A note to those reading this on any site where I won't have to censor it: the following review contains quotes...morePeter Sotos, Lordotics (Creation, 2008)
A note to those reading this on any site where I won't have to censor it: the following review contains quotes from the book that contain adult and “politically incorrect” language, as well as graphic depictions of sexual situations. If such things offend you, then make the obvious choice and don't read the review. If you do so and find yourself offended, remember that you have been warned, and you have only yourself to blame.
Sotos' ninth book has seemingly escaped the controversy that surrounded his last, Show Adult, but it's most likely only a matter of time; the second a non-limited release of this is announced, expect the rats to come crawling out of the woodwork, as they usually do. And, as usual, none of them will have actually read the book, preferring to listen to others, who most likely will also have not read the book, but who are more than willing to condemn Peter Sotos on the strength of his earlier works. It's a tough call, really; while Lordotics definitely showcases a kinder, gentler Peter Sotos, one notes that the words “kinder” and “gentler” are relative in the extreme; Sotos is still obsessed with the same topics he's always been obsessed with, but Lordotics sees the creeping in of a world-weariness. Not a cynicism; Sotos has ever been the cynic. It's almost as if he's as tired of the cynicism as he has been of the topics over which he obsesses for years, but because they are obsessions, he still can't stop talking about them.
There's also what seems to be more contempt for some of Sotos' favorite subjects here. The top third of each page in Lordotics (which is, as has been usual recently, one hundred ninety-one pages) has a picture of a convicted “sexual offender” taken from one of the now-endless Internet sites that report such things. (As always, it should be noted that the definition of “sexual offender” is very lax, and on those sites, people who do things that by rights should have been legal for hundreds of years in this country are thrown in indiscriminately with, say, child molesters, because some people are too stupid to know the difference between consent and coercion.) True to Sotos' obsession, though, he filtered:
“Only offenders who were engaged in the sexual abuse of children. There are a few exceptions; mainly when it comes to indecent exposure. But because these men are meant to be placed back into the gloryhole and faggot situations that I insist on, I thought it legitimate to include those that tug at themselves in public. Some might argue that it would have been more fitting to put rapists in the group. There may be some. But I'm more interested in men who memorize.” (13)
As I said, however, “kinder” and “gentler” are relative terms. Peter Sotos examines parts of society that most Americans probably don't even know exist, and most of those who do are only interested in stamping those parts of society out of existence. Sotos reports from them in a matter-of-fact tone. While he passes judgment, always negative, on everyone involved in these subcultures (yes, including himself), he never passes judgment on the subcultures themselves. This, of course, is invariably enough to get someone's gander—usually that same puckered-looking soul who's out protesting in front of the places from which Sotos reports. Needless to say, if you're not condemning it, in the eyes of people like this, you're “glorifying” it, somehow. I doubt anyone without any experience in bookstore culture would consider any of Sotos' dozens, if not hundreds, of descriptions of bookstore culture over the course of nine books to glorify them in any manner.
“I see mental illness in here. I come here to watch grown men twitch and cry. I see more men physically exhaust themselves. I count entitlement. Drugs get to them, the alcohol and brutal rejection. They think of their families, I'm sure. Their mothers they've watched expire and miss so deeply and self-consciously. The faggot lovers with AIDS they don't get the same degree of sympathy for when condoms are stroked on just before the businessmen are ready to pop. So many of these dropping eye fat fucks are loaded on antipsychotics that working out which is beneficial or deleterious is something you have to wait for years to figure out. Tally how many of these scumbags I refer to as animals. Not quite the same way the ones who think they're reverting do, though. Nice slacks, a pressed dress blue shirt and while he's getting sucked, he unbuttons to let his belly hang. He rubs his hands around his naked thighs when his belt and pants drop around his ankles and strokes around his ass up and all over his protruding gut. You reach up to pinch his nipples and run through his chest hair when he'd prefer to do it himself. He is owed this. This is what you do. The last part of his disgust was only maybe at the door but chances are better that he knows perfectly well that you and other pigs like you have created this place for him.” (89-90)
I submit that if you consider that glorification of any sort, you should re-examine your definition of the term.
