Sunday, October 28, 2012

Out of True: Poems by Amy Durant

Out of True: Poems
by Amy Durant

Out of True is a world knocked off-kilter by love, both in its giving and its absence.

"You don't want me to write about you," Amy Durant says in "Palimpsest," when it seems that what the speaker would like to say is, "I can't stop writing about you, and to be honest, it's kind of doing my head in." I don't want to make the assumption that Durant's poems come from a personal place, but whoever is speaking within them had to work very hard at moving past a life-altering, unbalanced relationship. Still, as is the case with most big loves, one never completely lets go.

It's your brain that does it. Turns another
person, a total stranger, into your other half,
into what you've been missing. Your brain
fills in the gaps. Your brain does this.
Your heart just keeps pumping. Dumbly pumping
away, oblivious.

You imprint upon someone like an orphaned
baby duck. Your brain tells you to do it,
so you do. It could be anyone. Your brain
pulls you down the path. You follow. You
don't know any better.
You're along for the ride.

  • from "The Science of This"

There are so many lines in Durant's poems that feel so true and can be tied to my own memories. She has great insight into love and heartbreak, and also the bewilderment of our own making. I know how easy it is to tell myself that I will no longer care in the same way I once did, or that I won't let it bother me that I care far more about someone/thing than others, but I'm only semi-successful. "I loved you at temperatures beyond all that is rational," she writes. I know that love.

And then, without our permission, as though we could ever give permission, time passes:

You are married.
I thought since I still
dream of you at night
you were also
dreaming of me.

  • from "REM Sleep. March – September"

The early loves are perhaps some of the most difficult. It's before we know fully who we are and what we want and how we should treat each other. It's too easy to get it wrong, even when our self-awareness advances.

Other poems talk about love gone right, the love that happens after a disaster, the steadier kind. She writes of forgoing the idea of a perfect house, of learning to be around children, and of being happy as long as two people support each other. It's nice to read, that the poems aren't so singularly focused that they dwell. One big love does not mean that the big loves are singular in occurrence.

Durant has many good bits, but she sometimes tries too hard to neatly end poems. More than one, I wanted to trim the last line or so, as they lessened the impact of the whole poem. Every once in awhile, she falls into what I like to call "Poetry Slam-Style Metaphor Overkill," where one moment "you" are fire, then rain, then "I" am in a Venn diagram, then a labrynth — all in rapid succession. For me, it's an unfocused way of saying, "Look! Watch me write!" It's an easy temptation.

Still, Out of True is a very enjoyable collection of poetry in a pocket-sized edition, and one that makes me eager to read Amy Durant's other and future work. You should too.

Full Disclosure: This book was sent to me as a review copy from the author. I thank her for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Internal News: 10-20-12

I don't think I did one of these last week, and I've written a ton of stuff for Persephone since then. Let's get to it:

At P-Mag:

At Word Riot, Notes From Elsewhere:
  • 10-12-12: Featuring Kevin Sampsell, Sari Botton, Victoria Barrett and more
  • 10-20-12: Put Edgar Allen Poe's face on things. Or read some of his stories for free. Also, underwear is not a pair of pants. Unless, we're speaking in the British sense.
I think that's it!

Next week at this time, I'll be just back from Portland, with various exciting things to tell you, not all of which will have to do with Noel Gallagher. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

Cheshire Born by John Wright

Cheshire Born
by John Wright

Though my experience with poetry collections is not expansive, I do wonder if a memoir-in-poetry is a more unusual form. I suppose by "memoir," I mean something closer to autobiography in that the bulk of a life is represented, rather than a single or handful of formative events. John Wright's Cheshire Born follows the trajectory of a childhood spent in England and Ireland, and his adulthood and medical career in Australia, the poems acting as snapshots. Wright is thoughtful and quietly exuberant with his memories, and he's created a rather satisfying book of poetry. Honestly, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.

