Like Son by Felicia Luna Lemus
A sensitive Chicano transvestite in Los Angeles confronts his/her father, and the results are surprisingly affecting and universal. Felicia Luna Lemus's friendly, unassuming style reminds me of Sara Pritchard, and I like the way she weaves the narrator's constant anxiety about his gender uncertainty into every single moment he spends with his oblivious and near-blind father (the title Like Son is itself a play on the gender/parental-relationship theme, since this is the story of a son whose father thinks he is a daughter).
I like Lemus's main character Frank best when his controlled voice becomes slightly unhinged:
My birthday cake was a disaster. Ingredients dusted the kitchen counter and floor. I ended up doing most of the work. And then the batter wouldn't bake properly. it stayed raw in the middle. I blew out my candle with a wish that my dad, that we, wouldn't have to know more suffering.
Continue or not? Hell yeah, I'll keep reading this book.
Right Livelihoods by Rick Moody
Our old friend "the unreliable narrator" shows up on the reader's beachfront loggia in the opening novella in Rick Moody's new collection. This particular unreliable narrator is a sly aging American in a nasty mood, filled with contempt for the social scene around the wealthy and fashionable Atlantic Coast island he once proudly called home, newly drunk after a presumed long bout with recovery from alcohol addiction, possibly losing touch with reality. He wields his sarcastic rage with Shakespearean grandeur towards anybody who interrupts his dreamy drunken thoughts, like the homeowner who finds him sleeping on her back porch and gets this blast of passive aggression:
"Dr. Van Deusen," she said. The chain remained on the door, though as everyone knows, we have effectively deprived the criminal element of any foothold in my town. The criminal element cannot afford the real estate prices, nor can they bother with the tedious ferry ride.
"Ma'am," I said, waiting for her name to come back to me, "it's a beautiful morning, and I was just thinking about a swim. The texture of sea salt and sun on the skin, well, it does build character."
Moody packs a lot -- an imagined terrorist plot, a strange book, a gentle and redeeming relationship with a mentally handicapped son -- into this ironic narrative, and I enjoy the rising mood of psychological treachery and unknown menace. Just as Moody's early The Ice Storm presented a sordid echo of John Updike's novels of suburban wife-swapping (Couples, Marry Me), this novella evokes John Cheever's The Swimmer as well as several of John O'Hara's juicy tales of anomie in rich neighborhoods (Appointment in Samarra, etc.). A powerful performance to kick off a promising collection.
Continue or not? I liked the first novella in this collection, but a Moody tour de force can leave you exhausted, so I'm going to take a break before taking on novellas two and three. They'll be there when I get back.
The Dark River by John Twelve Hawks
I have mixed feelings about "off-the-grid" author John Twelve Hawks. Some readers are put off by the heavy-handed gimmick -- a writer who allegedly has no intercourse with society, save with a few publishing professionals who receive his books -- and while I agree that there's something far-fetched here, I am also fascinated by the rebellion against the insidious evil of modern-day bureaucracy that the concept represents, and it's also a fact that one of my favorite books is similarly about life off the grid.
The John Twelve Hawks series began with The Traveler, which I haven't read, so I was already at a disadvantage diving into this book. It starts off quickly enough, setting up a few easily recognizable totalitarian villians and heroic rebels, but I feel put off by a rather conventional and purplish narrative tone. Here's just one for-instance: shouldn't a writer who lives a blessed life away from society be able to come up with a more original title than The Dark River? Even J. K. Rowling comes up with better titles than that. This book offers clear prose and a competent story, but I wish for greater originality in the plotting, the characterizations and the narrative style than I found in the first twenty pages.
I also think that John Twelve Hawks should marry J. T. Leroy just to find out what their love child would look like.
Continue or not? Sorry, Hawks, no, but if the apocalypse comes I may seek you out to be my friend.
Space Savers and Other Stories by Bill Ectric
I've been watching Bill Ectric (a frequent LitKicks contributor) grow and improve as a writer and small publisher, and it's been a real pleasure to watch. His new short story collection Space Savers is the best showcase so far of Ectric's gift for unhinged situations and charming characters who seem to be constantly inventing their own crazed dramas to counter the boredom of normal life. The title story seems to have been inspired by old episodes of the Twilight Zone, but the dialogue is funnier:
"So", I asked, "However many dimensions exist, time is the last one?"
Agee said, "Pops, tell him why we can only see three dimensions."
"Ahhh," said Pops. "That's where string theory comes in. The study of quantum physics suggests that all these dimensions fold back on themselves. They're invisible to us!"
