As Bill Rasmovicz notes in “The Mastery of Moving On,” the penultimate poem in Gross Ardor, humans are in need of alchemists to help us to understand...moreAs Bill Rasmovicz notes in “The Mastery of Moving On,” the penultimate poem in Gross Ardor, humans are in need of alchemists to help us to understand the vertigo that occasionally overcomes even the most flippant or most mordant among us. “Good people,” the poet speaks to the audience,
“unzip your spines and lie / limp with me. Listen,
there are so many things we can never reveal until one of us is on a death bed, until the various unthinkables happen and part we must. As Christ’s ribs were pierced, I wonder if all his intentions
went leaking out into atmosphere.”
If words failed even Christ, whose boldfaced words continue to bleed across Bible pages centuries A.D., then it should come as little surprise that the speaker of Rasmovicz’s verse should complain that even the “bones in [his] throat” have settled “out of place” when he is confronted with loss.
And, yet, I found the turns of phrase that Rasmovicz unfurled across line breaks, his linkage of seemingly nonlinkable ideas to be oddly invigorating even as the poet proclaims that “if everything were / good and right we would be as equally fucked” (from “Fields Newly Turned”).
Gross Ardor is a book to appreciate when the reader is eager to stray from linear narration. Although there are moments when a scene seems to be framed so that the reader/viewer might gaze on ordinary bug-life “nibbling the clover,” an unlikely thought is sure to intrude as the speaker suddenly catches sight of his reflection in window glass and wonders if he might “be / more handsome with a bone through [his] nose.” As he gazes on “Fields Newly Turned,” the speaker’s mind turns from poetic to prosaic to elegiac:
“Dear pitch black, why are the moths’ trajectories so inaccurate around the source cauterizing wing with wing? I should take a pill, take a lunch—
it is important you know to have lunch among the graves, to have lived on nothing
but the buzz of the yellow-jacket hovering in the rose’s white pocket, to know that rich as the soil is, it needs the pig’s blood for the trees to be green.
And you, does your head swivel like an owl’s yet? Does the body instinctively follow? Here may be the perennial nosebleed you’ve been looking for.”
Yes, Rasmovicz reminds us, nosebleeds are occasioned by emotions.
Sometimes, the poet’s language verges on oblique punchline as he—for example—exposes the grotesquerie in so-called plain speaking:
“Saying what you think is like taxidermy,
stuffing the dead deer and standing it in your living room, as if the living room were a forest.” (“Lighthouse in Podunk”)
Although the reader may respond with uncertainty at asides that might be jokes, might be insults, she senses in these utterances an attempt to forge an indirect, but real connection as the speaker asks, “Shouldn’t our dialogue be as visceral as sideways rain?” (“Phasing Out the Dewclaw”).
Overall, I enjoyed the strange shifts of tone when jokiness lapsed into lyricism (or vice versa). Both modes of address seem appropriate given that the pervasive feeling that runs through this book is that of bereavement, of “missing someone.” How does one move on when separation is inevitable? And, yet, despite the unsettling effect of tonal oscillations, I remained encouraged by the staying power of desire, which kept erupting throughout the volume, a bit like those flowers that Rasmovicz describes as “burst capillaries everywhere.” We won’t bleed to death with such poetry.
Discloser: I received this book via First Reads giveaway.
Any true bibliophile could not help but be stimulated by Robin Sloan’s description of the esoteric books held in the Galvanic library, to which his pr...moreAny true bibliophile could not help but be stimulated by Robin Sloan’s description of the esoteric books held in the Galvanic library, to which his protagonist, Ajax Penumbra, is initially inducted:
“There are books made from silver and bone. There are books with blood on their pages, figuratively and literally. There are books made of feathers; books cloaked in jade; books that ring like bells when you pull them off the shelf; books that glow in the dark.” (15)
Although I tend to care more about the words and worlds contained in my own teetering stacks, I can certainly appreciate the aesthetic appeal of these imagined tomes. Also, “book hunter” sounds like an ideal job description.
I loved Jasper Fforde’s Tuesday Next novels, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind, and Arturo Perez Révertez’s The Club Dumas so it’s not surprising that Sloan’s Ajax Penumbra, 1969 would attract my attention.
I have already downloaded Sloan’s longer novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore—and I am grateful to Goodreads for providing this introduction to another mystical reader’s club via their First Read’s giveaway. I am ready to become a member! (less)
I will never walk amid emperor penguins in Antarctica, will never witness my exhalations “refracting the sunlight into evanescent blooms of colour,” w...moreI will never walk amid emperor penguins in Antarctica, will never witness my exhalations “refracting the sunlight into evanescent blooms of colour,” would not even know that the far south climate could be so transformative that I might “breathe in air and breathe out rainbows.”
