18 December 2012

So Quiet the Earth, by David Lee

I discovered David Lee's poetry on the Internet, which, for me, is how it often happens. I read as many of his poems as I could find online, excited and delighted by their rough reality, the dialogue, the non-traditional language and subject matter. Irreverence from a hog-farmer/preacher.

"Amanda Strayhorn, Reverend's Wife," was the first one I found. I told a friend of mine that it was the longest poem I'd ever read without being threatened by a teacher. In addition, it's probably the longest poem I've ever read without stopping--a poem I couldn't put down, a page-turner. This tale of a pompous preacher whose wife became famous for the articles she wrote about their sex life and how that all played out in their lives and those of their neighbors is funny, thought-provoking, masterful, beautiful, and perfect. There are probably some more adjectives I could add, but after all, verbs are more effective. "Amanda Strayhorn" simply skewered me.

Some excerpts:
...they were a typical unhappily married couple
with five obstreperous children whose birthdays
were as much a mystery to the Reverend
as Greek, dishwashing, or putting the toilet lid down... 
...he could take off his glasses before engaging
the bedroom and proceed to enjoy the wonders
of conjugal delight through deprivation of sight
which would intensify the inner light of spiritual union
and thereby expand his prowess to the Lord’s great approval... 
...every Saturday afternoon after he worked himself
into an erotic frenzy writing sermons on Satanic temptation
of Baptist youth into the fires of hell through visions
of sexual degradation upon which he expounded with vigor...
This poem led me to read "Nighthunting with John," a poem about "...hunting / hogfeed with John / up and down the black alleys / splitting a case of Lucky..."

I also read "The Chain Letter," an excellent fable about luck, the futility of anger, and superstition, among other things.

I searched my library to see what David Lee I could find. They had only one volume, a book published in 2004, So Quietly the Earth. As I sniffed around in it, I was initially disappointed. It looked to me like Mr. Lee had deserted the wondrous narrative forms I'd been enjoying. Quietly is a kind of ode to the Southwestern United States, it would seem. The poems that I have read so far celebrate the millions of years of geology, the pushing-up of mountains, the ancient seas that once covered what is now desert.

As I continue to read this book, I find that I really like these. Lee has the kind of connection to nature that seems to come to us old men. Furthermore, his voice is not missing or changed--it surfaces quite recognizably--he is in the presence of unspeakable grandeur and must himself be quiet, and let the Earth write his lines.

Through the pages runs a series of short poems entitled "While Walking," plus a number. For example:
While Walking (V)

Luke 18:16

Do you think the rocks are listening to us?
I don't know. Do rocks hear?
The ones that are alive do.

One of the poems that caused me to reconsider my abovementioned disappointment is "Ode Beneath a Hummingbird Feeder." This poem has little to do with geology, but reveals a reverence for hummingbirds that at least equals my own. Here's the final stanza:

Oh, arrogant little warrior
if I had a naked weapon
I could brandish like yours
I, too, would suffer
no foolish rival suitors
sipping at my ruby fount. 

Dark Age Ahead, by Jane Jacobs

Loss of memory equates to loss of culture. Culture transferred by word of mouth, by demonstration, rather than by writing or recordings.

The automobile as an agent of cultural destruction, loneliness, sprawl. The demise of the trollies at the hands of GM.

Cultural xenophobia is a frequent sequel to a society's decline from cultural vigor.

shift from faith in logos to mythos

...conservatism that looks backward to fundamentalist beliefs for guidance and a worldview...

p. 31  "The miracle of money growing on houses operates even more potently in the [US]..."

p. 34 "The most serious and widespread increase was the need for an automobile"

p. 35 ...probably the most important: speaking relationships among neighbors and acquaintances...

p. 37  automobile -- chief destroyer of American communities

p. 38-39

destruction of elec. street car systems GM, Robert Moses, Fiorello La Guardia
interesting notes on this topic p. 186-188  see also www.almankoff.com

p.98  Americans...don't ... think that any place outside the United States is totally real; their curiosity about Canada seems almost nonexistent

Mystic River, by Dennis Lehane

Mystic River is a good mystery, and a terrific novel. Its characters and setting are irresistible. Lehane's skill is awesome; he manages to write exactly what I want to read: a novel that creates a world that draws me in, a world that I am loath to leave behind when I read the last page and put the book down.