I have said it in reviewing all the rest of Peter Sotos' books (as to the long-standing debate over whether these events are true or not, Sotos himself has now put that to rest in a Hoover Hog interview on October 27, 2008, in the plainest terms: “I wouldn't create fiction.”), and I will say it again: whether or not you like Peter Sotos' work, you have to appreciate that Sotos is travelling waters previously uncharted in social criticism. (It should also be noted that Sotos does not consider himself a cultural critic, and in the strict sense of the term, he's right; he's a reporter, though as should be obvious from the passages above, were this a newspaper it'd be on the editorial page.) Sotos is an important writer from that standpoint, if (depending on your point of view) for no other. Adam Parfrey once said of the music of NON that the masses were destined to hate it, but for the few who instinctively grasped what Rice was on about, NON's music is “pure balm for the soul”. That same can be said of Peter Sotos' books. Obviously, the vast majority of readers will be uninterested in, if not repulsed by, Sotos' obsessions: bookstore and gay bar culture, child molesters and kiddie porn, serial killers. If you are one of the people who would be, then pass Sotos by and don't feel that you're missing anything. If, however, you share in one or more of these fascinations, you may well find yourself a new favorite author in Peter Sotos. I do suggest starting from the beginning ( Total Abuse: Collected Writings 1984-1995), for seeing how Sotos' writing has changed over the past quarter-century is as illuminating as the books themselves, but given how hard it is to get one's hands on older Sotos books, any starting point is worthwhile. As I write this (November 2008), Lordotics is currently only available in a sold-out limited edition of 113, but Creation have always put out a non-limited edition within a reasonable period of time after the limited release comes out. When it hits the streets, go for it. *** ½
Tarun Reddy, Brew-ku: Where Coffee Intersects with Life (dMon Publishing, 2012)
Full disclosure: I have known Tarun for, at this point, more years than...moreTarun Reddy, Brew-ku: Where Coffee Intersects with Life (dMon Publishing, 2012)
Full disclosure: I have known Tarun for, at this point, more years than either of us would care to admit. I'll put it this way: we were co-writing bad hair metal sings before you ever heard of Toni Basil.
I normally take great pleasure in dinging authors for not knowing the difference between haiku, a strict poetic form that adheres to a number of rules, and senryu, the much looser form. Not when I happen to know the author well, but there you go. (For the record, haiku—a three-line poem that, in Japanese, has five syllables in the first and third line and seven syllables in the second—always includes a seasonal reference, two distinct images, and a “cutting” word, or phrase, that usually comes between the two images, while senryu only adheres to the 5-7-5 rule—and to make things worse, 5-7-5 is not a strict rule in English; per both Higginson [The Haiku Handbook] and Henderson [Haiku in English], 5-7-5 is an upper limit, or a guideline, in English-language haiku and senryu; many authors of haiku in English aim for poems that can be recited in a single breath.) Brew-ku consists of two hundred senryu, each of which has been translated (using an online service) into Japanese as well, and each accompanied by a random coffee-related fact.
Taken as senryu rather than haiku, if you care about such things, Brew-ku contains a number of pieces that show a keen eye for detail and, occasionally, good insight into human nature through the observation of body language and the like. I like what we got...but what we got is somewhat less than two hundred senryu thanks to some problems either with the editorial process or the printing process. (Note that I'm not coming down on Reddy here, but his publisher.) A number of pieces are repeated with only slight changes on different pages; for example,
Limping and waiting Runner with broken ankle Caffeine eases pain
...on page 150. On page 160, the only difference is that the word “swollen” takes the place of the word “broken”. On pages 148 and 158, verbatim:
Eighty five degrees Yet the hot cups of lava flow Weather, no effect
Likable indeed the first time round. A bit confusing the second. It's enough for me to give the book a pretty severe smack on the wrist, but again, this isn't a problem with the author, it's a problem with the press. A new edition that corrects the book's problems would be welcome indeed. ** ½ (less)
R. J. Thomas, The Girl Who Tried to Catch the Man (Wild Shore Press, 2011)
Full disclosure: I know the author (though we haven't seen one another in ov...moreR. J. Thomas, The Girl Who Tried to Catch the Man (Wild Shore Press, 2011)
Full disclosure: I know the author (though we haven't seen one another in over two decades). In fact, I was the original drummer for Fuzzy Chickens...
The Girl Who Tried to Catch the Man is a confused mess. Now when I say that, I don't mean it in a pejorative sense. I mean, that life is a confused mess, and so many novels about some nameless drone trying to find his (or her) identity come off seeming way, way too ordered to actually be reflecting said confused mess. Thus, The Girl Who Tried to Catch the Man being a confused mess is one of the things I loved about it... eventually. But we'll get to that later. Enough for now for me to tell you that I know (or knew, pre reading this) not a bloody thing about Burning Man other than that it happens every year and a number of bands I have friends in have played there and that it is nowhere near as awesome as The Wicker Man (the Robin Hardy original, not that horrific Nic Cage abortion from 2006). I know more about it now (and it kind of reminds me of X-Day). I tell you all this because if you don't know anything about Burning Man, don't let that stop you from picking this book up.