"That sounds crazy," I said.
"He didn't make this stuff up," said Agee. "There are mathematical formulas that back it up. There is an invisible world. Of course, I knew that from reading my Bible. Pops here had to get it from the Discovery Channel."
"Discovery Channel, my ass," said Pops. "I worked on the particle accelerator in Switzerland. If anything, the Discovery Channel learned it from me!"
Long ago I read Bill Ectric's first book, Time Adjusters, and was forced to criticize the terribly pedestrian cover design. I'm happy to report that Space Savers is a huge improvement. Still, I can't agree with the insertion of a "Special Guest Author" named Bradley Mason Hamlin who shows up in the middle of this book to provide several poems and short prose pieces. I like Hamlin's work, but you can't just "bring a friend along" when you're writing a book. I guess this odd structural choice wins Ectric some postmodernist points, but I am still waiting for the book where this emerging author completely hits his sweet spot, and yielding space to a guest writer is not going to bring the main writer here any closer to that goal.
Continue or not? Yes -- it's a fun and breezy read.
The Atheist's Bible by Joan Konner
Editor Joan Konner wants to inspire and embolden atheists with this book of quotations grouped into sections like "The Gospel", "The Tao of Disbelief", "Book of Bertrand (Russell)". It's an attractiv e assemblage, but I don't think it earns the title. A book of short quotations is no bible, and the lack of substantive pieces leaves the book feeling much more intellectually lightweight than an "atheist bible" ought to be.
The chapter titles are the best part, but the actual selected quotes in each chapter don't work together to form a whole. Throw a bunch of one-liners by Thomas Jefferson, Christopher Hitchens, Albert Camus, Epicurus, Frank Sinatra, Frank Zappa and Gene Roddenberry into a single chapter and what do you have? A bunch of one-liners, nothing more, because the individuals quoted have absolutely nothing in common. Also, some of the notable names that show up here, like Fyodor Dostoevsky, were anything but atheists. If this book contained longer and more substantial arguments (and less "cute" entries by the likes of Homer Simpson) it might approach the promise inherent in the title.
The book's opening quote also loses me, because it's by John Stuart Mill:
The world would be astonished it if knew how great a proportion of its brightest ornaments -- of those most distinguished even in populare stimation for wisdom and virtue -- are complete skeptics in religion.
Which only makes me want to quip that John Stuart Mill lived in the mid-19th century, which was about the last time atheism could be called a groundbreaking new idea.
Continue or not? No.
That's it for today -- several more titles are queued up for either tomorrow or early next week.
I've found a new novel to love, a slim volume called On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan.
This is a psychological novel in the classic tradition, like Washington Square by Henry James or The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot. McEwan walks us through the forbidden thoughts, logical formulas and (often) utter delusions that fill the minds of his characters, two forlorn young British virgins named Edward and Florence, as they approach each other in dread and excitement on their wedding night. They come together and blow apart in a cataclysm of fear that is, in McEwan's telling, terribly sad but also sweetly wistful.
I admire the tight focus of this small book, and I enjoy the warmly funny interludes with waiters and remembered family members as the nervous star-crossed lovers attempt (unsuccessfully) to avoid a spectacular disaster on their long-awaited night of love. I thought of Henry James and John Updike often as I turned these poignant pages, but mostly I felt the spectre of T. S. Eliot and his doppelganger J. Alfred Prufrock in every word of this book. On Chesil Beach is, in fact, almost a novelization of that great poem, though the era is transposed and the gender roles are different (here, the woman is much more frightened than the man). What reminds me most of Eliot's Prufrock is the concept of sexuality as a spiritual and psychological explosive, a cosmic trigger. Prufrock is a young virgin (I disagree with those who think Prufrock is middle-aged) who daydreams of sex and wonders if he could have the nerve:
to have squeezed the universe into a ball
Edward kisses his bride and:
As he looked into her eyes, he had an impression of toppling toward her in constant giddy motion. He felt trapped between the pressure of his excitement and the burden of his ignorance.
I'm not exactly sure why, but I'm fascinated by that conflation of sexual dread and existential wonder, that high-pitched keening yearning for the (impossible) ecstasy of contented togetherness, that drives both Eliot's poem and McEwan's novel.
