Monday, February 18, 2013

Seeds by Richard Horan

Seeds: One Man's Serendipitous Journey to Find the Trees That Inspired Famous American Writers
by Richard Horan

Seeds sat on my headboard for over a year. Though I'm not an overly "one with nature" sort of person, and though I probably tend to take trees for granted, I'd picked the book because I like reading about what makes writers do what they do. The cover mentioned Kerouac and Wharton, who I've enjoyed, and so I thought, Trees? All right, let's see where this goes, even though it took me awhile to feel in the mood for it. My expectations were not high, yet I still wish that this book had been better. Richard Horan's passion for his subject matter is relatable and occasionally infectious, but the way he chose to present his information is at times lacking.

During a road trip with his family in which he visited several historical sites, Horan had the idea that many of the trees where notable people lived likely still stand. After visiting the homes of Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, and Elvis Presley, and seeing the trees there, he had his "epiphany."

I would travel across America to gather the seeds from the trees of great Americans who had influenced my life or influenced the course of American history.

I would visit their hometowns in search of the trees that may have played a part of their early development and helped form their views. I'd look into their lives and works for references to trees. I would also seek out trees that had witnessed great historical events.

Though Horan's list focuses mainly on writers, there are a few people and sites (like Civil War battlefields) famous for other things, former Presidents included. The seeds he collects, he takes home and plants in small pots, where they begin their new lives on his back porch. Eventually, he will try to find more permanent homes for these trees.

The angle of environmentalism and historical preservation, I certainly agree with, but sometimes he goes to great lengths to talk about how uncomfortable he finds paid tours and other indoor activities related to these famous people, yet he keeps going on them. He has a similar contradictory attitude about "No Trespassing" signs. Sometimes, they are meant to be ignored for the purposes of his mission, and other times, he shrugs and has no problem following the rules. It's not that he is only sometimes okay with them, it's the way he explains it. He seems to take great pains to show us, I'm a rebel, Dottie, without any real examination of how that's not the case.

I say that he should examine himself more because he makes this book about himself, despite the Famous-People-Trees subject matter. This is not a history book — it's a memoir. And to me, if you're writing a memoir, you should make it about more than surface information. If you're going to talk about yourself, great, but I shouldn't always feel like you're holding back.

Horan's dialogue also feels inauthentic. He seems to create dialogue for the purposes of conveying information, but it doesn't read like anyone actually said it. It's not that the information is boring — I just want it presented differently.

Directly beside [Willa] Cather's headstone was a small square slab marking the resting place of her longtime companion, Edith Lewis.

"On a clear day I'll be there's a view of the mountain," Krakow said, motioning toward the north. "She definitely chose this very spot before she died."

"You know, I made a vow not to collect seeds at grave sites, but I have a feeling this place is different. I read that she and Edith Lewis, the summer before My Ántonia came out, would go into the woods near Shattuck Inn, sit on the rocks, and read the manuscript. Well, look at all the rocks there." I pointed to the stone wall. "I have a hunch that the two of them came right here, sat on the wall, and read."

Maybe I'm being harsh, but that doesn't strike me as something he said. Maybe he said something like that to his friend, but the way it is written feels very forced and false, and there are numerous conversations like this throughout the book.

I'm with him on the interesting nature of his project, and the potential it has for reforesting the descendants of old trees, as well as reminding us that some moments cannot be contained to a "sterile" museum. However, I wish Seeds were a better book. Horan needed to either go the straight history route, or — as I suspect straight history would be difficult for him to write — he needed to be more complete with the memoir side of his project. Though he says that these people were important to him, we don't know a lot about why. Bits and pieces, sure, but like I said, it's all very on the surface. I know what it's like to be engrossed in a fun, personal project, and so I want to know all that very personal stuff. So it's not that Seeds is a bad concept for a book; it's that I wished the approach and execution were different. As it stands, Seeds is a decent library check-out, but likely a disappointing purchase.

Full Disclosure: Harper Perennial sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.