Plot: Roger is a burnt-out production assistant in Hollywood who has decided to kill himself. (This is not a spoiler. The book's first sentence is “I'd decided to kill myself.”) He's going to do it in the most spectacular, yet anonymous, way he can think of; the only thing he lives for these days is the annual Burning Man celebration, at the end of which people sacrifice things (he never specifies, but it seems to be some sort of ritual of letting go of one's earthly goods/attachments). So in addition to all his writing, etc., why not sacrifice himself as well? So he packs up everything, sells the apartment, and heads for Burning Man. But when a chance encounter at a gas station turns into something more and a camper of deranged hippies pull up next to him and introduce themselves as the Fuzzy Chickens, a hippy-dippy bar band who play Burning Man every year, Roger's outlook on life begins to change for the—slightly—more positive. (He still won't go see the “feminist art installation” about losing one's virginity across from the coffee stand... nope, so SIR.)
There's a part of me that wants to call this “recovery fiction”, christ help us all, because the trajectory here is kind of obvious: Roger has hit bottom, at which point the manuscript starts, and we see the shaky first steps on the road to recovery. (This actually fits in well with my main criticism of the book below.) But despite the fact that that may actually be what you're holding in your hands, there is much more to this. Most of it is that slice-of-life kinda thing, but in confused-mess mode. I can get where that's not for everyone, but it feels a lot more honest here than it does in the work of someone like, say, Richard Ford (or god help us Jodi Picoult). It feels like there's a lot less elision, and that is a very good thing.
...when it isn't a very bad thing. Thomas, once he gets into his groove, turns in a well-plotted little book that's equal parts drama, comedy, Burning Man history, and mystery, well kinda. And he gets into his groove once Roger gets himself on the road to Burning Man. But before that, we have nothing but Roger and the stories he's telling us about his life. All of which are meaningful later on in the story, and as I said above the narrative tone of the beginning of the book makes perfect sense if you think of this as recovery fiction, but ye cods and little haddocks I wanted to grab Roger and smack the living tar out of him at least seven times during the first part of this book for not being able to keep his mind on one subject for more than half a page at a time. Yes, I am willing to allow that this is exactly how someone who had just given himself over to planning his own suicide would think... and I realize the inherent hypocrisy in praising the book's realistic take on things for most of its length and begging for some editing in the first bit. That's not going to stop me from doing it, because I'm a dick like that.
In any case, this is a solid (most of the time) little novel that I can definitely recommend to you—just be prepared that the first twenty pages may have you wanting to throttle your narrator. *** ½ (less)
Serdar Yegulalp, The Four-Day Weekend (Genji Press, 2008)
In the interests of full disclosure, I've known Serdar Yegulalp (online, anyway) for over a d...moreSerdar Yegulalp, The Four-Day Weekend (Genji Press, 2008)
In the interests of full disclosure, I've known Serdar Yegulalp (online, anyway) for over a decade now, since back in the days when we were both still unleashing harsh, brutal noise on unsuspecting audiences at mp3.com. Here we are eleven and a half years later and while I'm still doing the noise thing, Serdar, formerly a journalist/columnist, has moved on to doing something I've always wanted to do: writing novels. As soon as I found out they existed, I knew I'd be reading one sooner or later. I decided to make it sooner and picked up The Four-Day Weekend. Which is about how long it took me to blow through it. And before I get started gushing about it, I have two things to say, one of them quite long. I apologize in advance.
First off, which may save you from actually having to read the review: I get the feeling that if you're actually in some way involved in the con scene—but not too far involved—you will get a lot more out of this book than you would if you're either (a) drenched in it or (b) not at all interested. I hope that's not the case, but that's how it comes off to me.
The second is something I wonder about every time I pick up a vanity-published novel written by someone I know—does the fact that I know this person affect the way I see the book? I look back at the ratings and reviews I've given to books written by people I know, and I am convinced I've looked at a few of them through rose-colored glasses. I do like to think (or provide myself with the illusion) that my knowing that I'm struggling with giving better reviews to people I know keeps me more objective than I would otherwise be, whether it's true or not. So you can probably take everything I have to say here with a grain of salt, but simply put: I loved this book like a fat kid loves cake. And I should know, I'm a fat kid who had a birthday earlier this week.
