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Four Book Reviews

Thats right.

That's right.

I’m not sure if it is the summer heat or that fact that I started running again or maybe a better brand of coffee, but in the last week or so I’ve published four book reviews.

1) At Fictionaut Blog, my third installment of Rediscovered Reading has been posted with a look at Jim Heynen’s should be classic You Know What is Right. Although Heynen has published several formulations of his stories about “the boys,” over the years, this is the book of his that I think is, well, pretty much perfect.

2 & 3) At Reading Local: Seattle, I posted a double review of two books by Seattle writers who also write for HTML Giant: Matthew Simmons’s A Jello Horse and Brandon Scott Gorrell’s during my nervous breakdown i want to have a biographer present. Typing the title of Gorrell’s book I keep thinking it should say, “my biographer,” but having read the book I guess he could mean he biographer, for instance the biographer of Lew Wallace or Theodore Roosevelt would qualify I guess. Publishing Genius’s Web site noted that Simmons’s book is currently sold out and will be back in stock sometime in August. This means the book has sold out its first print run. Nice work Publishing Genius and Matthew Simmons.

4) Also at Reading Local: Seattle I posted a review a week or so back about Midge Raymond’s very excellent debut and prize winning colleciton of short stories, Forgetting English.

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Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon

Maps and Legends Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is a reassuring book and collects essays that been elsewhere. I think in terms of Chabon’s overall work this is something anyone who follows his work should read. However collected here the overall tone of the essays Chabon is trying to be reassuringly erudite) just doesn’t work. On one hand, he strikes me as an honest essayist who allows his ignorance, knowledge, enthusiasm, and secrets to just hang out there. This doesn’t feel like a front, or as manipulation, and in this way, these essays read conversationally and they are great. However he is either holding back, or is taking on more than he can chew. In almost every essay I wanted him to get in there and do something instead of just amiably chat about the subject, and so the essays often promise those freakishly insightful moments that make Roland Barthes or Walter Benjamin lift their essays beyond some ruminations about collection books or watching detective movies. In Chabon’s case, they the essays remain as chatty ruminations.

In thinking about this now, there are authors whose books of essays are some of favorite books although they are often typically thought of novelists. William Gass, Charles D’Ambrosio,and David Faster Wallace have collections of essays that would displace all of their fiction if I was forced to choose just one book by those authors.

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Fictionaut Blog – Rediscovered Reading: The Art of Cartography by J.S. Marcus

The Art of Cartography by J.S. Marcus

The Art of Cartography by J.S. Marcus

A new review on the Rediscovered Reading tag at Fictionaut‘s Blog.

Marcus’ ability to create a situation and then to negate it fills (or rather un-fills) the book. An American, unlike a European, is likely to describe themselves first, even before they say they are an American, a Jew, from Los Angeles, that they are what they do for money. In Marcus’s book they are bankers, music critics, and secretaries. If you ask an European who she is, she is likely, reluctantly to be offended and then tell you where she is from, that is where she was born and went to school. Unlike where someone is from, a job title is another form of encapsulation. A person can be a banker, music critic, or secretary in San Francisco, New York, or Prague. Where they are from is like a resume, Americans alter it to suit their present needs. What they do can be carried with them like a suitcase. Answering that they are a music critic when someone asks them who they are is as useful as holding up their suitcase when someone asks them what they are bringing on the trip.

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Reviews of John Olson and Carol Guess in Raven Chronicles

Vol. 14, No. 2 Architecture In Literature

Vol. 14, No. 2 Architecture In Literature

I have two reviews in the just released issue of The Raven Chronicles. Of Carol Guess’s book from Rose Metal Press, I wrote, “Tinderbox Lawn is a haunting and beautifully written book and
presents an eerily accurate image of relationships in Seattle.” About John Olson’s first novel, from Quale Press, “Souls of Wind sneakily answers the central mystery of why Rimbaud gave up poetry. In the United States, [Rimbaud] can practice the inarticulate American poetry of turning a buck.”

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Rediscovered Reading at Fictionaut

Father Must by Rick Rofihe

Father Must by Rick Rofihe

I’m going to be regularly reviewing or writing about collections of short fiction at Fictionaut’s Blog in a column called “Rediscovered Reading.” The first book I look at is 1991’s great collection by Rick Rofihe, Father Must. I have a half dozen books that fit the bill, that is really great collections of short fiction that just kind of disappeared after release, meaning they weren’t republishing in paperback and they aren’t still in print. Do you have any books that fit this bill? If so, can you leave a note about them in the comments and I’ll be sure to track them down. Thanks.

