback originals (like Scarlett Thomas's compelling The End of Mr. Y, which I am enjoying now). Some books are also being published in simultaneous hardcover/paperback arrangements (like Jason Shinder's Howl: The Poem that Changed America), a smart move that allows the best of both formats: sturdy premium editions for libraries and collectors and affordable editions for eager readers, both available at the same time. This is a solution that works.
But change isn't coming fast enough. Maybe it's the writers themselves who need to speak up and request affordable pricing (but this won't work for many of the first novelists who would most benefit from inexpensive books, because they are least likely to demand control over packaging and pricing). I hope more and more writers will speak up about this, and maybe some bloggers like me can make some noise about the issue and make a difference too.