Now that I think about it, that last paragraph is actually a more interesting plot summary than any plot summary I could give you (I mean jeez, just look at the product description already). Henry, our main character, is a cerebral piece of work. Some might say obsessively so. And he ends up thinking about stuff a lot in this book, thinking about it along those same lines, taking previous experiences and mapping them somewhat neurotically onto present situations. That is probably the sternest warning I can give you; this is a book that does a lot of telling, rather than showing. We spend a great deal of time inside Henry's head as he processes the things around him. If that will make you shy away from this book, then feel free to shy away. But let me tell you first that I am one of the world's most obsessive proponents of “show, don't tell”, and I wasn't bothered by it, because whenever Henry isn't processing, he's reporting. Yegulalp obviously isn't using “tell don't show” because he doesn't know any better, because he's quite capable of showing when he wants to, and doing it very very well. Thus, he has another reason for doing it, and as they say, intent is everything.
I should also mention that this is basically a plotless book; the title tells you a great deal of what you need to know, as Henry and Winthrop hit a four-day con and do con stuff. There's the added bonus of Diane, who Henry finds in their hotel lobby after being ditched by her boyfriend. And she's obviously an instrument, the outsider seeing a con for the first time, but what an instrument she is. And that is because Yegulalp is capable of drawing real characters in a way that not too many writers are; character detailing is a fine art indeed, and I forget that sometimes until I read someone who's capable of building real characters. Henry and Winthrop and Diane and Tom and Lisa and Alexei are not two-dimensional by any means, but Yegulalp doesn't go all the way over the cliff and turn the characters into equally simple collections of neuroses, which so many authors do when trying to create three-dimensional characters. Paradoxically, the best example of Yegulalp's attention to detail is in Tom, the most minor of the six main characters the book has; he gets far fewer pages than anyone else, but he is just as fleshed-out as Henry or Winthrop, who get the most face time. I like that in a book. Very much.
Not to say it doesn't have a flaw or two. As is common in vanity pubs, the proofreading gets a touch lax towards the end of the book. And if the ending is predictable, Yegulalp takes the idea of the red herring and stands it on its head, taking what was previously a minor plotline and turning it into the book's real climax. It's a monster. (But then, if you think about it, does some as cerebral as Henry really deserve to be a climactic character?)
When I do look at books through rose-colored glasses, I tend to give them grudging 2.5-3 type ratings and give you the old “it's not that bad” speech. None of that here. This book is awesome. I loved it. It will most probably end up on my 25 Best Reads of the Year list in a couple of months. Buy this. Read it. **** ½ (less)
Trevor Paglen, I Could Tell You but Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed by Me: Emblems from the Pentagon's Black World (Melville House Press, 2007)
As...moreTrevor Paglen, I Could Tell You but Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed by Me: Emblems from the Pentagon's Black World (Melville House Press, 2007)
As is usual, I haven't read reviews for this book before I started writing this one, but I'd be willing to make you a small bet given (a) what I know about the reviews of Trevor Paglen's other books and (b) what I know of Amazon reviewers in general: there are going to be a sizable minority of reviews of this book that are going to complain, perhaps a lot, about how many of the entries in this book, especially towards the back, have almost no information listed about them. For as is the case with Blank Spots on the Map, much of the material Paglen covers here is still very much classified; even in the cases where he does have more information on a subject than one would expect, it's couched in terms that denote hearsay or speculation. (On very few pages does one see the phrase “[t]his project was declassified in...”.) Okay, I'm willing to concede the point that conspiracy theorists come off a lot more convincing if they actually don't claim to know everything, but few of them back their stuff up as much as Paglen has over the past five years. You don't see a great deal of that in this pocket-size art book, more's the pity; Paglen makes a few references to having got the information from folks who previously worked on these projects, but there's a complete absence of footnotes (where Blank Spots on the Map was loaded with them) here; I think of this as a kind of companion piece to Blank Spots.... It presents a series of patches and emblems worn by military types who had been involved in black projects over the years (Paglen notes at the beginning that he presents them almost at random, and that the collection is in no way comprehensive or exhaustive), with what information he has, and that's it. Like I said, an art book. The commonalities in design are interesting, if not necessarily instructive (one must rely a great deal on Paglen's interpretation if one is to get anywhere in decoding these things), and the whole is grimly amusing, in a way.
And I want a Goatsuckers patch. ****
(For the record: the odd wording of the title is explained in Paglen's discourse on the final patch in the book, the only one close to being long enough to earn the title of “essay”, and the most interesting of the bunch.)(less)
Shannon Okey, The Pillow Book: Over 25 Simple-to-Sew Patterns for Every Room and Every Mood (Chronicle, 2008)
Full disclosure: I know the author person...moreShannon Okey, The Pillow Book: Over 25 Simple-to-Sew Patterns for Every Room and Every Mood (Chronicle, 2008)
Full disclosure: I know the author personally.