This review is part of Cannonball Read V, in which participants attempt to read and review 52, 26, or 13 books in a year. A charitable donation is made for those who complete 52 reviews by December 31, 2013.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Sexy Sailors edited by Neil Plakcy

Sexy Sailors: Gay Erotic Stories
edited by Neil Plakcy

Oh, lovely men of the water! Not that I have anything against the Navy, but what a relief to see that Neil Plakcy's edited collection Sexy Sailors did not solely focus on gay men who were involved in military service. Military-themed erotica is a whole other people-in-uniform subset that one often sees in collections, but this one branches out to include men who know their way around shipping vessels, yachts, basic sailboats, and more. Not every story takes places on an actual boat, but all are tied to the sailing profession in some way. Though the book is a scant 200 pages, most of the stories are quite good and full of fun, hot scenes that should satisfy anyone who likes reading about men who are attracted to each other.

What I think I liked best about this collection is that it seemed to have a sense of humor about the nature of erotica. Yes, we want to be turned on, but like romance, the style in which erotica is written is supposed to be over the top, full of "Explosions! Rainbows! Rockets! All that crappy movie montage stuff[...]" ("Landlocked Squid," Tanner). Many of the stories acknowledge that when we're concerned with feeling physically good, our natural inclination is not to make sure we have a literary vocabulary. Of course, I don't want the writing to be distractingly bad, but excellence in word choice is not necessarily a requirement.

Plakcy — a surname I keep trying to misspell, which I bet he's used to hearing — contributes his own story, "Heat Lightning," and it's a good one. Instead of the hot young things often featured in erotica, he tells the story of a middle-aged man who moves yachts from Caribbean islands to southeastern states so that their wealthy owners can avoid paying foreign taxes. His hired shipmate has just flaked out on him again, so he places an online ad for an experienced sailor to help move the latest boat. Instead of the usual under-30 part-timers, a man around his age answers the ad.

We kept going north, past the mansions and high rises of Palm Beach. I was navigating from inside the Portuguese bridge when Eddie went out onto the foredeck to check the ropes coiled there. He was sweating pretty fast in the warm spring air, and he pulled off his T-shirt, giving me an up close and personal look at his upper body.

It wasn't a bad view. He was stocky, with a stomach that was more round than flat, but his arms were well-muscled. His skin was smooth, with a trail of hair from between his pecs that led down his waistline, and I could just see a tantalizing line of white where his tan died. My dick popped up but I tried to ignore it. I was over lusting after straight guys.

Ah, but he's not straight, and attraction follows its natural progression. What was good about "Heat Lightning" is that it felt so normal. Two normal men in a regular job, with a side of sex. More fanciful erotica is fine too, but it's nice to have stories that are more true to life peppered throughout the book.

And there's nothing wrong with hot young things, of course. Jay Starre's "Croatian Sail," involves Andrej, the hot blond in Dubrovnik, and Grant, who Andrej keeps calling "Mr. Cute American." Andrej gives Grant a tour of the area in his boat, and they spend the night together anchored in a small bay.

Another good, yet knowingly funny story is "Red Alert: Weapons of Mass Erection" by Logan Zachary — I mean, how could it not be knowingly funny with a title like that? Russian sailors are on shore leave near Lake Superior, and Billy and (as far as I can tell) our unnamed narrator would like to have a memorable evening with a few of them. The Russian sailors are known for their intensity, and the resulting story is the sort of debauched fantasy that definitely has its place in a collection like this.

The only story I really didn't enjoy was "Boots For The Goddess" by Connor Wright. Set in some kind of ancient shipping village, two men reunite after one has been involved in a shipwreck. It's not that the story was badly written or anything; it just wasn't for me. Your mileage may vary.

Overall, Sexy Sailors probably has a little something for everybody, with enough specialization to satisfy people with more specific turn-ons. The variety of situations and characters keeps the collection from feeling repetitive, and the writing is better than a lot of other erotica I've read. If having ladies in your imagined sexybusiness is not a requirement, do give this one a look.

Full Disclosure: Cleis Press sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.