I found the back cover copy a little overdone in that it read more like a press release than a summary, but I was intrigued by the subject matter. Wright spent his summers in County Mayo, Ireland, on his granddad's farm, and I knew of the place from interviews with Liam and Noel Gallagher, whose mother's family comes from there. Wright's age puts him about twenty years older than the Gallaghers, so his experiences probably overlap more with their mother, Peggy. Cheshire and Manchester are of course different places, but my interest also stems from trying to get a sense of the English experience during that time. Americans, it seems, have a habit of only (barely) learning their own history, and I'm a fool for being contrary.

Message 1960

Down our road, the Maloneys
were the only ones who had a phone.

They took messages if it wasn't too often.
One came for Mum one day of miserable

drizzle and their Michael brought it over.
He didn't like knocking on doors, so danced

on the pavement behind the privet hedge
all wet and waving, until someone noticed.

When Mum saw him, she opened the window
and leaned out to ask: "What's up, Michael?"

He took a deep asthmatic breath to announce
to all the peeping curtains along the street

the important message he held in his head
yelling as loud as he could: "Yer Dad's dead!"

At 16, Wright takes a trip to Holland, "launched into another world beyond childhood, on a whim for two weeks on my own." He takes the train all around the country, unsure what he wants to do or where to go, though like many, he ends up in Amsterdam:

I stopped on the brink of a dark canal
and dived into a froth of fireworks
that ignited the sky below. It was a bad trip.
The bursting rainbows all turned black.
  • from "Brewery"

A few years later, he moves to Australia and works with elderly patients, most of whom are mentally deficient in some way. While previous poems in the book have a carefree air — an easy, normal childhood, basically — it is here where Wright grows up, and the poems are sad and full of truth:

At dawn I found him in the bathroom sobbing
unable to contain the shock, the embarrassing
nightmare of a tidy man realizing an awful event.

For him, this beginning of the end could not be
worse […]
  • from "Admission"

The poems continue as he gets older, and there are tributes to friends and family, and while his writing style is very simple and straightforward, it's very effective. We experience (or remember) these events right along with him. I appreciate that Wright is a person with a full on other career, yet he still makes time to create his particular form of art. His bio says he's had poems published since the 1980s, and to constantly keep at his writing is something I wish more people with other jobs would realize they can do. One is not "only" a nurse, "only" a parent, or whatever else it is they do. Our complex nature should allow for so much more.

I don't know how much attention Cheshire Born or John Wright himself have received in the US, though the book is from an American publisher. I also don't know how known he is in Australia, despite his publication history. I do hope that Cheshire Born finds an audience though because Wright has a talent for prose poetry. If nothing else, he offers another way to consider writing about our lives. His book proves that a collection of small moments can make for a fulfilling whole.

Full Disclosure: This book was sent to me by a PR rep. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.


This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year. Yes, I'm just going to keep soldiering on.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

Telegraph Avenue
by Michael Chabon

I wonder if I would have loved Telegraph Avenue more if I'd read it before I read Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins. Unfortunately for all books read during (likely) the rest of this year, Beautiful Ruins has become the one against all other books are measured. Michael Chabon is one of my favorite writers — and his Mysteries of Pittsburgh is my favorite book — but I only liked his latest release. Telegraph Avenue is very good but I didn't fall in love. Like I said, is my reading colored by an Italian-gold haze? I'm not sure.

On the surface, Chabon's novel is everything I love — a record shop, dinosaur-like personalities clinging to retro things, love, complicated relationships, the Bay Area. I would love to flip through the dusty bins at Brokeland Records and eavesdrop on Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe shooting the shit with regular customers and friends. One of them, Cochise Jones, even has a talking African Grey parrot named Fifty-Eight, who is prone to saying things like, "Say hello, you little jive-ass motherfucker."

