Monthly Archives: March 2018

Poetry Review — Lances All Alike

I believe that when we read and write, we
bring with us the imprint of everything that has ever
moved us, thus we do so always as a collaboration.

Suzanne Zelazo

Lances All Alike by Suzanne Zelazo is a collection of modern poetry. Zelazo is a writer, editor, educator, and publisher in the visual and literary arts, as well as in sport. She holds a Ph.D. in English with a specialty in female modernism and avant-garde poetry and performance.

Zelazo borrows for her creation. Each section is prefaced with a quote and the poems that follow in some manner reflect that quote back to the reader. I was a bit confused at the start (The notes and explanation are at the end of the book) but I caught on by the second section. The first section all I could think of was Gertrude Stein, and in my thoughts of Stein, the next poem I read was titled “Tiny Buttons:”

Crushed moon
sinuous consciousness
congealed fantasia

This excerpt will give the reader an idea of what the poetry is like throughout the collection. It is very much in the modernist style. In fact, all the reference quotes also are from modernists. Section two starts with a quote from Ezra Pound to James Joyce and proceeds to have an Irish tone. The third section is titled “Sutured Portraits.” The final section contains a quote from Dewy Dell from the one Faulkner novel I have read As I Lay Dying. I was able to latch on to the poems and follow. Without known the novel, I would have been lost as I was in the first section.

The notes at the end do a great deal to explain the purpose of this collection. Mina Loy and Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven were contemporaries that never met or collaborated although they had several common friends including Djuna Barnes who I have read and piqued my interest in this collection. The non-relationship between Loy and Freytag-Loringhoven is used to set the work in motion with an imagined conversation, in the modernist style. Unless the reader is familiar with and or an admirer of modernist poetry, this will be a difficult read. My limited knowledge, but a great appreciation of modernist writers and my limited ability to digest modernist poetry made this a challenging, but rewarding read. For myself, I was able to walk away a bit more knowledgeable and more motivated to dive back into modernist poetry.

 

Available April 24, 2018

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Book Review — Raising the Flag: America’s First Envoys in Faraway Lands

Raising the Flag: America’s First Envoys in Faraway Lands by Peter Eicher is a study of early American diplomacy. Eicher is a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer who served in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and the Pacific. He specialized in political affairs, particularly human rights, conflict resolution, and international organizations. Eicher is the editor of “Emperor Dead” and Other Historic American Diplomatic Dispatches and Elections in Bangladesh, 2006–2009: Transforming Failure into Success.

For most people, it would seem that the United States lived in an isolationist vacuum from its independence until its entry into World War I. However, the United States was quite involved in European affairs as well as the rest of the world. The United States needed to establish trade and trade relations. Private citizens were used ad the first representatives of the US government. There was no real state department. At the time, the diplomatic staff of the US consisted of seven clerks who spent much of their time copying texts. The delays in relaying messages also created an almost independent representative of the nation.

Samuel Shaw was responsible for setting up trade with China after Independence. The American ship “The Empress of China” a comparably tiny ship set off to trade with China in attempts to secure tea for the newly independent country. Tea was important enough to travel halfway around the world. Shaw established trade which eventually led to trading American ginseng to the Chinese. The trade did grow to a sizable amount and eventually, furs replaced ginseng as America’s main export to China. Opening trade may not seem like a sizable event in history, but it also led to four other events. First, it minimalized several European nations role in China. Secondly, it led to the near extinction of American ginseng. Third, the fur trade led to the development and establishment of an American claim on the west coast. Finally, sandalwood trade to China led to the US presence in Hawaii. A simple trade arrangement had deep and lasting effects.

Diplomacy also led to America’s first foreign war and the establishment of a standing navy. Any Marine can tell the story of Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon and the efforts of the Marines in the raising the American flag for the first time in the Old World at the battle of Tripoli. Eicher adds to that story with the diplomatic and logistical background of the war as well as clearing up some misconceptions. The Marine’s role was to escort the American representative and commander of the American mission Willian Eaton — the first example of the Marines role in protecting American delegations and embassies. A fascinating story and an early example of the United States taking a role on the Old World stage.

Eicher tells the history of entanglement of the United States in European affairs. The purchase of the Lousiana Territory which is often covered as a simple agreement between France and the United States runs deeper with Spanish intrigue and some irony. The United States did not have the money to purchase the territory and received a loan from a British bank. That money, in turn, went to France to fight the British.