This review is part of Cannonball Read V, in which participants attempt to read and review 52, 26, or 13 books in a year. A charitable donation is made for those who complete 52 reviews by December 31, 2013.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Losing Clementine by Ashley Ream

Losing Clementine
by Ashley Ream

What a nice surprise this book is. When I began reading Ashley Ream's Losing Clementine, I wasn't so sure about it. The narrator, Clementine Pritchard, seemed to speak as though she were trying to show off how clever she is, and at times, it comes off a bit strained. However, that strained cleverness does have an underlying point — Clementine is very, very sad and tired of life, and making jokes keeps her functional. She's decided to spend a month getting her affairs in order, and then she's going to kill herself. Each chapter is titled with how many days she has left to go. Eventually, I settled into her voice and her situation, and the interesting thing about the book is that I found myself not necessarily rooting for her life one way or the other. When it comes to a subject as touchy as suicide, that's an interesting mental space in which to be.

I couldn't live with the pills. That I knew for certain. And life without them was dangerous, not only for me, but for those who got too close to me. That I knew for certain, too. So this was it. The only possible choice.

"Good-bye, Lithium," I said and flushed away the swirling pharmacy.

Somewhere in the bay, fish were overdosing on anti-psychotics. Under no circumstances should they be operating heavy machinery.

Clementine is an LA-area artist of moderate renown, divorced but on friendly terms with her ex, Richard, and she is quite annoyed that another artist, Elaine Sacks, has been piggybacking (or straight up copying) her work for years. Clementine's assistant, Jenny, does the usual tasks of priming canvasses and washing brushes, but also makes sure she eats. In the heat of deciding to end her life, she'd fired Jenny, but one doesn't lose such a vital part of their life so easily. Also, she has a cranky cat with an awful name, Chuckles.

When it comes to family history, Clementine has had it rough. Her mother and sister are dead, and her father sodded off years before, so she spent the latter half of her childhood with her aunt, Trudy. Mental instability is hinted at, but we must wait until we're further into the story before we know all the details. She decides that she should find out what happened to her father before she dies.

Aunt Trudy gave an exasperated sigh that sounded like it used a little spittle in the process.

"Leave it be, Clementine."

"Tell me what you remember, and I'll go home, and you can get back to your sunbathing."

"I've already gotten back to my sunbathing."

I waited.

It worked.

"He was an accountant. He worked for a firm in Encino, an accounting firm. Parker and something, it was called. He had a mustache that he was always getting food stuck in, especially yellow mustard from hot dogs. He had skinny legs and liked to wear his watch on the underside of his wrist, Lord knows why. He was tall like you. Your mother married him young and had you girls young. They met in the lobby of a movie house. Dated maybe six months before he popped the question. Jesus, Clementine, he could be dead for all we know. What does it matter?"

Clementine is not sure why it matters, just that does. All loose ends must be accounted for. When stressed or questioned about the various rash decisions she's making, she either makes a self-deprecating joke, changes the subject, or mildly insults the question-asker. I liked that Ashley Ream writes about these defense mechanisms in a very normal way because we all know people like Clementine, whether they are firmly suicidal or not. The bits about the various behaviors of artists are also amusing and reality-based.

As the countdown progresses, we learn more about what lead to it, and the various resolving moments that Clementine experiences I cannot really describe without ruining the book too much. What I will say is that it's not overly sentimental, nor is it a morality tale. The "trying to be clever" complaints I had in the first thirty pages or so start to simmer into legitimately funny. And even though Chuckles has an awful name, he exhibits that great difficult, yowling behavior that makes me love cats. (I am cat-deficient in life, so until I get another pair of them, I must settle for cats in my media.)

What I think that Losing Clementine confirmed for me is that my "read one-third of the pages before deciding" book rule is a good one. Unless it is so very difficult to enjoy at all (a reading life is too short for that), it's respectful to give the book an honest chance. I'm glad I did.

Full Disclosure: William Morrow sent me this book as an uncorrected proof, so my quoted passages may differ slightly from the finished edition. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.