I’m grateful for the poetry which infuses Gavin Francis’ Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence, & Emperor Penguins. Prior to winning this book via First Reads giveaway, my only glimpse of fatherly brooding over grey-fluff chicks had been accompanied by Morgan Freeman’s voiceover.
Although I had experienced Luc Jacquet’s March of the Penguins during its theatrical release, I somehow managed to missed Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World, although I’ve loved that director’s visions in Heart of Glass, Where the Green Ants Dream, not to mention his better-known Nosferatu, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, and Aguirre, the Wrath of God.
What really surprised me in Francis’ Antarctic encounter is its intense intertextuality. In addition to introducing me to the Herzog documentary, the author also managed to intersperse a number of poets among his mention of various other travel-writers.
Coincidentally, I’m taking an online workshop in ekphrastic poetry—and just as I was contemplating the week’s prompt to join the poetic conversation inspired by Pieter Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, I come across Francis’ discussion of William Carlos Williams’ and W.H. Auden’s verse meditations of that painting. I should not be surprised by such synchronicity as Francis’ memoir is as much an exploration into inner (intellectual and imaginal) space as it is into cathedrals of ice on "spindle-thin rope."
And, yet, how unexpected to find this lyrical prose-writer (a doctor like Williams) studying the fluff of chick bellies, comparing it to “half-blown dandelion clocks,” then, reflecting that if these semi-piebald creatures had not managed to fledge further by the time “the floe broke up they would be unable to swim and, like Icarus, [they, too] would drown.”
How marvelous! Francis’ is the type of book that is sure to be read by future winterers at the coastal research station at Halley, though I must say that I was quite comfortable to be reading it under my bundle of sleepy cat bodies. (I got the impression--from other reading--that domestic animals are no longer kept at these research stations due to environmental concerns.)
I simply could not survive away from purrs--and, while I do find some degree of cold to be energizing, I could only cringe when I read a quote from Apsley Cherry-Garrard on the impact of “minus 77.5°F, about minus 60°C” on dentistry: “I don’t know why our tongues never got frozen. . . . but all my teeth, the nerves of which had been killed, split to pieces.”
No. I will never travel to Antarctica, but I am delighted to have been exposed to Francis’ (and other adventurers’) experiences in that dark whiteness if only on the vividly descriptive page. And, now, I am also inspired to watch that Herzog movie—and, possibly, to add some novels set in cold climates to my Goodread’s shelves. I’m thinking of something along the lines of Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg or the Edie Kiglatuk's Inuit mysteries by M.J. McGrath. But, I’ll have to conduct some research in order to find the equivalent set in the polar south. (less)
Although I was enticed to enter the First Reads giveaway for Katherine Pancol’s The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles by the blurbist’s promise of a similarit...moreAlthough I was enticed to enter the First Reads giveaway for Katherine Pancol’s The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles by the blurbist’s promise of a similarity to Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I closed the back cover after 435 pages of Pancol’s novel wondering if the supposed correspondence could be limited to the nationality of these authors. Both are French—and most of The Yellow Eyes takes place in France with occasional visits to a crocodile farm in Kenya. The most original character might be a pet croc named Bambi.
I expected more eccentricity in characterization and more drama given the sheer number of characters indulging in adulterous behavior, but found that the latter became commonplace unto tediousness. The author does not appear to have put much conviction into developing backstories. I found myself scoffing when the broad-shouldered female neighbor with a connection to royalty finally offers an explanation of her secretive manner and mysterious behavior. And some of Pancol’s resolutions also struck me as slapdash. When one of the cheating spouses was eventually disposed of in one subplot, for example, I found the recounting of his fate to be so unbelievable that I could only assume that this character must be destined for resurrection in one of the sequels that have yet to be translated into English. However, I can’t say I’m invested enough to hope so. (less)
Lola Bensky to Jimi Hendrix: “I think I’m organised because my parents’ lives were so disordered, disarranged and deranged. . . . In the death camps,...moreLola Bensky to Jimi Hendrix: “I think I’m organised because my parents’ lives were so disordered, disarranged and deranged. . . . In the death camps, the rules changed from minute to minute. Everything was unpredictable. My mother said you never knew what to expect.”
Lola Bensky interviews celebrities (Hendrix, Mick Jagger, Sonny, Cher, Twiggy, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Mama Cass, Janis Joplin,and others) by hooking them with revelations from her own family history.