Archy and Nat are enduring a series of problems — not the least of which is Gibson Goode:

Six months prior to this morning, at a press conference with the mayor at his side, Gibson "G Bad" Goode, former All-Pro quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, president and chairman of Dogpile Recordings, Dogpile Films, head of the Goode Foundation, and the fifth richest black man in America, had flown up to Oakland in a customized black and red airship, brimming over with plans to open a second Dogpile "Thang" on the long-abandoned Telegraph Avenue site of the old Golden State market, two blocks south of Brokeland Records. […] Unstated during the press conference, though inferrable from the way things worked at the L.A. Thang, were the intentions of the media store not only to sell CDs at a deep discount but also to carry a full selection of rare and used merchandise, such as vintage vinyl recordings of jazz, funk, blues and soul.

Meanwhile, Nat and Archy's wives, Aviva and Gwen, are going through problems of their own with their midwifery. After a complicated home birth leads to a hospital and a doctor who is exceptionally rude to Gwen, they possibly face losing their privileges at one of the few hospitals open to midwives who also do home births. Additionally, Gwen is very, very pregnant and very, very pissed at Archy's non-committal behavior lately.

Also, Nat and Aviva's teenage son, Julius — aka Julie — has a secret of his own. He's been seeing a boy named Titus — who is more than likely Archy's son. Titus isn't normally into dudes, but he likes Julie well enough to accept "every last note and coin of Julie's virginity over the past two weeks."

There was no good reason to lie; on some level, Julie knew that. His parents had to figure-slash-understand that Julie was semi-bicurious or maybe even gay, or what have you. Twenty-five minutes to gay o'clock. But the confession felt like too much work; Titus was too hard to explain.

Amidst all this is Archy's estranged relationship with his own father, Luther Stallings, a former kung-fu blaxploitation star. Something about his old business dealings have to do with the Gibson Goode Thang, and despite his best efforts, Archy's about to be drawn into his father's plans.

So, yes, Michael Chabon has quite the epic on his hands, divided into five sections pictured as Side A on the cover art. The story is all music and passion and making yourself do the things that are scary. What I really love about his writing is the way in which he describes things. He finds the words that seem original, yet the only natural way to describe the moment in question. "Twenty-five minutes to gay o'clock," being a prime example. Sure, like many writers, he may have heard and lifted the line from somewhere else along the way, but it reads like his.

I also appreciate his continued efforts to have not-straight male characters. Showing the moments where a teenager is trying to figure out his sexuality in a very real (and not overly dramatic, anguished) way is especially good. The grey area between straight and gay is far too underrepresented in most fiction, and this is a rather diverse novel, in terms of race, religion, and economic standing, but it isn't all pleased with itself for doing so. The characters are well aware of the awkward and difficult questions of privilege.

Also impressive is Section III: "A Bird of Wide Experience," an eleven page single sentence that is neither gimmicky nor impenetrable. When I finished it, I thought, "Now that took some doin'."

So why didn't I fall in love? I'm not sure, other than I didn't feel all that connected to the characters or the story until around the halfway mark. I was interested enough to keep going, of course, and it's not as though anyone was unlikeable (their flaws, I understood), but... Well, for whatever reason, the hook wasn't there. And in a long book, over 200 pages of semi-ambivalence is... a lot of reading, and the story is a bit over-stuffed. I spent that time hoping, to crib a musical phrase, the thrill wasn't gone.

Still, it starts to come together, and how everyone imperfectly resolves their issues is neither predictable nor easy. I did enjoy Telegraph Avenue — I just wish I enjoyed it more. I wanted to able to say I'd hug this book's face off, but in Sara-praise, "That took some doin'" is nothing faint, either.

Of course, I'm still going to eagerly anticipate every new Michael Chabon release, and I own nearly all his books. I will continue to recommend my favorites of his until the end of my time. When it comes to Telegraph Avenue, however, you will just have to take what I've said here, consider your own tastes, and decide from there. Maybe you will be the one who falls in love.

Full Disclosure: I received this book as an advanced review copy from HarperCollins, so my pull quotes may differ slightly from the finished version. 