T. S. Eliot liked to contrast the sexual anxieties of his characters with the political anxieties of his age, and Ian McEwan plays on the same equations here, making much of the Cold War/nuclear age furor that was the hottest global issue in the summer of 1962. McEwan maintains a stately pace throughout this book, introducing his themes and symbols in a neat sequence, one after another: an analysis of Florence's identification with classical music, a chronicle of Edward's parental trauma, a whole lot of gentle comedy involving unwanted plates of roast beef in the honeymoon suite. It's a delicious and simple story, though it will not appeal to anybody who doesn't like this kind of thing. If you can't stand Henry James and John Updike, there's no reason for you to even look at this book.
I had been treated to an early look at this book last year, but when I wrote that summary I had no idea how much I'd be impressed by the whole work. The only other McEwan book I've read is Atonement (which is rather similar to On Chesil Beach in its essential plot, though it has many more characters, not to mention the battle of Dunkirk), but I've just been told I need to discover Black Dogs, and I know I'll be reading much more from this quaintly classical but thoroughly modern writer very soon.
If You Awaken Love by Emuna Elon
This novel takes place in Israel in the years between the Six Day War and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, and tells the story of Shlomtzion, whose heart was broken by her former fiance when he broke off the engagement and who has to confront him, finally, years later and also come to terms with herself and the life and choices she made. Not really my kind of book, but even so, I must admit that it's written in very lovely prose, and could certainly strike chords with people whose kind of book this is.
The Curse of the Holy Pail by Sue Ann Jaffarian
Paralegal/sleuth Odelia Grey gets into the middle of the trouble surrounding the centerpiece of a millionaire's lunchbox collection in The Curse of the Holy Pail. Yeah, you read that right. This is written in a light tone and has memorable characters. Odelia Gray is sassy and fun and a welcome addition to the mystery genre, which is usually full of cynical men characters who can only wish they were written by Raymond Chandler. This is summer beach reading, which is a good time, since, you know, sometimes books are just supposed to be entertaining.
Rogues, Writers & Whores: Dining With the Rich & Infamous by Daniel Rogov
This is a foodie's journey through history: stopping among the timeline of years to find out about interesting historical figures and the food that was part of their lives. Each section contains a recipe, so when you get to James Joyce you'll find stuffed mutton kidneys and Irish blood sausages, and with the Marquis de Sade? Truffled Oysters. Of course. Louis XIV? Crab Louis and Curried Shrimps Louis. Queen Elizabeth I? Lamb with cucumbers and apple cream. And so on. Full of fascinating information that you'd probably never think to look up on your own, Rogues, Writers & Whores is like the literary Food Network with entertaining, knowledgeable writing by Daniel Rogov. If you're interested in food or history or food and history, then this book is definitely worth your time.
Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a blend of Jewish folklore with detective fiction, a sort of Saul Bellow meets Raymond Chandler. Or maybe if Bernard Malamud wrote haggadic murder mysteries. It begins, as all good noir begins, with the knight-errant detective, a real mensch of a cop named Landsman, called upon in the middle of the night to investigate a mysterious murder. Through the unfolding plot, Chabon draws a richly imagined world of a civilization that never was, a Jewish homeland in Alaska instead of Israel.
This Guy - James Lewelling
It begins with, "It was the very next morning that this guy conceived of his evil scheme to get even with this other guy (Ned)." And it just gets better from there. Seriously, anything that starts out with an evil scheme automatically gets my attention. Darkly funny and written in deliciously frenetic prose, This Guy is an eminently readable, enjoyable book. Also it's short (138 pages)! Also also it has drawings! This means, of course, that it's kind of perfect.
Star Guide to Guys - Elizabeth Perkins
I thought that this was going to be some cleverly-titled chick-lit novel, but it turns out that it is actually a star guide to guys. It's broken into three sections: All About Him - Everything you need to know about the twelve signs in men (which describes the traits of each sign in men); All About You - Your basic nature, what you need in a relationship, and how your sign goes with all twelve signs (pretty self explanatory, but it describes each sign from a female perspective and how they relate to men of each of the other signs); and On Your Own - How to be happy with him ... or without him (how to be single and happy). I don't tend to be into astrology, though when I do pay attention to it, it's when things are charted on a more personal level, but since this book can't be a personal reading, it's mostly just sign-based generalizations. It's light, entertaining reading, but for me personally, I felt like I could be getting the same sort of information out of the monthly Cosmo horoscopes. That written, I guess if you're on the market and wondering whether a Pisces woman should seriously consider dating a Libra man, then it might be worth your time.