If you've read Shannon's stuff before (and given the wealth of good crafting books she's put out, you should have), you know what to expect from this one: more interesting, off-beat patterns with similarly interesting, off-beat commentary interspersed among the basic how-to. And The Pillow Book delivers exactly what's expected. No more, but then, what more could you want? Solid, interesting, and fun. *** ½ (less)
Trevor Paglen, Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon's Secret World (Dutton, 2009)
The more I think about this book, especially in...moreTrevor Paglen, Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon's Secret World (Dutton, 2009)
The more I think about this book, especially in conjunction with Paglen's previous effort, Torture Taxi (which made my favorite reads of 2008 list), the more I think the guy just can't win. The niche he's carved out for himself is one that's destined to scare up dissatisfaction from both sides of this particular fence. The conspiracy theorists are going to hate Paglen's methods of research (which involve, you know, actual research rather than sitting around wearing tinfoil hats), while the skeptics are going to hate the subjects Paglen digs into, which are a conspiracy theorist's wet dream. In short, the guy's pretty much screwed. Which is a crime, because, like Torture Taxi, Blank Spots on the Map is a lovely little tourguide to parts of the map the United States government would prefer you didn't see. Which is all well and good, I guess, if you're down with the idea of “necessary state secrets” (and what a joke that idea is, and always has been), but consider this: Billions upon billions of your tax dollars are being funnelled down these black holes. Billions. Are you bugged about the vast amounts of money we ship to governments who don't need it every year? (Prime example: Israel.) That's chump change compared to what goes into Langley and just plain vanishes.
It's not like the skeptics can really keep their voices raised any more, either. Since the hijinks of September 11th, names like Guantanamo Bay, Groom Lake, and the Salt Pit have become cultural markers. There's no more plausible deniability. All Paglen is doing is outlining the geographies, making them easier for the public to see. He goes and looks. He goes and talks to the people that look. And he reports back. It's simple. It's the same formula he used in Torture Taxi (I can't remember whether it's explicitly stated, but I got the feeling that this book grew out of that one), and it works just as well here. There's a lot of black-ops history surrounding these sites, some of which (especially regarding Groom Lake) has recently been declassified. Did you know that? Of course not. Who's going to tell you? Trevor Paglen, that's who. And maybe Mike Gravel, if he drops another book any time soon. But don't expect to hear about it on CNN or Fox News. This is information you need to go searching for. Once you do, you may come upon Trevor Paglen, who's got it all wrapped up in a neat, readable little package.
To answer what seem to be some implied criticisms of the book, no, of course there are no answers here. Most of this stuff is still highly classified. What did you expect, the folks in Langley were just going to let Paglen drive up and give him a tour of a top-secret facility? (There's a great bit at the beginning about a guided tour of Groom Lake, however.) But you've always suspected it exists; stealth bombers and jump jets don't suddenly appear out of nowhere. All that can be done now is make the edges a bit clearer. That's what Trevor Paglen does, and he does it well. ****
(In the interests of full disclosure, yes, I know Trevor Paglen; I met him once about a decade ago while he was still in the band Noisegate.) (less)
Shannon Okey, Alt Fiber: 25+ Projects for Knitting Green with Bamboo, Soy, Hemp, and More (Ten Speed Press, 2008)
Quick survey of different, increasing...moreShannon Okey, Alt Fiber: 25+ Projects for Knitting Green with Bamboo, Soy, Hemp, and More (Ten Speed Press, 2008)
Quick survey of different, increasingly-available fibers that one wouldn't immediately think of using for knitting (some mentioned in the subtitle as well as a number of others; I find myself most intrigued by corn fiber), with a number of projects to showcase the properties of each. The first part of that sentence is the book's weakness; I thought the initial survey was shorter than it should have been. I'm assuming it was edited down for space constraints. Wish they'd have just added another sixteen pages and let Okey get into more detail on the fibers. The projects, as always, are interesting, but it seems to me the survey is the real draw here, and should have gotten equal face time. Still, some fun things to do here. *** ½(less)
Shannon Okey and Alexandra Underhill, AlterNation: Transform. Embellish. Customize. (North Light Books, 2007)
I've been trying for weeks to figure out...moreShannon Okey and Alexandra Underhill, AlterNation: Transform. Embellish. Customize. (North Light Books, 2007)
I've been trying for weeks to figure out how to review this book without everything I say about it coming off like a left-handed compliment to Shannon's other books, all of which have been good stuff. (Full disclosure: I've known Shannon for longer than either of us, I'm sure, would be willing to admit without liberal doses of truth serum.) And I'm still not quite sure I've figured out how to do that yet, but I'll try. You see, the projects in all of Shannon's books up to this one have been... cozy, for lack of a better term. They're the kind of thing you work on with your mom while you're waiting for the pasta water to boil. Stuff you wear around the house, give your grandma at Christmas, keep at work for when those idiots on the maintenance staff confuse 52 with 72 when setting the thermostat. You get the idea. And now here comes AlterNation. And yes, there are a few things in here that you'd give Grandma for Christmas. But there are also a few that are... hot, for lack of a better term. The kind of thing you'd consider wearing to the bar when you want people to hit on you. (Well, okay, if I did that, I'd have to go to a different kind of bar, but you know what I mean.) It's the first time I've looked at the project pictures in one of Shannon's books and said “ooh, yum.” (To anything other than the models, natch.)