This review is part of Cannonball Read V, in which participants attempt to read and review 52, 26, or 13 books in a year. A charitable donation is made for those who complete 52 reviews by December 31, 2013.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Internal News as of 2-8-13

Girl, what's my weakness?

Here's what I've been writing lately when I haven't been here. At Persephone Magazine:

  • 30 Years of Music: 1992, featuring Aphex Twin, Tori Amos, No Doubt, En Vogue, The Cure, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Whitney Houston, Sade, Blind Melon, Happy Mondays, and Rage Against The Machine.
  • 30 Years of Music: 1993, where I couldn't keep myself to 10 songs. Featuring Janet Jackson, Salt n Pepa, Snoop, Lenny Kravitz, Radiohead, Suede, Nirvana, Björk, Sheryl Crow, Smashing Pumpkins, James, Letters to Cleo, Sarah McLachlan, Mazzy Star, and 10,000 Maniacs.
  • An Embarrassment of Reading Riches: in which I once again get cranky about lazy journalism (all time pet peeve, yo), and talk about the attempt at cramming as many words into my brain as possible.
  • Book to Film Adaptations: High Fidelity: I even made an infographic, using a photo of an old record case I have as a background.
  • Discussion: Kids in Non-Kid Places: Unlike the rest of the internet, P-Mag commenters are nice to each other in parenting articles.
  • This Week's Best of Pinterest: funny cats and a llama included.

And at Word Riot, Notes From Elsewhere:

  • 1-28-13: Lots of Richard Blanco links. And other things. 
  • 1-30-13: Library-inspired Valentines, graphic novel suggestions and more.
  • 2-1-13: A funny letter to the editor, T Cooper, and some pretty cool book arts.
  • 2-8-13: a sale at Akashic, an article about the weird things our memory does, and more.

That's all for now.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

100 Love Sonnets / Cien sonetos de amor by Pablo Neruda

One Hundred Love Sonnets: Cien sonetos de amor (English and Spanish Edition)
by Pablo Neruda
(translated from the Spanish by Stephen Tapscott)

I don't remember how I stumbled across it, but Pablo Neruda's soneto XVII is what made me want to read him. I'd heard of the Chilean poet, of course, but he was yet another gap in my literary reading history. Perhaps it's more suiting for my personality to first approach him from a place of love, rather than his political work. I don't know. What I do know is that soneto XVII is the one for me:

No te amo como si fueras rosa de sal, topacio
o flecha de clavelas que propagan el fuego:
te amo como se aman ciertas cosas oscuras,
secretamente, entre la sombra y el alma.

Te amo como la planta que no florece y lleva
dentro de sí, escondida, la luz de aquellas flores,
y gracias a tu amor vive oscuro en mi cuerpo
el apretado aroma que ascendió de la tierra.

Te amo sin saber cómo, ni cuándo, ni de dónde,
te amo directamente sin problemas ni orgullo:
así te amo porque no sé amar de otra manera,

sino así de este modo en que no soy ni eres,
tan cerca que tu mano sobre mi pecho es mía,
tan cerca que se cierran tus ojos con mi sueño.
In English:

I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off,
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.
I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.
I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where,
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way
than this: where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.

Each poem is laid out en face, Spanish and English. My rusty Spanish skills suddenly became more functional from being able to read both versions and by training my mind to once again get the gist of what I read en español before reading the translation. These poems, dedicated to his wife Maltilde, are often meditative and lovely, but also quite grounded. He is in love with all of her, especially her skin and her demeanor. "No one can reckon what I owe you, Love," he writes in LXIV.

I like that this is a very simple collection. Very little attempt is made at dissecting the meaning behind each poem, apart from a few notes at the back that have mainly to do with geography. We are left to interpret for ourselves.

The only strange thing about this edition is that each sonnet has a drop cap letter of a different font, as though whoever was responsible for the layout wanted one example of each type of lettering. Drop caps that are a different font from the main piece are fine, but they should be consistent. If nothing else, Futura has no business being involved with a Neruda soneto.