How It's Done - Christine Kole MacLean
This novel from Michigan author Christine MacLean (I have to mention that she's from Michigan, because I am also from the mitten-shaped land) is about a teenage girl, Grace, who comes from a very strict, fundamentalist family. Grace has an affair with Michael, a college professor. A young adult novel, How It's Done is about love and growing up and what those things mean, anyway. A truly lovely book.
Looking for Alaska - John Green
I actually received this book over the winter and read it pretty quickly, so I'm kind of embarrassed about how long it's taken me to get around to mentioning it here. Looking for Alaska is categorized as a young adult novel, but it's so smart and well-written that I think it easily transcends its genre. Author John Green's website (linked above) says "The spirit of Holden Caulfield lives on," but since I've never really been a fan of J.D. Salinger's portrait of teen angst, I think that this is much better than that. Protagonist Miles "Pudge" Halter (who collects famous last words) is gently self-deprecating and wonderfully human and the story surrounding him, involving the beautiful Alaska Young, is just... good. I like this book a lot.
Within the time frame of this comic book's mystery plot, Gertrude Stein will meet and fall in love with a feisty ragamuffin named Alice Tolkas, Picasso will paint his famous portrait of Gertrude Stein, and Picasso and Braque will invent cubism. In fact, all of these things did happen in 1907, and Bertozzi clearly knows his stuff. He threads many "art history" lessons into this tale, and correctly describes the way Pablo Picasso profited from Georges Braque's idea for a drawing style that depicted any number of possible perspectives instead of a single perspective. (Picasso, on the other hand, emphasized cubism as a form of zen-like minimalism, and also as a primitivist homage to his beloved African masks). Bertozzi also convincingly depicts the ongoing beef between the Cubists and the Fauvists, though he is probably unfair to the worthy Fauvist Henri Matisse, who comes off as a sourpuss.
The glue that holds this artwork together is a murder plot involving the blue-skinned spirit of a dead Tahitian woman, brought to Paris by Paul Gauguin, who leaps into paintings and dwells inside the canvases (the elderly Gauguin, it turns out, is dwelling sadly inside a canvas too) while she waits for the chance to jump out and kill people. A special kind of blue absinthe from a country called "Lysurgia" allows the cubists and poets at the Paris salon to jump inside canvases too, and eventually they must chase the murderer inside this absinthe-soaked realm. I like the obviously symbolic and heavily metaphysical plot okay, I guess -- it reminds me of Matthew Pearl's The Dante Code, which also posits an aesthetic movement as the catalyst for a misguided serial murderer. But I like this book best for its earthbound scenes, its clever, perceptive depiction of a group of young Modernists working in a creative white heat.
Pablo Picasso is the book's best character, a hilarious irrepressible egotist who paints buck naked and goes around shouting in a mangled Spanish/French: "Are you creetic? You talk sheet of me?"
The Salon by Nick Bertozzi gets a strong "buy" recommendation from LitKicks.
1. Male of the Species by Alex Mindt
This set of short stories about fathers is a big surprise. There are many ways to go overboard with a loaded concept like "fatherhood", but Mindt exercises tight control and delivers a powerful set of elliptical fables that I (as a dad of three) can relate to in various ways. The first story, Sabor a Mi is a knockout, featuring an angry old man hitchhiking to his daughter's lesbian wedding in a car with a hapless drifter who's just been kicked out of his home by his family, or so it seems, for the crime of being a coward. The rough humor and loose boundaries recall Raymond Carver. This is one of the better books of short stories I've seen in a few years.
2. Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing edited by Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss
Interstitial writing, I have now learned, means writing between genres. This wide-ranging and intelligently packaged collection aims to confound expectations at every turn. I thoroughly enjoyed a fanciful story by Mumpsimus blogger Matt Cheney that walks a razor's edge between hobbit-esque fantasy (complete with creatures and maps and shovels) and gay romance, but turns out to be literary metafiction at heart (the lead character keeps complaining about too much surrealism and is allergic to non-sequiturs).
3. Transparency by Frances Hwang
Frances Hwang is an expert at the short story form, and the fictional miniatures in this new collection are precise and sharp. I do find her stories perhaps a little too perfectly crystalline, though, sort of like when you eat at somebody's house and the tableware is so perfect you can't enjoy the meal. That's not to say I don't enjoy these inter-generational slices of life, which hint at subtle conflicts and leave much to the reader's imagination. But they may be more to some people's tastes than they are to mine.