There are moments when Lily Brett’s titular protagonist strikes me as a cross between Bridget Jones and Woody Allen. She’s forever planning diets. She frets over a pair of diamante-lined eyelashes that she’s loaned to Cher. They were Lola’s favorites, but she can’t decide on tactful way to ask for them back.
Brett’s non-linear narrative recounts Lola’s experiences from three different periods in her life: at age 19, she’s working as a journalist for an Australian music magazine; at age 30, she’s suffering panics and phobias while married to Mr Former Rock Star; at age 51, she’s married to Mr Someone Else and beginning a career as a mystery writer. Her Ultra-Private Detective Agency resembles Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, only her series features a middle-aged Hassidic Jew with long side-curls instead of a “traditionally-built” Motswana woman. Bensky’s father disapproves of the book because “Nothing happens” in it. Lola agrees there
“were no murders and there was no blackmail. The Ultra-Private Detective Agency was focused on the more mundane problems of everyday life. The 52-year-old wife who kept disappearing on Wednesday mornings. The business partner who started dying his hair and rollerskating to work, decades after anyone was on rollerskates. Or the husband who came late three nights a week, puffy and puffing with allergies, yet was perfectly fine and on time for the other four nights.”
Some readers would apply the father’s criticism to Brett’s book since it mostly consists of conversations. Some will appreciate it for its glimpses of celebrities, especially those whose early deaths consigned them to the 27 Club (Hendrix, Joplin, Jones, and Morrison). The novel reads like a series of character sketches.
I entered the First Reads giveaway for the book because I’m trying to expand my knowledge of British Commonwealth writers. I've recently read work by Evie Wyld, Rohan Wilson, and Patrick White so I’m pleased to discover another writer to add to my Australian bookshelf.(less)
One should read Natalee Caple’s In Calamity’s Wake as one does poetry—or a collection of interrelated flash fictions/prose poems.
The book’s chapters...moreOne should read Natalee Caple’s In Calamity’s Wake as one does poetry—or a collection of interrelated flash fictions/prose poems.
The book’s chapters alternate between: the first person perspective of Miette, the imagined daughter of Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok; the third person perspectives of Calamity, also known as Martha Canary (or Burke); various other colorful characters of Deadwoodlandia.
Although some of these figures may be familiar to viewers of the HBO series, which was set in a real South Dakota settlement, others are composites from Caple’s historical research. Yes, Al Swearengen makes a casual appearance, though Caple wisely avoids competing with the near Shakespearean dexterity of Swearengen’s profane soliloquies in the HBO script.
Caple's Lew Spencer, a “Negro minstrel,” is partly based on the memoir of Ralph Keeler, a “vagabond adventurer” of the 1840s and 1850s. Her partially fictive recounting of the origin of the term "cat house" is highly entertaining and involves a brothel owner, an enamored businessman, a piano-playing lady lawyer, and a bevy of disapproving suffragists.
Some passages of the novel slip into the stream of irreality as Miette travels across the country in search of the legendary mother she has never met. Miette hallucinates after suffering a head wound at the hands of a gun-toting hag who isn’t Jane, but is calamitous in her own way.
Trying to determine what’s true and what isn’t in the manifold stories spread about and told by Martha Calamity Canary isn’t part of Caple’s agenda.
“Was Bill Hickok everything he said? Was he everything that was said about him? Was Jesse James?” Calamity demands. “A hero is someone who does something extraordinary and gets recognized for it.”
She continues, addressing her daughter, but also the reader:
“I cannot leave you any money or any cattle or any land. But I can leave you this, this one thing I know. A lie is a thing. It is a real thing in the world like a diamond or a gold nugget or a name or a hole in the wall. It’s real but it only has the meaning you give it. Some think it’s valuable, some don’t. Some believe in it, some don’t. And like a hole in the wall once it’s there you can fill it in or cover it up, or elaborate on it, or say that it doesn’t affect any other thing, or you can go fuck yourself. The lie doesn’t care. Like that hole in the wall it does not care what you do” (208).
Because I appreciated Robin Weigert’s performance as Calamity in the HBO series, I couldn’t help imagining her (instead of Doris Day or Jane Russell) as I read Caple’s text. My familiarity with many of the historical characters did help to ground me through the surrealistic stretches.
And, now, I’m prepared, even inspired to catch up on the episodes of Hell on Wheels that my DVR has been saving for me! So far, no females have appeared to match Jane’s or Miette’s hellacious attitude, but a girl can continue to hope.