American representative covered the earth and carried out US policy. Sometimes that led US representatives to create American policy. Raising the Flag covers the US diplomacy in Latin America, Africa, and the Pacific. It also covers something taken for granted by most Americans, The Americanisation of California and the West coast. America existed in the world and owed much of that presence to independent American citizens representing American interests and many times their own financial interests. A well written and very informative history of early American diplomacy.

 

Available June 1, 2018

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Book Review — The Mars Room

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner is a fictional examination of not only the prison system but of the circumstances and the people that are fed into the system. Kushner is also the author of The Flamethrowers, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and a New York Times Top Five Novel of 2013. Her debut novel, Telex from Cuba, was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award and a New York Times bestseller and Notable Book. She is the recipient of a 2013 Guggenheim Fellowship and the 2016 Harold D. Vursell Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Romy Hall is being transported to Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility isolated in California’s Central Valley. There are no nearby towns and the only traffic on the roads are prison busses or prison staff. The scenery consists mostly of almond orchards. Hall has been sentenced to two life sentences plus additional time. She leaves behind her mother and her five-year-old son. The bus ride to Stanville is long and she is subjected to a talkative and annoying seatmate. There is also a teenager on the bus in the late stages of pregnancy. In fact, she gives birth during the prison indoctrination. The indoctrination continues as trustees mop up the afterbirth. Prisoners soon realize that they are no longer people and the staff has no sympathy or even empathy for any prisoner. The reader is taken on a journey both forward and back in time to examine Hall’s life and her crime.

Interjected into the story are Gordon Hauser and Rich Richards. Hauser is a GED instructor who is the human side of the prison system. He has provided help to death row prisoners and befriends Hall. His relationship with Hall is through the GED program. He assumed Hall was uneducated and offers low-level math questions. Hall at first plays dumb but later admits she did graduate high school. Hauser buys her books to read. Rich “Doc” Richards is a crooked cop sentenced to prison. He is in the Sensitive Needs Unit of New Folsom Prison. He is protected and housed with offenders convicted of crimes against children and transgendered convicts. His role in the book is a comparison to Hall. Both lived in a seedier world. She a dancer at the sleazy Mars Room. He as a corrupt cop. Also interjected into the story are excerpts from Ted Kaczynski and Thoreau reflecting isolation in nature, opposed to institutionalized isolation, and also their versions of attacking the system.

The Mars Room is a dark book on the realities of the prison and justice system.  Kushner delivers a story that is empathic to the prisoners but not overly sympathetic.  Justice is blind, but not in the intended way.  The system is a rubber stamp that feeds the prisons.  The public defenders are overworked to the point of forced apathy.   Offenses that may have been justifiable receive sentences that are not justified.  The story itself is much more personal, characterwise, than the themes that I have mentioned above.  A multi-layered story with multiple themes makes for an interesting read.

Publication Date: May 1, 2018

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Book Review — Ohio

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Ohio by Stephen Markley is the story of a Rust Belt town and the people who live in it. Markley is the author of the memoir Publish This Book: The Unbelievable True Story of How I Wrote, Sold, and Published This Very Book and the travelogue Tales of Iceland.

Growing up and living in Cleveland, I remember the tail end of the 1960s, 1970s, and the early 1980s, before leaving for the Marines.  I can recall the culture and impending doom that Ohio brings out. The industry-based economy had been stumbling for quite some time with several false starts towards recovery. My parents moved to the suburbs in the 1980s which seemed nice, basically major crime free, nice schools, park, and library. Today the opiates have replaced marijuana. Unemployment leaves a chronic shadow on the community.

I was drawn to the book not only by name and location, Northeast Ohio but also by the cover. I try not to be drawn in by the book covers but this one took me back. Although the convenient store on the cover displays the colors of the 7/11 chain, I was reminded of the Lawson’s store at the corner of my street. There were quite a lot of memories tied to the store from drinking Coke on the loading dock, buying lunch food at the deli, and playing pinball inside the store.

The writing in this novel is superb. There is a great effort in the setting and the characters that creates depth to the story moving it from just a novel into literature:

A vortex of blue light spilled across the pavement, the streets, the downtown buildings, swirling violet violence and a piercing hiss as the oxygen was sucked into another dimension.  It flew backwards into the hot cerulean spiral, gazing mad black eyes, and when it passed over the edge of existence, the puncture in the universe wheezed painfully and then zipped up like a wound stitching itself shut. 