This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year. Yes, I'm just going to keep soldiering on.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Internal News: 10-7-12

First things first, ladies and gents: I've officially completed what I like to call a "Baker's Cannonball Read." That's 53 books read and reviewed this year. Not to worry, I'll still be reviewing plenty of books for the rest of the year and beyond, but as far as that yearly goal goes, I've met it.

My 52nd review was The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch, which David Abrams over at The Quivering Pen was lovely enough to publish. I am rather proud of this review, and the book is excellent, so if you would click through to read, I'd love it.

At Word Riot, Notes From Elsewhere for Oct. 5th features real-life literary inspirations, Jess Walter in a Spokane-centric hip-hop video, Neil Gaiman's hat-saga, and more.

This week at Persephone:

I believe that's it for this week. Until next time.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Boys of Summer by Ciarán West

The Boys of Summer
by Ciarán West

When some writers are busy procrastinating on the the projects they are "supposed" to be working on, they turn to the internet and instead write about, discuss, or shake a fist over the State of Publishing/Reviewing/Words. Many an article deals with the pros and cons of self-publishing, the pros and cons of negative reviews, or the pros and cons of reviewing the work of someone you know. We all get wrapped up in what we're "supposed" to talk about, how writing is "supposed" to work, and often forget that, while a method may work for a large percentage of people, it is not the be-all, end-all of anything to do with writing.

See: MFA programs, large publishing houses, indie publishing, using social media, agents.

Sometimes it's easy to forget that what the crowd thinks is right may not feel right on a personal level. And that's OK. So is changing our mind.

This is the part where I say I knew Ciarán West before he self-published The Boys of Summer, and while I'm not planning on self-publishing a novel, I have no quibble with other people doing it — as long as that book is really good. Once again, I found myself understanding why people do not want to review the books from people they know because, well, what if it's awful? But West is a big boy, and he can presumably handle anything I have to say.

You know what? The Boys of Summer is really very good, better even than some novels I've read this year that were published in a more traditional manner. Is it perfect? No, but we'll get to that in a bit.

The book takes place in 1989 Limerick, Ireland, during a very hot week in which almost-twelve-year-old Richie South finds himself in love with the new neighbor girl, Marian, and sucked into the mystery of who killed five-year-old Tommy Kelly. Richie and his friends think they know who did it, but their investigation brings dredges up conflicting feelings of terror, responsibility, and a strain on their formerly close-knit group. Richie's older brother Chris is the one who breaks the news:

'Fuck off, really?' Shane couldn't believe what Chris was telling us. I couldn't either, but I was keeping quiet; he'd know I was wrecked if I tried to talk; he’d tell Mam, straight away. The whitener was wearing off, but still.

'Really, yeah. Fin was down in Frazer’s this morning with his da. Tony served him a Carling and everything; didn't say nothing.' Fintan Kelly was older than us, but he was still only fourteen. Tony Frazer wouldn't sell you a pack of fags without a note from your mother.

'Tom, though? Small little Tom. How? He’s only a toddler, shur.' Dermot looked like he was angry; he was nearly crying. I wanted to be in bed. I was too young to be drinking or smoking gear, and I just wanted Mam. I kept looking at Chris, then looking away before he looked back.

From there, the speculation and rumors only escalate. Shane, the leader through a strong-arming personality, talks the others into investigating. Richie doesn't know how to feel. Despite wanting desperately not to be seen as a little kid anymore, he's not so sure he likes being thrust into the world of adults in this way.

When it comes to Marian, he's also thrilled and confused by her attention. She's a couple years older than him, yet is completely uninterested in his brother Chris. Richie tries to play it cool, but she takes an odd delight in exploiting his nervousness, his desire:

‘D’you want to do something naughty, Richard?’ She put her hand down the front of her shorts. Jesus Christ, she was going to take her fanny out and show me it and everything!

‘Sorry about the squashing, I had to find somewhere to put them.’ She’d pulled two fags out of her knickers. Thank God!

‘Have you a light?’ I did. I stayed standing up; she was sitting on the grass. The fag tasted gorgeous, cos I was smoking it with her.