(I received this book via First Reads giveaway.) (less)
Rohan Wilson’s The Roving Party is a harrowing account of the hunting of aboriginal peoples by men employed by the Australian government. Although Joh...moreRohan Wilson’s The Roving Party is a harrowing account of the hunting of aboriginal peoples by men employed by the Australian government. Although John Batman is a historical figure, the closest representative of a moral center in this novel is the made-up character known as Black Bill.
One of the most trusted members of Batman’s party, Black Bill is torn between his upbringing among whites and his lingering native sympathies and superstitions. Unlike most of Batman’s convict crew, who have been promised a release ticket for their role in capturing and killing Tasmanian natives, Black Bill is motivated partially by a sense of indebtedness to Batman, but also by his growing abhorrence for the aboriginal headman, Manalargena.
Manalargena is described as a mix of witch and warrior. Seemingly impervious to white man’s weaponry, Manalargena comes to represent a personal threat to Black Bill’s family as the novel progresses.
In some respects, Wilson’s novel veers into the realm of magical realism as Black Bill is haunted by another liminal figure, his as-yet unborn child. Early in the novel, Manalargena places unsettling attention on the burgeoning belly of Black Bill’s wife, Katherine. By claiming that his “demon” has informed him of the fetus’ sex, the headman hints at his powers' ability to infiltrate even the protective womb.
Black Bill has refused to participate in an insurgency against the colonialists. From this point on, the hunter seems himself to be stalked by impending malevolence. Is it only his own guilt that leads him to suspect Manalargena's henchman of plotting to murder his wife and son? Or will the witch-man’s demon-arm tear out the perceived race-traitor’s soul as if it were no more than entrails of sheep?
The Roving Party would likely appeal to fans of Cormac McCarthy. Though I’m willing to enter their worlds for a span, I wouldn’t want to live there. Their characters traverse unforgiving landscapes.
Thanks to First Reads for providing my advanced reader’s edition. (less)
Years ago, when I worked in a bookstore, a customer requested recommendations in the mystery section. She told me she preferred stories in which “nice...moreYears ago, when I worked in a bookstore, a customer requested recommendations in the mystery section. She told me she preferred stories in which “nice people killed other nice people.” At the time, I understood that she wanted mysteries that did not involve graphic violence or swear words, although she may also have been expressing a predilection for the Poirot-esque texts that feature killers and victims who tend to populate the dinner parties or travel excursions exclusively limited to members of the upper classes and their servants.
Charles Lennox, the central detective in Charles Finch’s Death in the Small Hours, has lately become a member of Parliament, but has long belonged to the upper echelons, and has generally attempted to eschew taking public credit for solving cases in an effort to minimize the disapproval of his uppity peers.
If the same customer were to approach me today, I could recommend Finch’s Charles Lennox mysteries without reservation, though I’ve only read two to date, this one, which I received via First Reads giveaway, and A Beautiful Blue Death, the first in the series. I think I preferred the latter, primarily because I felt the plot floundered a bit in the more recent volume when Finch spent so much time recounting Lennox’s political concerns as that character attempts to prepare an important parliamentary speech.
I suppose that the author felt the need to convince his readers that Lennox does not shirk his official duties if only to help us in our efforts to suspend our disbelief. Admittedly, I’m still having difficulty believing that an important politician could really find the time and energy to look into instances of village vandalism even in the Victorian era. Then again, Disraeli wrote novels while he was active in politics.
Finch doesn't really seem to be trying too hard to convince his readers that Lennox’s milieu is grounded in the mucky details of period research even though he (Finch) occasionally works in mini historical lessons along the way. He maintains a light touch when it comes to casting his Victorian veneer.
And that approach seems justifiable given that some readers really would prefer not to wallow in the effluvia and viscera we get with some of the latest BBC Whitechapel crime shows. To those readers, I recommend this relatively nice series of mystery stories. (less)
Rhidian Brook’s The Aftermath reminded me of Ian McEwan’s Atonement. In the latter novel, the most emotionally fraught moments occurred in the lead-up...moreRhidian Brook’s The Aftermath reminded me of Ian McEwan’s Atonement. In the latter novel, the most emotionally fraught moments occurred in the lead-up to WWII. In Brooks’ book, the characters have survived the bombings—or their bodies have.
Rachael Morgan is wife to a newly appointed British colonel, assigned to oversee rebuilding in what remains of Hambug. Her eleven-year-old son, Edmund, appreciates the power involved in having a war story to share with peers:
“The bomb that had killed Edmund’s brother had also thrown his mother—ten, twenty feet (thirty, if he had the right audience)—across his aunt’s sitting-room floor. The incident might have left her with a slight tremble and quick tears (she cried at the slightest thing—a piece of classical music on the wireless, a limping bird in the garden), but he could forgive her these tics.”