All of which leads to a recommendation, of course. I haven't read one of Shannon's books yet that hasn't got one, and not just because I know her. But it's a slightly different recommendation than usual. Shannon's books are usually pretty vertical-market affairs for crafty types, and that's all well and good, but I don't see this one fitting into that mold. Yes, crafty types will get all they get out of a typical Shannon Okey book, but it's possible this one could branch out into non-crafty segments of society and draw them into the fold. ****(less)
Catherynne M. Valente, A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects (Norilana, 2008)
Few things are as worth waiting for as a new book by Catherynne Valent...moreCatherynne M. Valente, A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects (Norilana, 2008)
Few things are as worth waiting for as a new book by Catherynne Valente. As these things usually go, few things fill me with imaptientce at the waiting for them as a new book by Catherynne Valente. My current monetary situation (and the book's current, as I write this, availability situation where libraries are concerned—a most grievous oversight indeed) had me waiting far too long to pick up A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects, Valente's first book of poetry since 2005's Apocrypha. It was, however, entirely worth the wait.
I'm not sure I believed that Valente was capable of improving on the already-stellar work in Apocrypha, but there are pieces here that do so. While there's nothing in the book that falls short of the standard Valente set for herself in that last book, there are a handful of pieces that transcend even that:
“Hades is a place I know in Ohio, at the bottom of a long, black stair winding down I-76 from Pennsylvania, winding down the weeds through the September damp and that old tangled root system of asphalt and asphodel, to the ash-fields, clotted with fallen acorns like rain puddled in fibrous pools.” (“The Descent of the Corn-Queen of the Midwest”)
Anyone can make a person who's already seen something see it again in his mind. The point of poetry is to make someone who hasn't already seen it have a similar experience (similar because, as we all know, no two perceptions of a given even are identical, depending on the baggage, the mood, perhaps even the amount of caffeine extant in the system each reader brings to the table). That's how it's supposed to work in a really good book of poetry.
The title of the book implies retellings of old folktales, perhaps, in the vein one would find in the work of Angela Carter, Wendy Walker, or a number of other (and somewhat less accomplished than those twin doyennes of the modern form) retellers who have emerged in the past few years. And to be sure, there are fragments of tales here that you might recognize. But Valente knows, somewhere deep in her bones, that all tales are in some way folk tales; it's just that for most tales, the folk haven't appeared yet. And thus it is that personal history can be woven into folk tales (and if it's not personal history in some of these pieces, then I'm even more impressed):
“When they came to visit us last Christmas, he grumbled about the capitalist dogma of our spangled ornaments, our 9 pound turkey glistening like a gold-skinned baby, our soft mezzo-soprano two-part harmony. He spat after her when she went to Mass.
I stayed behind to wash the big turkey plate, and he leaned against the black kitchen counter, leering at me like an overseer. He put his hands over mine in the soapy water, and they were cold as storms. He whispered in my ear, his breath full of low clouds. (“Gringa”)
It's not just the confessional poetry that's been in vogue since the fifties, it's something more, something with that slight tang of legend. It says “This is a tale to tell around a campfire after all the children have gone to bed, scared of men with hooks for hands and creeping vines.” At this point, I had also planned to quote from the quietly devastating “The Eight Legs of Grandmother Spider”, the book's most personal piece, but there's no way to give you the full effect of the piece without giving you the whole thing, which is too long for a review. The same could be said, of course, with the two poems referenced above, but I could use pieces to point things out. You won't get the full effect of those until you read them for yourself, and that is something you should do as soon as possible. Valente is a true talent, right up there with America's best working authors—Walker, Koja, Taaffe, a handful of others—and the sooner your discover her gifts, the less you'll have to go back and experience when you inevitably decide to gobble up everything she's already written. *****
Peter Sotos, Lazy (Creation Books, 1999) [originally posted 20Jan2000]
There it is. In front of you. Open it. It's only a book, after all. It can't hurt yo...morePeter Sotos, Lazy (Creation Books, 1999) [originally posted 20Jan2000]
There it is. In front of you. Open it. It's only a book, after all. It can't hurt you. Go on. Open it. Do as I say. Do you like that?