We are introduced to the three main characters in their childhood. Sean Devine, Jimmy Marcus, and Dave Boyle are pre-teens living in what is probably a part of Greater Boston which Lehane calls Buckingham. There is an incident, Dave is kidnapped by two men, but he escapes several days later and is returned to the neighborhood.

Many years and events later, the three are brought together by tragedy. Sean has become a State Trooper. Jimmy is an ex-con who owns a store, and Dave has a nondescript job about which we hear little. As the action begins, explodes, and the investigation and mystery progress, we learn more and more about these three men, their families, and their past and present lives. They become more and more real, more three-dimensional.

The mystery itself is a good one. I can brag that I figured it out at about the 70% point, but that didn't spoil it for me, as I couldn't really be sure. And the mystery, while it's every bit true to the form and strong enough to stand alone, is not all there is to this book. We are every bit as involved in the nature and lives of these men, and how they will each deal with what life has dealt them.

While I enjoyed Moonlight Mile quite a bit, I think that Mystic River better reveals the talent of this powerful writer.

A Publisher's Weekly review of the book

The Mystic River entry in Wikipedia (about the river, not the book -- but see the "disambiguation page" for more)

IMDb entry for the movie made of Mystic River

A New York Times review of the movie

A New York Times Sunday Book Review interview with Dennis Lehane

04 December 2012

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy

I owe my discovery of Marge Piercy to a blogsite called Poetic Medicine, where I saw "What's That Smell in the Kitchen?" and became curious about what else Ms. Piercy had written. There is quite a bit. I borrowed this book, a novel, and one of her poetry collections, "Available Light," from the library.

This is the story of a woman named Consuela, a Chicana living in New York City who has run seriously afoul of the court and mental health systems. Consuela has been committed and confined in the past, and it is not long into the book before she is, once again. This time she is to be subjected to a horrifying experimental procedure involving the implanting of electrodes in her skull which can be activated by remote control.

Piercy makes what could be a dismal indictment of the mental health system of the 70s (the book was published in 1976) and a (thoroughly justified) feminist rant against the repression of that time into a much more interesting story by the introduction of a character who turns out to be something of an illusion. Luciente is a woman from the future, 2137, who has learned to project herself into the past and communicate with Consuela, who is sensitive to Luciente's mind-touching. Consuela is able to visit Luciente's world, although only as a sort of illusion as well. The futuristic world provides a contrast to the time in which Consuela lives, and provides her character with the strength to mount her own rebellion against the injustices in her life.

I enjoyed reading this book and look forward to reading more of Piercy's work. The mental health system, and the lot of the poor, non-White, and female may have improved a little bit since 1976, but only a little. Today Consuela would not be institutionalized, she would simply be homeless, and would have to take her chances on the street with the rest of society's castoffs.

I don't feel that Luciente would think we'd made much of an improvement.

Sweet Spot, by J. T. Barbarese

I read a poem by J. T. Barbarese in the New Yorker. There was something about it that I liked, but I really didn't "understand" it. I used Google to look up some of the names and odd words in it, and gained a little bit of insight, but what I found in the process of doing this was that the poem itself was posted in at least two places. While it was at least attributed to its author, I sincerely doubt that either of the bloggers that posted this entire piece of work had obtained permission to do so. They didn't state that they had.

Being a general busybody, and curious, I looked up Mr. Barbarese, and found that he is a professor at Rutgers. On his web page he gave an email address, and I wrote to him, tattling on the copyright scofflaws. To my surprise, he answered me. He thanked me for complimenting his poem, and told me that he had a new book out, called "Sweet Spot," which I might enjoy.