Reading the whole book at once, I started to notice Neruda's pet expressions. References to earth and bread and wood appear frequently, and while they are effective images in the poems themselves, seeing them repeated one after the other can start to feel stale. Maybe that's unfair, but sometimes I found myself studying the Spanish-to-English translation less intently as the book went on. I didn't slow down, which perhaps I would have done more completely had I dipped in and out of the book over time.

Though there are many great lines and a handful of true favorites I could continue to quote, instead I'll leave you with XCVII en inglés. It reminds me of a certain madman in a blue box.

These days, one must fly — but where to?
Without wings, without an airplane, fly — without a doubt:
the footsteps have passed on, to no avail;
they didn't move the feet of the traveler along.
At every instant, one must fly — like
eagles, like houseflies, like days:
must conquer the rings of Saturn
and build new carillons there.
Shoes and pathways are no longer enough,
the earth is no use anymore to the wanderer:
the roots have already crossed through the night,
and you will appear on another planet,
stubbornly transient,
transformed in the end into poppies.


This review is part of Cannonball Read V, in which participants attempt to read and review 52, 26, or 13 books in a year. A charitable donation is made for those who complete 52 reviews by December 31, 2013.

This review now also appears on Persephone Magazine.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

How To Get Into The Twin Palms by Karolina Waclawiak

How To Get Into The Twin Palms
by Karolina Waclawiak

You must forgive me; I read this book several months ago, and the review kept getting pushed around my writing to-do list, since I've been slow about that list in general and I prioritized review copies. Yet, I didn't want to slough off writing about How To Get Into The Twin Palms because it's a really great book.

Anya is a Polish-born, American-assimilated 25 year old living in Los Angeles. "Mimicry is what I was good at," she says. Every night, she watches the Russian men and women who frequent the club the Twin Palms. The women wear pearls and sometimes fur coats, and the men park their cars on her street. She watches them from her balcony, and she desperately wishes to know their world.

I keep whistling at the Russian men and so far that has not worked. I spend evenings walking back and forth past the Twin Palms. Now some men nod at me from the front and stare at my ass from the back. My new slim black pants accentuate my hips and elongate my legs. They seem to like that. My dark hair makes my eyes more cat-like and brighter in hue. More Eastern European. Less American. I am starting to make sense to them. I am taking off all my American skin. Killing my ability to pass for Middle American and quiet and from here. Instead I am from the bloki again. Soviet-built and dooming.

Eventually, she meets Lev, a seemingly nondescript yet irresistible Russian man, and she begins courting him in a subtle way. He knows she's Polish, but he finds her interesting. Different from his regular life.

Her only job she currently has is running bingo at a Russian Orthodox church in Hollywood, so she has a lot of time on her hands to wait for him, to go back and forth about wanting him, to consider her life.

When we finished, he rolled over and wouldn't look at me. I stared at his back. It was fleshy and white and reminded me of the underside of a whale. He had faint stretch marks above his ass and his ass was hairy. He wasn't turning around and I had to focus on something. There were a few pimples as well. I began to wonder if I had pimples on my ass too. I could hear him snoring lightly and felt that our fucking didn't warrant a nap. It wasn't hours. Or even half an hour. It was more like 20 minutes.

What is very good about Waclawiak's writing is that it is so right on with the details — the 100 degree heat, the texture of clothes, the smells around Anya. Especially the smells: onions, cologne, sourness, sweat, fire in the air. Lev is not some charming, Viggo-in-Eastern-Promises sort of Russian, or anything else all that romanticized. Her description of him is that of an ordinary man. The Twin Palms carries the romance; Lev is merely the key, a tool for Anya to maybe no longer feel so disconnected from her own life. The ashy haze around the city might as well be her mindset. Her desire to be special and included consumes everything else.

How To Get Into The Twin Palms, in a way, is an atypical mystery novel. Though we know what Anya wants, everything else isn't clear and we are left to make our own conclusions. I like that it isn't tidy, but like life, which is to say sometimes sad and always full of desire. I'm so very glad I read it.

Full Disclosure: I won this book through a giveaway on The Next Best Book Club.