What are we going to read about today? Part I: "Sensation," and especially "Myra," and of course long ramblings on one of Sotos' favorite subjects, King Ian and Queen Myra. "Damien Hirst defended the work and threatened to pull his pieces from the show if the Hindley portrait wasn't allowed in. Hirst is seen by most as the cornerstone of the 'Young British Artist' movement that the show trumpeted: SENSATION: YOUNG BRITISH ARTISTS FROM THE SAATCHI COLLECTION. And while many saw that the show was either an attempt for the Royal Academy to change its stodgy reputation or a chance for advertising 'guru' Charles Saatchi to increase the value and reputation of his collection, most of the paying punters saw an exhibition heavily steeped in sexual violence or, at least, sexual vagaries." (88-90) Careful, Peter, you're starting to sound like a mainstream art critic.
Part II: a logical leap into child molestation. Child murder. The murder of crack whores. All the lovely things that happen on the south side of Chicago while no one else is looking. You've heard of the projects, right? Do you know what they are? Would you like me to take you there? Do you know what a crack whore is? I can show you. We also get to look into the mind of Peter Sotos, somewhat. Not much. Just a little. You like that, don't you?
Part III: Another favorite topic. Would you like to go downtown? There are bookstores there. I think you might find them interesting. Especially the back rooms, where the peepshow booths are. And the Mexican hustlers who give it away for $5 a pop. And the transvestites. And the AIDS-infected young men who want nothing more than to keep having sex. It's all about risk. It's all about self-hatred. And we get to see it. Can you see? Can you see this? This is what you've been waiting for. Sotos is going over the edge, slowly, and revealing more of himself as he does. He's almost got to the point where he admits he does it because he wants to. "I spend most of my time enjoying things I don't like." (295) "I find men less ugly than women except when they act like them. Homosexual sex is often the quickest way there. And this is soon lapping up vagina and working on some ridiculous clit numb mistake. This turned into christmas and thanksgiving and his birthday and all the lipstick I could afford for one little suburban bar tit grope and sister blow job. I do want to see AIDS ejaculate. I want to be sure." (313)
Don't you like story time? I know you do. Don't justify. You don't need to justify to me. Just admit. You always knew there was a seedy side to life. That's why you love watching detective shows on TV. But they can't show you the heavy stuff on TV. They don't show it to you in the movies. You never knew where to see it before. And you want to see it. You know you do. In order to appreciate what you have more fully. You have to see how the other half lives. Incest. Rape. Murder. Brutality. Serial killers. Casual, anonymous, high-risk sex. Pornography. Pedophilia. Home invasion. Abduction. Assault, battery, molestation, homosexuality, HIV, the media, hatred, hatred, hatred.
Chicago's demented master of journalistic debauchery has returned with another look at what m...morePeter Sotos, Tick (Creation, 2000)
All hail the new Sotos.
Chicago's demented master of journalistic debauchery has returned with another look at what makes America's criminals so notoriously American, that underbelly of anticulture, epidemia, slime, drugs, free love, and contempt that few Americans are even aware exists, and those few know it because either they're involved or the name "Cabrini Green" rings a bell because they saw it in a Clive Barker film.
Some would have you believe that Sotos' work is pornography, a view that Creation seems to subscribe to; at least, "Peter Sotos Pornography" is emblazoned upon the back of both the last two Sotos works. It's certainly good for shock value. But is it really the case?
In the popular definition of the term, perhaps. Sotos reports on, and revels in, the prurient. He shows us what most of us would rather not see. In the two hundred twenty-two pages of Tick, we are handed the case of Girl X, which made a very brief splash in the newspapers and brought the name Cabrini Green back to the frontal lobes. We're given JonBenet Ramsey's autopsy report, as gruesomely amusing as it was. We're told the side of the Matthew Shepard killing that most news reporters refused to report-- that Shepard's killing was "most likely" drug-related and had nothing to do with his sexual orientation. It's tabloid journalism without the pictures and the necessity for self-censorship that one is required to follow if one wants to have one's work published in the Weekly World News.