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Tunneling to the Center of the Earth by Kevin Wilson

Tunneling to the Center of the Earth: Stories (P.S.) Tunneling to the Center of the Earth: Stories by Kevin Wilson


My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
Really liked the story, “the museum of whatnot.”

Many of the stories in this book seem to take George Saunders, particularly Saunders less plausible and silly stories from “In Persuasion Nation,” and create a kind of genre out of them. In Saunders work I tend to get really taken in by his naturalistic stories set in plausible but bizarre real world situations, such as the title stories from Civilwarland in Bad Decline, and Pastoralia. When Saunders enters full satire-mode I find the broadness as painful as listening to gin-drunks argue, i.e., The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil.

High-concept stories, I think, are fun to write and are easy for readers to go, hey, I can figure out what is going on here even though it is kind of hidden. Even well done ones seem to risk being didactic. and so here the title story (“tunneling to the center of the earth”), “the dead sister handbook,” the story about the guy working in the scrabble factory, all fit this bill. They are clever, but after reading them, it was kind of like having heard an Aesop fable — the allegories line up neatly, there is no room for misunderstanding, there is only some writer telling you how it is.

But among these stories are perfectly plausible, less high-concept stories with pretty fully fleshed out characters. My favorite of these is the “the museum of whatnot” about a kind of lonely woman who becomes the curator at a museum of found, naive art — collections of spoons, rubberbands, and various unintended, obsessive ephemera left by people living in their own isolated rooms. The story before this, too, is fairly naturalistic and about again about a lonely girl, this time a girl who is forced by her mother to become a cheerleader, but all she is interested in is putting together models of cars, even though she doesn’t like cars.
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Review P.S.1 Symposium: A Practical Avant-Garde by n+1

Mellow Yellow

Mellow Yellow

My review | rating: 1 of 5 stars

Okay — just finished reading this thing and I am glad I know nothing about these people because they are obsessed with surfaces and gestures. It is odd to read something that is supposed to be about an artistic movement (The Avant-Garde) and yet has half of the insight of a teenager helping me to pick out linoleum tiles at Home Depot.

A student asked me what kind of music I liked this last week.

I like music, I said. I was at a loss about such an enormous question. How can a person answer what kind of music they like? I’m familiar with this question and usually when someone asks me this, I try to give them an answer that will establish our shared preferences. It is a kind of bonding questions and doesn’t really have anything to do with the the music. Liking something seems to me to have hardly anything to do with aesthetics. I like water when I am thirsty and bread when I am hungry and this doesn’t mean that it good water or good bread. What people like seems more like saying we are similar in some way. We like the same things. This kid’s question made me realize I had somehow cootinized. I didn’t know this student all and so I couldn’t say, “Jonas Brothers,” or whatever it is that a 17 year thinks they like. When I was 17 I was freak and didn’t like anything anyone else liked in 1986. I think I was listening to the soundtrack to a Clockwork Orange that year. I tended to listen to once record over and over again.

“Do you like Jim Morrison?” he said.

“The Doors?” I said, as if the name Jim Morrison was obscure somehow had to be placed.

“Yeah,” he said.

“He’s okay I guess. Do you like Classic Rock?” I said. (This itself a vague and weird way of describing music, but generally people know what you mean, manly music that has been reviewed in Rolling Stone between 1964-1991 (or so) and canonized in an FM radio station top 100 albums or songs of all time.)

“No,” he said. “I don’t like Classic Rock. I like Pink Floyd.”

“I like Syd Barrett,” I said.

“Who?” He said. “What do you mean?”

{and on and on}

n+1’s Symposium: A Practical Avant-Garde, encased in a little booklet, reminded me of that kid. There is a kind of addled surface quality where history has been washed together as a kind of stew of gestures and stances and to be an artist is to have a stance and a pose and have practiced your gestures. Taste and gesture allow Jim Morrison and Roger Waters to be classified together. Alan Ginsburg, The Symbolists, the word progressive, Andre Breton, Black Flag, the Black Mountain School, etc. all get stewed in one yellow pamphlet mess.

Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, or Paul Valery were not mentioned once in this booklet on the Avant-Garde, including the Avant Garde in literature. Karl Marx was also not mentioned. Although the word progress was essential to their definition. Things progressed because they were getting better. The criteria of better was not discussed, but presumebably because of progress things that were new were better than things that were old. This is not a new proposition, sure, but here it was talked about and then printed up in a discussion meant to signify a serious intellectual stance. I’m unsure when this proposition of the new being better bdecame cant. When did liberalism or radicalsim become merely equated with newness. But yes, certinaly any child knews that something that is new and still in cellophane is better than something that is used and on the shelf at Goodwill.