I don't get a lot of emails from real live published poets who get their stuff printed by the New Yorker. The Internet yielded a copy of his collection very quickly, and I have enjoyed it immensely for the last few months. This is one feature of a good book of poems: it takes a long, long time to read. It takes me a long, long time, anyway. I got this book in the spring, and took it along on a couple of vacation trips over the summer. It sits near my chair at home now, and I am still dipping into it every now and then.

A couple of excerpts:

From "Earth Science:" 
"I smell me
coming up behind me
some days--
sweet sarcophagal


From "Rudolph on the Roof:" 
"...the ring finger will be sprung from the knuckle,
the spine unplugged from the cortex
followed by the sunless harvest of the molars,
the sockets mortised out, the busted saddle
of the ribs in the muddy rot at rest like the hull
of a sunken man-o'-war..."

Moonlight Mile, by Dennis Lehane

Robert B. Parker has left us, and, by implication, so has Spenser; but Dennis Lehane has given us a new Bostonian. Patrick Kenzie is not Spenser, Angela Gennaro is not Susan, and Bubba is not Hawk, but there are parallels. The differences are somehow endearing, though, and more interesting.

Kenzie doesn't like guns, and if I'm not mistaken doesn't fire one in this entire novel. He is more likely to be hurt than to hurt anyone. We are not told that Angela is beautiful or perfect, but that Patrick and Angela are very much in love, with each other, and with their four-year-old, Gabby. Bubba is probably the closest to his Parker shadow, a more or less omnipotent force or trump card with fierce and uncompromising loyalty to his friends.

We are brought into a complicated story that involves incompetent parenting, kidnapping, teenage pregnancy, mobsters from the former Soviet Union, and a bit of priceless jewelry from the history of Kiev.

It's a masterfully done piece of detective fiction. I look forward to reading another one soon. Lehane's Mystic River was made into a movie starring Sean Penn and others.

Lehane's latest book is Live By Night.

12 November 2012

Lost Memories of Skin, by Russell Banks

Banks has long been a favorite.

This book explores a world that most of us probably don't want to think about: registered sex offenders. On parole in a fictional city in Florida, a small community of them lives under a causeway mostly because they have no choice. Enjoined to live at least 2500 feet from any place where children might congregate, this is one of the very few places in the county where they may legally reside, and they are required by the terms of their parole to remain in the county.

This man-without-a-country scenario is based on fact. In approximately 2009 I recall hearing on NPR about the sex offender community in Miami, FL, forced to live under a causeway for the same reasons as Banks' characters in Calusa, FL.

Sex offenders are a source of disgust and shame. Politicians who try to help them risk their careers. There is nothing to be gained from any non-vilifying comment or act toward this group of people.

Unfortunately, Banks for some reason found it necessary to introduce a character known as The Professor, whose complex life and background quickly takes the plot of this novel far away from the fascinating subject matter, and leads it down a path better trodden by writers of mysteries and spy thrillers. I regret to say that the result of this curious plot twist is a disappointing book.

New York Times Review

Second NY Times Review

Wikipedia Entry about the Julia Tuttle Causeway Sex Offender Colony

01 September 2012

The Black Echo, by Michael Connelly

Michael Connolly writes thrilling mysteries. This one stars Harry Bosch, a detective in the LAPD who has few friends among the administration. Bosch becomes involved in a mystery that begins with a murder of a man who turns out to be one of his long-ago "tunnel rat" buddies from the Vietnam War.

It's a great trip, full of the kind of in-your-face behavior and language that Harry Bosch is famous for. The ending has great twists and turns, and takes you at high speed to the very end.

05 June 2012

Idiot America, by Charles Pierce

Doubleday 2009  ISBN# 978-0-7679-2614-0

"We've been attacked by the educated, intelligent segment of our culture."

The Three Great Premises 

  1. Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.
  2. Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough.
  3. Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.