It’s not surprising to an adult reader that Rachael has trouble accepting her husband’s decision to allow the surviving members of the German family, whose house had been requisitioned, to remain in residence. After all, the literature distributed to prepare British families to relocate in Germany distinctly warns against fraternization:
“You are about to meet a strange people in a strange enemy country. You must keep clear of Germans. You must not walk with them, or shake hands or visit their homes. You must not play games with them or share any social event. Don’t try to be kind—this is regarded as weakness. Keep Germans in their place. Don’t show hatred: the Germans will be flattered. Display cold, correct and dignified curtness and aloofness at all times.”
Of course, Brooks’ complex characters are unable to abide by such instruction for long. Most of the characters turn out to be likable—or at least sympathetic. Even Mrs. Burnham (a pushy, know-it-all type, who becomes the closest thing Rachael has to a female friend) has her moments of vulnerability.
My favorite among the cast of sometime antagonists has to be Ozi, the leader of “the ferals,” a band of orphaned children who scavenge, loot, and bully their way through the novel. When he first appears, Ozi wears:
“the dressing gown of a dandy; the cardigan of an old maid; the collarless shirt of a grandfather; the rolled-up trousers of a storm trooper tied with the belt of a clerk’s necktie; and the shoes, shredded at the toe, of a long-gone stationmaster.”
Later in the novel, he acquires a fur coat. His headgear consists of an “English hard-helmet he’d stolen from the back of a truck.” Ozi is the Artful Dodger for a later era. One of the most poignant—and horrifying—scenes in the novel involves this character.
Although I fretted my way through a good part of Brook's novel, just knowing something truly awful was about to happen at the turn of the next page, I did not close the back cover feeling harrowed (as I often do when I read anything that involves WWII). Instead, Brook’s conclusion left me sighing with some relief. Yes, some of his characters are simply too traumatized to live contentedly ever after—and, yet, I felt that even some of the most damaged personalities retained some capacity for human goodness. I was convinced that the guilty might atone, that the weakened were very likely to survive.
Note: I received my copy via First Reads giveaway. (less)
Although Jasper Fforde’s inventiveness—as revealed in his adult Thursday Next and Nursery Crimes novels—has often delighted me, I find myself wonderin...moreAlthough Jasper Fforde’s inventiveness—as revealed in his adult Thursday Next and Nursery Crimes novels—has often delighted me, I find myself wondering if his head and heart are truly committed to The Chronicles of Kazim, his first series intended for younger readers. I should admit that I’ve only read the second volume, The Song of the Quarkbeast, which I received through First Reads giveaway—and, although I was not as impressed as I have been when Fforde has been less hobbled by the need to consider the relative attention deficits of less sophisticated readers, I did order book one, primarily because other readers on Goodreads have praised that volume as the better of the two texts.
I can see how the Quarkbeast, which evidently receives more page space in book one, could really win me over as Lyra’s Pantalaimon did when I first began reading Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Despite the title of the second installment in Fforde’s series, however, the Quarkbeast really does not have much opportunity to seduce the reader with its metal-eating puppy-dinosaur qualities, because it’s mostly only glimpsed (rather than interacted with) throughout the greater part of the novel. (I feel that I spent more quality time with Thursday Next’s pet dodo, Pickwick, and that bird wasn’t nearly as intelligent as Quarkbeasts are meant to be. It certainly wasn’t as central to its novels’ storylines.)
As for the two-legged characters: Fforde has so many magical humans dashing around in his text, I had difficulty keeping them straight enough to visualize. Although I caught hints of psychological complexities (foundlings yearning for knowledge of biological parentage and the potential for romantic entanglements), I did not feel that these characters were truly coming into focus. They seemed to be flitting or flying by too fast.
However, my favorite character has to be the traumatized Magnificent Boo who, after being abducted and tortured by extremists, has devoted herself to operating a Quarkbeast rescue operation. Unlike most of the other adult characters in the novel, Boo manages to compel the reader’s sympathies. The harrowed cavities of her eye sockets compensate—to some extent—for the silliness of her name.
While this review is not exactly glowing, I remain willing to expose myself to more Young Adult or chapter book fiction by Jasper Fforde in hopes that the brilliance that is evident in his adult fiction (particularly in The Eyre Affair) will not be discouraged by editors who disbelieve in children’s willingness to read descriptive passages that are necessary if the reader is going to feel invested in even a handful of inhabitants of this Ununited Kingdom’s population. (less)