‘It was funny when yer man in the shop asked was I your girlfriend, wasn’t it?’ she said, dragging on her fag.

‘Yeah.’ I said. No it wasn’t funny; I’d nearly gone purple.

‘Have you a girlfriend, no?’ she said, in a little quiet voice. I liked all of her voices.

‘Ah, not at the moment, no.’ Not ever.

‘Awww. Why not?’

‘Dunno,’ I said. I didn’t like how she’d said ‘Awww’. Like she was feeling sorry for me.

‘You never know, eh?’ she said, winking at me.

West rides the line of child/teenager well, and Richie's voice doesn't fall prey to "adult who thinks he's writing in the voice of a child" that I've seen in other books. This isn't "eleven and three-quarters" filtered through retrospect; it's simply the voice of a kid who will describe himself as that age.

Because of that voice, and the speaking style of his friends, the text is very Limerick-slang heavy. Part of me says that some of it is overdone, and that readers could get a sense of it without quite as much "that's pure rapid" and whatnot. A good editor would know the proper balance. Still, the other part of me says, Have you spoken to any kids lately? They fixate on words. Yesterday, my son sang a made-up song about pumas all goddamn day. And almost-teenagers are going to do up the swearing, the inside jokes and slang because they can. So without spending an extended period with this book in editor-mode, I can't say for certain what the right level of Limerickness is, so to speak. On a side note, an editor would have also caught a few formatting and typo issues, but that's a small complaint when compared to the effectiveness of the story.

The story, its pacing and content, is absolutely enthralling. Normally, I am extremely slow about reading e-books because I have no reader for them other than my laptop, so they don't make for good before-bed reading. Instead, I tend to catch up on them while I'm folding laundry. I hate folding laundry, so I only manage a handful of pages at a time.

Reading The Boys of Summer, my laundry was exceptionally folded. The kids could find matched socks, and the mister wondered why he couldn't find any clean workshirts, until he realized I'd actually washed, folded and put away all of them. Clothes not in a laundry basket? What is this madness?

So if you know me, you know that I've just given West a major compliment. He wants to make you uncomfortable, yet you want to press forward. The narrative speeds along breathlessly, all culminating in an ending that's simultaneously inevitable and unbelievable.

If this book were published by Harper or some other big publisher, I am confident that it would get scores of attention. As a small release, I've seen it well-received, and I hope that my review directs at least a few more readers its way. Yes, I know the author, but I do pride myself in being fair. The Boys of Summer is worth your time and money.

You can read the first chapter at Amazon, and the book is also available through Smashwords.

#53 (That's right, a BAKER'S CANNONBALL.)

This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Wayne of Gotham by Tracy Hickman

Wayne of Gotham
by Tracy Hickman

Can a novelized version of a comic book character be any good? That was my question when I said yes to reviewing Tracy Hickman's Wayne of Gotham. I am not a frequent reader of superhero comics, but I will gladly watch most all of the movies. Especially Batman. Friends, I even paid theater price for Batman and Robin when it came out (though, theater price then was something like $4 for a matinee). Yes, I mocked that movie mercilessly, as you do, but if you put out something having to do with Batman, chances are I will at least perk up my ears.



Turns out that Wayne of Gotham is actually quite good, once I readjusted some of my expectations. I had to remember that certain over-dramatic language is traditional comic book storytelling and, well, Batman's a dramatic dude. As a child, he witnessed his parents being killed, then went round the bend, only with money and a babysitter — er, caretaker, Alfred. Wayne of Gotham deals with his family history and provides new details about that event and of Bruce Wayne's father's past.

Thomas Wayne was a doctor uninterested in the Wayne family business, who grew up with a drunken, violent father, Patrick. Distracting himself, he'd go out with Martha Kane, the wild and rich neighbor girl, and her various seedy friends. Of course, Thomas endlessly pines for her, and she thinks he's so nice, especially for getting her home when she's blackout drunk. These are Bruce's eventual parents.