On Cranks

From p. 36
The barriers that once forced American cranks to adapt or withdraw--or even merely to defend--their ideas all have fallen. It is considered impolite to raise them again, almost un-American, since we are all entitled to our opinions. 

Conspiracy Theories 

From p. 80 - 83
[Daniel Patrick] Moynihan argued that the Warren Commission's capital mistake from the start was the failure to recognize that Americans were not predisposed to believe it.
...70 percent of the American people did not believe the conclusion of the Warren Commission...This percentage has not changed substantially since ... 1964...
...we have kept the Kennedy assassination as a conspiracy theory, rather than accepting it as an actual conspiracy. Once we believe in the latter, it becomes a deadening weight on the conscience. It loses its charm. Accepting it as a reality means we probably are obligated to do something about it, and that we have chosen, en masse, not to.
The revelation of an actual conspiracy--the Iran-Contra matter, say--has come to have a rather deadening effect on American politics and culture. It runs through stages. There is disbelief. Then the whole thing dies in banality. It's too hard to understand, and it's Just One More Damn Thing that proves not that something called "government" is controlled by a secret conspiracy, but that "government" itself is the conspiracy. This is commonplace and boring, and it leads to distrust and to apathy, and not, as it is supposed to do, to public outrage and reform. There is no "Us." There is only a "Them." There's no game if there's only the other team playing.
...the Iran-Contra affair had no ... effect. (Remarkably, several of its architects even returned ... in 2001, eager to reassert their fantastical visions.) ... It is little more than a footnote in history...  
...We entertain ourselves with skepticism or, at worst, cynicism. But we govern ourselves with apathy or, at worst, credulity. 

Some Reviews

09 May 2012

The Collected Short Stories of Mavis Gallant

And what a collection it is! 887 pages of them. In her preface, Gallant says "This is a heavy volume, and if I had included everything, even nearly everything, it would have become one of those tomes that can't be read in comfort and that are no good for anything except as a weight on sliced cucumbers."

I am nearly done with it, having now gotten my warning notice from the Library, after keeping it for the absolute maximum amount of time allowed, and what I think is that I'll have to buy a copy to keep. It's wonderful, a wonderful big pile of beautiful writing.

The stories are often set in Paris or Montreal. Gallant, Canadian by birth, has spent much (or most?) of her life in Paris. There are stories set in the thirties, forties, and up to the nineties: indeed, that's how most of the book is divided. The last four sections are each comprised of stories about the same characters: Linnet Muir; The Carette Sisters;  Edouard, Juliette, Lena; and Henri Grippes.

Characters are often young, from childhood to early adulthood, but there are also many well drawn older people. Refugees figure importantly in her wartime stories. The culture and customs of both Paris and Montreal are rendered vividly. Montreal before the 1960s was quite a bit different than it is now -- here is a little bit from "1933" in the Carette Sisters section:

Mme. Carette had a word with Berthe about Irish marriages: An Irish marriage, while not to be sought, need not be scorned. The Irish were not English. God had sent them to Canada to keep people from marrying Protestants.
And from the preface, here are Gallant's own instructions:

There is something I keep wanting to say about reading short stories. I am doing it now, because I may never have another occasion. Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.
18 May 2012:

A friend asked if I had any particular favorites among the stories, so I spent a little time going back through the book (so overdue from the library that I fear for my freedom) and came up with this:

The Preface
The Moslem Wife
The Four Seasons
The Fenton Child
By the Sea
The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street
An Unmarried Man's Summer
April Fish (wow)
The End of the World
In the Tunnel
A State of Affairs
Mlle. Dias De Corta
Scarves, Beads, Sandals
All the Linnet Muir stories
All the Carette Sisters stories

04 April 2012

So Long, See You Tomorrow, by William Maxwell

Elegant, short, unexpected. I hadn't known that William Maxwell, one time editor of The New Yorker, was also a novelist.