But the court's definition of pornography is more stringent. Prurience is not the only requirement; the work must also serve no social purpose. This is the great paradox of obscenity law. It can be argued, and strongly, that any depiction of society's dank underbelly serves a social purpose, be that purpose reform or simply exposure. Whether we want to see the spectacle isn't the issue, and of course we're all aware that Americans, as a culture, will cause traffic jams by slowing down to look at particularly gruesome auto accidents. Couldn't you argue, in light of the cases of Girl X and JonBenet Ramsey, or the handful of other missing-child cases Sotos mentions, that keeping these things in the forefronts of the minds of parents is a public service? A social necessity, even?
Sure. And you'd be right.
Couldn't you argue, in light of Americans' appalling ignorance about HIV and AIDS, that a detailed understanding of its transmission is essential not only to every man who puts himself at risk, but every woman married to such a man?
Sure. And you'd be right.
If you wanted to strike out into the grey areas of the law, you could make the case that well-written personal experience is more likely to stick in the head than dry textbook relation. Who gets more listeners around the fire, the Ben Stein wannabe or the jolly old chap who makes up voices for each charater and punctuates with hand gestures?
Make no mistake, Sotos is a gifted writer. When he lapses into the rhythm and dictions of a third-grader, made-up words and all, he does so for a purpose. When he wants to be, which is most of the time, Sotos is precise, collected. Not detached-- after a certain amount of immersion, it is impossible to be detached-- but this is a man who never loses his head, a voracious reader who drops literary allusions with the frequency and obscurity of an Ezra Pound. Just because the parallels he's drawing have to do with dead teenagers as opposed to a world war doesn't make them less valid.
Peter Sotos may be tasteless. Peter Sotos may be prurient. But he is also effective. And he is necessary. **** (less)
Rita Dove, Thomas and Beulah (1987, Carnegie Mellon)
Rita Dove won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry with Thomas and Beulah, and it's pretty easy to s...moreRita Dove, Thomas and Beulah (1987, Carnegie Mellon)
Rita Dove won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry with Thomas and Beulah, and it's pretty easy to see why. Dove's poetic biography of her ancestors is hyperkinetic, jazz-infused poetry rooted in the Depression, full of life, sass, and vinegar. Nothing is sacred, from motherhood ("She dreams the baby's so small she keeps/misplacing it") to death ("Later he'll say Death stepped right up/to shake his hand, then squeezed/until he sank to his knees."), and some contemporary jabs mixed in ("...Joanna saying/'Mother, we're Afro-Americans now!'/What did she know about Africa?"). Dove has been one of America's shining poetic voices for two decades now, and there's never not a right time to go back and revisit this stunning collection. Perhaps her strongest work. **** (less)
Catherynne M. Valente, The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden (Bantam, 2006)
There are, at most, a handful of writers currently working who are as muc...moreCatherynne M. Valente, The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden (Bantam, 2006)
There are, at most, a handful of writers currently working who are as much on love with the English language as Catherynne Valente. Each of her novels is a small jewel for the linguaphile, as much an experience as it is a book. Her early novels tended to run about one hundred fifty pages, and with language that demands lingering over and pondering, one hundred fifty pages seemed just about perfect. Now comes the pair of books known as the Orphan's Tales. The first of them is as long as Valente's first three novels put together (and the second longer); no surprise, then, that I ended up lingering over this book for an entire year. Actually, one day shy, to be precise about it. I can't imagine doing it any other way; this is a book that demands to be lingered over, pondered, enjoyed.
The book is told as a series of nested (very nested) fairytales; there is one large frame, concerning a girl whose body is tattooed with tales and the prince fascinated with her. Within that frame are two large stories the girls tells the prince. Within each of those are dozens of subtales, as characters within the stories tell tales (and characters within those stories... you get the idea).
The most impressive thing about the book by far is that things never get out of hand. If you get the idea of the structure here (the thing it most reminds me of, oddly, is modular bookshelves), you can probably see how easy it could be for a reader who isn't paying attention to lose his place. Despite the complexity, it never happens. Whether this is because I was just paying more attention than usual or whether it's Valente's storytelling skills I don't know. Oh, of course I do. I have the attention span of a whelk. Valente was in control through the entire book. The language is gorgeous, but that's a given with Valente; one expects nothing less. I wondered whether Valente's dense style would scale well to a book three times the length of those I'm used to reading. I shouldn't have worried; as always, this is phenomenal. ****(less)