Like the cover shot in the night, most of the book seems to take place in a darkness. The image of an eternal night is filled with things that are not seen by all or even most people. Night hides a variety of ills which the book slowly reveals.

The city itself is New Canaan which plays on Biblical Canaan. The Biblical Canaan was the promised land of the Israelites — the land of milk and honey. New Canaan, however, is the land of broken dreams and anguish.  Glory Days have turned to drugs, drinking, and self-mutilation.  Industry has left, the real estate market never recovered, homes are foreclosed, a few bars and a local restaurant is all that seems to remain.

The economic disaster that has come to define the region is brought out through the characters lives, four of which have come back to the city for various reasons.  Bill Ashcraft an activist and outspoken anti-war crusader, whose life has become a blur of alcohol and drugs, comes back as a courier for former classmate Kaylyn.  Stacey Moore a Ph.D. candidate in English returns to meet with the mother of her high school lover.  Dan Eaton a veteran of three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and balances his need to escape New Canaan and the girl he left behind.  Tina Ross the daughter of a minister struggles with popularity and her beliefs.   Also having a major role in the story, but only through flashbacks, are the football hero and Marine Corporal Rick Brinkland whose funeral opens the book.  Lisa Han, half Vietnamese, raised by a single caucasian mother plays a central role connecting the other characters together.  She remains a bit of the mystery as no one has seen her since high school but some have received emails and postcards.

The story introduces separate threads that weave together into a complete story.  Each bit of information revealed in the story is tied together wonderfully by the end of the novel.  Markley manages to introduce almost every key issue of that generation into the novel without forcing any issue into the story.  Crime, drugs, terrorism, war, anti-war, sexuality, murder, sex, abuse both physical and emotional, are all pieces that complete the picture.  Revealing the sins of the past brings little cheer to the reader. Instead, the reader will be rewarded with a dark story that is played over and over in may Rust Belt cities.  Those who live or lived there know it well and others will be introduced to the American nightmare.  Fiction mimics real life in Ohio.

Available: August 21st 2018

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Poetry Review — Acadiana

Black Lawrence Press is known for publishing cutting-edge poetry and fiction in a style that is all their own. Acadiana is a chapbook of poetry by Nancy Reddy. Reddy is the author of Double Jinx (Milkweed Editions, 2015), a 2014 winner of the National Poetry Series. She teaches writing at Stockton University in southern New Jersey.

Growing up in the north the view I had of Acadiana which mostly came from popular music. “Amos Moses” and “The Legend of the Wooley Swamp” come to mind immediately. As an adult who migrated to Texas almost thirty years ago, I can say my most interesting travel stories are about Lousiana. Stories of Mr. Wilkes, trying to get a company car out of police impound,  hand pumping gasoline, and being deep enough in the state that I could not even get AM radio in my car. There is something a different under the surface that you can catch out of the corner of your eye, sometimes.

Although a chapbook Reddy speaks volumes to the reader. The poetry is fairly standard in format but it captures the deepest of the South in a very big way. Surface Catholicism, left over from the French, covers a deep near voodoo topsoil. The words will give a tingle to your spine by the eerieness of the words and phrasing. There is something more to the words than just the words themselves just as there is more to the region than just the land and people.

As the red dog’s fur sends smoke skyward
to whatever gods may still watch over us,

I sprinkle holy water along the fence posts, place
the blessed palms along the shuttered windows
and above the doorframes. I make of matches a cross

and light them quick to stop the rain.

from “Saint Catherine Takes the Auspices”

This is a remarkable collection poetry that is much bigger than its thirty pages. Highly recommended.

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Book Review— A Note of Explanation

Produced by Royal Collection Trust this child’s story was written by Vita Sackville-West in 1922 for Princess Marie Louise the first cousin of George V. Sackville-West was one of 171 authors invited to a book for Queen Mary’s dollhouse. The story until now had never been published. The miniature book was discovered in the dollhouse library and finally published nearly 100 years later.

The story centers on a female spirit that lives in the dollhouse unseen by adults although evidence of her presence mysteriously shows up. The adventures of the spirit, that does share some of Sackville-West’s life experience, is told in a fairytale form. The illustrations an extremely well done in art appropriate to the 1920s and compliment the story quite well.

The hardcover edition with color illustrations is printed on heavy stock and includes an afterword by Matthew Dennison. The book looks and feels like it is from the period. Very high-quality art and binding preserve the Sackville-West’s only children’s story.

 

The original miniature in the dollhouse library

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