The story is a complex boyhood memory, narrated by a man who lost his mother in childhood, and befriended the son of a man who murdered his wife's lover, and killed himself. Although this sounds gory and ghastly, the story is more about the textures and elements of life in Lincoln, Illinois, circa 1918. There is no mention of war, but the Flu epidemic plays a part: it is what claims the life of the protagonist's mother.

Probably the most interesting part, and the focus of this work, is the description and recounting of the relationships of the Smiths and the Wilsons, two tenant farmer families who live near to each other. Lloyd Wilson is a good friend and helper, always willing to lend a hand to Clarence Smith, but through a strange mixture of chemistry and circumstance, Lloyd falls in love with Mrs. Smith. The tragedy that ensues is laid out at the beginning of the novel, most of the rest of it details the movements and thoughts of the principal characters while all these events unfold.

I look forward to reading another of Maxwell's novels.

02 April 2012

The Girl Who Played With Fire, by Stieg Larsson

Christopher Hitchens on Stieg Larsson

The second in the famous, popular, and excellent trilogy by the late Mr. Larsson. What a legacy.

Strictly Speaking, by Edwin Newman

A short, somewhat humorous work on the deterioration of English usage in public writing and speaking.

Firewall, by Henning Mankel

Another audio book, another Kurt Wallander story. I'm afraid I'll probably give up on these now. This book was entertaining enough for the commute, but even delivered in this way I detected many plot defects and loose ends. Why was Tinas Faulk's body stolen, mutilated, and returned to the scene of his death? What about the injury to his head? Why was an electric relay placed in the morgue when his body was stolen; how was that theft committed, and by whom? There are more.

When a writer creates a novel, no matter how lowbrow his intentions, he or she should probably only include elements in the plot which are necessary to carry the plot forward. I understand that Mankel may be trying to be realistic, for in real police work there are certainly many red herrings and loose ends, but I fear that he has not done this effectively.

There is some decent suspense in the book. The story, which has at its center a plot to compromise computer systems around the world and thereby destroy the world's financial system, is technologically weak and -- viewed from the prospective of 2012 (the story takes place circa 1997) -- it was hard to take it seriously.

Driving is boring, so I did listen to the whole thing.

14 March 2012

The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood

This novel is set simultaneously with Oryx & Crake, in the future. Global warming is no longer a subject of speculation, it is the condition of the world. Bioengineering has become a big industry, and scientists are manufacturing new species such as the pigoon, and the rakunk. Corporations are running everythng, and then -- comes the waterless flood.

The White Lioness, by Henning Mankel

Kurt Wallander begins trying to find a missing woman, and becomes involved in a South African plot to kill Nelson Mandela.

Audio Book

Not bad, but I have to say I think I enjoyed the TV series better. Perhaps it's the translation?

Note: the plot of this book contains elements that are embarrassingly repeated in the only other book I have "read" (it was an audio book as well) by Mankel, Firewall,  which I have also listed in this journal.

22 February 2012

Recent Reading

I've done dismally at keeping up with this. At least I can make a list of books, I think, which is probably incomplete, but this is some of what I've been reading lately:

  • Last Night in Twisted River, by John Irving
  • Music Through the Floor, by Eric Puchner
  • We Were Just Kids, by Patti Smith
  • Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood
  • Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood
  • 11/22/63, by Stephen King
  • Anathem, by Neal Stephenson
  • The Sixties, Unplugged, by Gerard DeGroot
  •  Trader of Secrets, by Steve Martini

To Read

Here's a suggestion from Twitter: The Darker Nations, by Vijay Prashad.

From An Evolution of Knowledge:  "...Carl Djerassi's 1989 novel Cantor's Dilemma ...A fascinating overview of the politics of scientific and university research, and creditably written by a senior academic chemist."

Eileen Myles, Inferno and more

Emily Gould And the Heart Says Whatever and more

Wendell Berry

George MacDonald Frasier, the Flashman series

David Guterson: The Other, The Drowned Son

Lynda Barry What it Is

Malcolm Gladwell What the Dog Saw