4. Re'enev by Mike Maranhas
I have to admit to being thrown off by genre-confusion when beginning this novel. The cover features a large butterfly flying into a lurid sunset, and I could only imagine I was holding either an apocalyptic Christian tract or a romance novel. But I'll hold my sarcasm, because the words inside are much better than the (terrible) cover illustration. Re'enev turns out to be a realistic mystery novel involving a quarrelling husband and wife who become lost on a strange island. The prose voice is strong, with a dramatic sense of urgency, but I could not get over my initial shock of genre confusion, and I didn't get very far into the book. I hope somebody out there will give it a try, though -- and I hope the publisher will rethink the artwork.
5. Eeeee Eee Eeee by Tao Lin
I met Tao Lin, the incredibly prolific and very appealing up-and-coming writer and poet, outside Town Hall at the PEN World Voices Festival two weeks ago. A skinny young Asian man was handing out cards for a book by, of all people, Tao Lin, and I looked at him and put two and two together like I'm sometimes capable of doing. "Tao?" I said, being careful to pronounce the consonant softly as in Tao Te Ching. Yes, it was him. I introduced myself as the guy who's reviewed him before, and Tao grinned shyly and ran away. Which is exactly what I'd expect from this very magnetic and very childlike writer. What can you say about a book called Eeeee Eee Eeee? I like it, that's all.
Tao also has another new book out from Melville House, Bed, but at this point I'm just starting to lose track.
6. North of Sunset by Henry Baum
I almost dove into this satirical suspense novel, apparently about a vanity license plate killer running loose in Los Angeles, which seems to be where Barfly meets O. J. Simpson. That might not be a bad combination, but I decided I didn't feel in the mood for a hard-boiled L.A. noir this month, and I gave the book a pass. You can read more about Henry Baum here and here though.
That's it for me tonight ... I'm sorry I punked out on so many other titles I wanted to review, but I did my best. Pick up the slack for me, you all -- happy reading and goodnight.
1. Boomsday by Christopher Buckley.
A fiery young blonde blogger in Washington DC (who seems to most resemble not the restrained Ana Marie Cox but rather one of the passionate progressives at Firedoglake) joins forces with an impulsive rich-kid Congressman to choreograph a social-security revolt of the young against the old. I like Buckley's eagerness to tackle all comers with this book. He's clearly got an appetite for a fight, and he body-slams as many modern political targets as he can with this rollicking tale.
But the plot has to really click to carry a satire like this, and Buckley's execution is only middling good. I have to disagree with anybody who compared this book to Kurt Vonnegut's Welcome to the Monkey House (which dealt with a similar death-to-the elderly theme), because Buckley shows none of Vonnegut's anarchic creativity. He creates likable characters, and he certainly has no problem coming up with snappy dialogue. But the snappiness gets to seeming forced, and it's bizarre that when Buckley finally comes up with a truly good joke (involving the phrase "the earth moved" to describe a quasi-romantic encounter in a mine field) he then uses the same joke again thirty pages later. That's a foul in the hardcover-books game, Buckley.
Another complaint: this story is about a blogger, but Buckley clearly doesn't know much about the technology behind blogging (nor do his editors at Twelve). If a novelist in 1910 wrote about a Model-T Ford munching oats from a trough, that would be about as accurate as some of Buckley's descriptions of how the internet works. For just one example of many: you can't "delete yourself" from Google. Though certainly many have tried.
2. Eyes of the Forest by Vivian Demuth
This novel from the small Smoky Peace Press offers an appealing insider's view of a fascinating counterculture that has provided an alternative lifestyle for a small number of individuals: the community of solitary fire-tower watchers who guard the Rocky Mountains, Cascades, Sierras and, in Demuth's book, the boreal mountains of Canada.
This was also the milieu of two superb Jack Kerouac novels, Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels (several Beat writers, including Kerouac, Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, were fire-tower watchers). Kerouac's lookout-tower prose was filled with agony, addiction and ecstatic spiritual yearning, which can make for some powerful writing, but Kerouac's approach doesn't really capture the simple happiness this profession can bring, or the camaraderie (and conflict, and romance) various tower-watchers, park rangers, rescue personnel and other lovers of nature develop with each other in their long seasons among the trees and lakes and trails. This is a fun, people-filled story that will appeal to anyone who's ever lived out in the mountains, and to anyone who's wondered what it would be like.
3. Captain of the Sleepers by Marya Montero
This compact epic, translated by Edith Grossman, works as both psychosexual fiction and entertaining suspense. It takes place on an island near Puerto Rico, and is narrated by a child raised among gun-runners locked in vast adult intrigues that eventually involve dead bodies, airplanes, weapons, bawdy maid's daughters and a lot of different people getting it on in different places in various positions.