The Avant-Garde is described, (really) in this booklet as a bunch of artists who issue manifestos. That is it.

Here is the most salient definition of the principle term being discussed: “So although it is made by groups and manifestos and individuals, I would like to think of the avant-garde primarily as a functional level within any given art or field of intellect.” The mush goes on from there.

{the subject is made by a group or individuals}

The carbuncle on my left ass cheek is made up of a group or individual Staphylococcus aureus and that doesn’t make it an Avant-Garde carbuncle. It issues a manifesto of puss, and that also does not make it Avant-Garde.

Anyway, this was an inept little booklet.

There was this bit I liked, lifted by Eliza Newman-Saul from elsewhere: “Blanchot described surrealism as instituting a collective experience, and he admires Breton for his capability not to be ‘the one any more than the others, but of making surrealism each one’s other.” He describes this as a from of friendship […:]

I have this booklet now and I have no idea what it do with it, besides, well, heating a kettle to make some hot water or something.

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The Hotel of Irrevocable Acts by Carl Watson

Unreality, printed and bound

Unreality, printed and bound

American reality has an oxymoronic, allegorical root that has been incoherently described by Griel Marcus in Invisible Republic, as “The old, weird America.” In his book, Marucs attempts to describe the world of the widely circulated folk song of the murderers “Frankie and Johnny.” It is the America that appears in Flannery O’Connor’s and Russell Edson’s tales. Moby Dick, Marc Chapman, LeadBelly, and The Hotel Of Irrevocable Acts do not make empirical, factual sense. The statement “is it true?” is meaningless in America. These works are concrete manifestations of the American disconnection between empirical reality and what might be described as American reality. The broken connection between observed physical phenomena and its meaning has been a part of the American sensibility since people wandered across the Bering land bridge. Herman Melville, the telephone, radio, and TV are logical outgrowth of this friction, rather than the cause of it. “Why just a few days ago, in the Tribune,” Watson reports in his novel, “two hitchhiking girls murdered an executive who thought he was gonna get some pussy. The girls said they thought they were in a movie – that it wasn’t quite real.” (The full review is The American Book Review.)

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Review: Emily Ate the Wind by Peter Conners

Emily Ate the Wind by Peter ConnersPeter Conners, the author of a previous collection of poems and a forthcoming memoir about following the Grateful Dead, Growing Up Dead, recently published Emily Ate The Wind, a novella of extravagantly tiny miniatures. At five-by-eight inches, the book is the size of a boulder. It is as light as pumice stone. The surface feels like a hardened sponge with just as many gaps and holes as the matrix of what is there. There are repeated sentences with repeated characters engaged in oblique activities of daily life made all the more bleak and oblique because there isn’t any context for their actions. Many times the sentences themselves find themselves unraveling the mystery of the world documented here. “Emily tries to exit the bed on her left and hits a wall. There is no wall. Why is there a wall?” There is in the novel a Dan, an Amber, an Emily, a Lucinda. The events in the book have little to do with each other, and only the tenuous magic of same names, a book jacket, and Conner’s sharp syntax keeps them bundled together. One event happens at dawn one day, or another at dusk. Something happens in a rock quarry. Another event occurs in a trailer.

Narrative can suggest itself in even random occurrences. In a story, two things happening one after the other suggest a correlation and a cause. I learn that the black cats crossing my path are bad luck because of the time a black cat crossed my path and then a man driving an El Dorado shot a stop sign and parked the grill in my back seat. Emily Ate The Wind, however, manages to undo this false logic and reduce the characters to a succession of sentences, garage doors, dirty clothes, applesauce, and Kyle’s Bronco.

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A Response from Jared Leising

A few months ago I wrote a short review of Jared Leising’s chapbook, The Widows and Orphans of Winesburg, Ohio.

At the time I wrote:

“Is he actually a regional poet? He grew up in the Midwest, and this is a chapbook of poetry rooted in the dirt of the Midwest, and really very few things could be as locally specific as dirt. In ” Loess” Leising writes ” But, this dirt made me, I can’t help it.” The poems are Midwestern poems. It seems odd to me that Leising would place himself so firmly in the Midwest. Doesn’t he risk seeming, well, provincial?”

Leising recently sent me this response:

I like how you’re able to call the concept of regionalism (or why anyone would want to be identified with a region) into question at a time when we can be as connected to people across the street as we are with people on another continent via the Internet. I also like the larger question of writer-identity (“who is anyone”) that you raise. I think that question is one I’ve been avoiding because it’s been easy for me to identify with the Midwest in terms of what I write about and how I write, plus as you indicated, there is a tradition of it; however my feelings about being a Midwest writer have changed the longer I live in Seattle.

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