The story switches back and forth between Thomas in the late '50s and Bruce/Batman during the present day. The proper nouns are very clear — when Bruce puts on the Batsuit, he ceases to be Bruce. Bruce Wayne is in recluse mode, shying away from interviews and public appearances, and occasionally he has Alfred push him around in a wheelchair to give false impressions to the press. The 'why' of this, I don't fully remember, and it is assumed that readers of the book will know that back-story. He continues to be Batman.

It is only when a mysterious guest turns up at Wayne Manor that his "regular" life is shaken. A woman claims to have information behind his parents' murders, and what she does provide leads both Bruce and Batman on an information hunt, where it seems that old villains are the only ones who know what he's looking for. And strangely, Alfred seems to know as well.

Alfred had been with him from the beginning. Every relationship has its strains. He and Alfred had been through it all together for as long as Bruce could remember. Sometimes it was easy and sometimes it was hard. Of late, the warm relationship between the retainer and the master had cooled somewhat and the silences between them had lengthened. Even so, Bruce believed Alfred Pennyworth had been steadfastly honest in his service.

But now Alfred was reacting contrary to Bruce's direct orders because of a woman he obviously knew — one who had somehow managed to slip undetected onto the grounds.

Gadget and tech nerds who have always wondered about how Bruce manages to become Batman will find plenty to love, as Hickman goes into great detail about the Batsuit's capabilities, the in-car navigation and information systems, and just about anything else he uses to do his job. While sometimes I found the endless specs rundown a bit tedious, I did appreciate the description of the Batsuit, as I've always wondered how he moves around so well in that thing.

Batman settled lower into his crouch. The Batsuit was new, and he was pleased at the response. It was essentially a form of power armor, although its ability to deflect damage had yet to be field tested. The exterior of the Batsuit still used a light variation of the Nomex/Kevlar weave, but gratefully much of the weight had been shed by dropping the armor plating. In its place now was a complex set of exomusculature beneath the the exterior weave. It was his "muscle" Batsuit, one that could artificially enhance his nature movements and strength. The bidirectional neurofeedback loop maintained a dynamic stability that was tied at once into both the voluntary and involuntary neural responses from his body. That he could use the arrectores pilorum on his body hair as a neural source for control was all the more convenient. The electroactive polymers were liquid bound ionic EAPs, which kept the voltage low throughout the Batsuit and the heat generation to a minimum. Kevlar was always passive; this Batsuit had an active defense, a blast-ion charge reacting to force trauma. The downside was that the Batsuit could bleed if it did not react quickly enough.

The Batsuit could die on me.

I could die in the Batsuit.

A smile played on his lips at the thought.

What a wonderful symmetry.

Later in this early chapter, there are descriptions of the cape and cowl's abilities as well. So, yes, it's nice to know, but at a certain point, I thought, I am not your audience with all this... detail.

The story is really more about Bruce and Thomas' inner state rather than a typical "fight the baddies" tale, and I liked that. Sure, the villains all do their best to further drive these men crazy, and the Arkham Asylum is the setting for some of that struggle. It seems that the whole point of Batman is to illustrate that there's a very fine line between himself and the people that he's fighting.

I don't know enough about the Canon of Batman to say how well Tracy Hickman incorporates previously established history and storylines, and I'm sure there are references that I didn't notice that a more studious reader of the character would. Still, I have major respect for anyone who takes on such a long-established, mythic character and adds their own contribution to that history. Fans of superhero comics are highly likely to enjoy Wayne of Gotham, but more casual fans will find plenty to appreciate as well. While I wouldn't necessarily say that this motivates me to find more novelized adaptations of comics, I certainly won't be so quick to dismiss them, either. In some ways, the book reminds me how much can be shown by an excellent artist, and how the right stroke of ink can convey certain moments far better than words.

Full Disclosure: I received this book as a review copy from !t Books. I thank them for the gesture and will continue to be fair in my reviews.


This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year.