What makes it so edifying is Montero's rich voice, and her emotionally expressive characters. Here's the 80-year-old title character pleading for his life with the now-grown narrator, who wants to kill him to avenge his father:
I am a man of few words. You must know that better than anyone. As a young man, I rarely worried about misunderstandings; things happened, sometimes they happened to me, and it never occurred to me to give any explanation. It wasn't pride, Andres, but a lack of time, or of compassion for myself. In the end, I discovered there were fragments of my life -- especially everything from that time in my life -- that were left hanging like little animals rotting in full view of everyone..
4. real.m by Alfaro
Inside a quiet-looking black-on-white perfect-bound poetry chapbook is a near riot of metafictional phenomenology regarding the existence and presence of the book itself. For instance, the front cover contains a poem called "Front Cover Art". There's a long, very long single angry sentence threading like a subterranean worm through other pieces, many of which are labeled "haikus". Here's what one poem tells us:
A Beautiful book
A Sad song
Or a brilliant movie
And it only needs
To be transcribed
Or on film
It will be saved
I like the blunt simplicity of this quizzical poetry book, as well as the elegance of its physical design.
Lately by Sara Pritchard
Sara Pritchard has got to be the most whimsical, least self-important postmodernist on the scene. Her new Lately is a slim, bright story collection with something like a black velvet Lassie painting on the cover. The characters in these stories are very witty and very self-aware, so much so that Pritchard manages to spin off one good story after another with barely a touch of plot, suspense or symbolism. The people just say funny things and think funny things, as in the story about a fabulous "divorce party" with a black cake, a wedding dress dyed black in a laundromat, and a Bob Dylan theme song. Nothing surprising happens in this story; the characters have a great time planning the party, and then they have a great time at the party. Somehow, it works as fiction.
Basically, Pritchard's secret is that she writes characters you want to hang out with. It's a good technique, though I do feel the absence of any visible cutting edge in these stories, and I do find the absolutely languid pace sometimes aggravating. One of her characters daydreams about Raymond Carver -- that's the whole story. Sara Pritchard is sort of a virgin Pina Colada version of Ann Beattie. And somehow the stories work.
Zoli by Colum McCann
Zoli is a historical novel about a young Gypsy (or, Romani) refugee girl in Czechoslovokia who is persecuted by fascists, and then co-opted into a celebrity singer and poet by the Communists who take over after World War II. Her gypsy blood is drained out of her, first by her lovable Marxist grandfather (who hid Das Kapital so nobody would catch him reading it) and then by the Stalinist bureaucrats who manage her career. This is a tough, hard-hitting book about an important small ethnic segment of the world's population that we hear very little about.
My only gripe with Zoli is in the byzantine narrative structure. We hop back and forth between decades and between narrators, and with each hop the story gets slightly more difficult to follow. I think a straight narrative would have served these characters and this plot better. Still, if you like historical fiction you will find this book very satisfying.
Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon
I don't read a lot of comic books (or "graphic novels") but this one was specially recommended to me. It's a beautiful short volume that spells out a simple story. When Baghdad is bombed in 2003, a few talking lions escape captivity (as they'd dreamed of doing their entire lives) and roam the city in a paroxysm of curiosity and anxiety. They are then shot down by American soldiers. This is apparently a true story, and the artistry here is all in the economy of the telling. The illustrations are absolutely gorgeous, and the blunt ending perfectly captures the desolation of the whole tale.
The Unbinding by Walter Kirn
I like Walter Kirn's articles in the New York Times Book Review very much, so I was disappointed that I couldn't get into his experimental cyber-composed novel about love in the age of satellite personal safety networks. The story is told by multiple overlapping narrators, but most of their prose voices are surprisingly flat and undistinguished.
Kirn regularly composes powerful sentences of acidic perfection for the New York Times Book Review. There's no question that he can write well, so why is this prose so plodding?
Perhaps Kirn is trying to get into the heads of his inarticulate and repressed characters, but if so I'd have to say that the strategy doesn't play to his strengths, and I'd suggest he write a novel from the point of view of an erudite book critic next time, so he can let his style flow.
It's interesting that both Colum McCann and Walter Kirn stumble over their overly complicated narrative structures, which must be a big fad these days. I hope future writers will remember that the phrase "Keep it simple, stupid" works for novelists too.
Beyond that, all four of these books have something to offer. If you're going to read just one, make it Zoli, but you may like them all.
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.