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April 4, 2017

Book Review: American War by Omar El Akkad


Cover American War by Omar El Akkad.jpeg With American War, published by Penguin Random House April 4 2017, former journalist Omar El Akkad has given us a stunning portrayal of how a terrorist is created. Set in a dystopian future, the last quarter of 21st century America, we follow young Sara T Chestnut, called Sarat because a teacher slurred her first name and middle initial together, as she grows from childhood to her final shaping as a weapon of mass destruction by her handlers.

The United States had descended into a second civil war towards the end of the 21st Century. This time the division is based on the use of fossil fuels. As the oceans have risen coast lines including Florida and most of Louisiana have vanished. When the oil reserves start to run dry the federal government took the drastic step of banning the use of all fossil fuels. Texas and a group of other Southern States rose in protest.

When a pro-fossil fuel demonstration at an American army base in the South results in the death of protesters - nobody can agree on the how or the why - the Free Southern State, comprised of Texas, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and parts of what used to be Louisiana, seceded and declared war on the rest of the United States. While the war has basically petered out into sort of a numb peace between the two side when we meet Sarat and her family in 2075, ongoing terror attacks by Southern forces periodically provoke the North into retaliation.

When Sarat's father is killed while visiting a border post in one of those terror attacks, she and the rest of her family - older brother, twin sister, and mother - are evacuated to a refugee camp in Mississippi run by the Red Crescent society. For as America has crumbled into ruin, countries in the Middle East have finally thrown off their despotic rulers and united to form the Bouazizi Union or Empire. So instead of them being the ones receiving aid from the West, they're now sending aid workers to America.

It's once in the refugee camp that we witness the gradual development of Sarat as a terrorist. We watch as she's selected then groomed by the mysterious Mr. Gaines. Under the guise of befriending Sarat, he begins the careful process of gaining her trust and making her feel like she's part of something important. At first this involves her simply running errands for him - delivering cash to various people within the camp - but gradually develops into the dehumanizing of Northerners so they are no longer seen as anything but an enemy.
Ommar El Akkad.jpeg
When the camp is attacked in retaliation for the ambush of a Northern supply train Sarat's mother is killed and her brother badly injured. This is the final straw required to make her the tool Gaines has been shaping. Formed in the crucible of war and the barbarity of human atrocity she becomes the ultimate in disposable weaponry.

Akkad has created a world which may seem dystopian to us in North America but is pretty much a reality in any number of war torn countries. His ability to make life in the refugee camp seem almost normal lulls us into a false sense of comfort. It's only when we step away, think about what we've been reading, we realize how abnormal these circumstances are and the desperation they must fuel in the hearts and souls of those force to live under these conditions.

He also displays a masterful hand in laying out the story. We see it through the eyes of a number of characters; Sarat, her mother, the nurse who is hired to care for Sarat's brother after they leave the camp, and finally, Sarat's young nephew. Akkad even includes historical documents; testimony from congressional committees, news accounts of the events leading up to the war, and other similar materials which help create both atmosphere and verisimilitude.

All of these points of view help to create a world both realistic and chilling. What is especially frightening is the fact that we can even understand and sympathize, to an extent, with Sarat. It is remarkable how easy it is to become a terrorist.

While this book is being classified as Science Fiction, mainly because it is set in the future and the world has changed so radically, there is far too much reality contained within its covers to simply dismiss American War as another piece of genre fiction. This is a warning shot across our bows letting us know the circumstances that create the terrorists we fear so much can be created anywhere - even here.

Akkad is a masterful storyteller and American War is one of the most compelling books you'll read this year. It will explain what's going on in the world a whole lot more honestly and clearly than any news cast or politician.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: American War by Omar El Akkad)

April 28, 2016

Book Review: Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay


There are very few authors who manage to create fictional worlds of depth and beauty but are also able to people them with complex and real characters. In his latest book, Children of Earth and Sky to be released May 10 2016 from Penguin/Random House Canada, Guy Gavriel Kay, demonstrates the deft hand of an artist through his abilities to bring both people and place to life.
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As is his wont Kay has taken an era from history as his starting point and extrapolated his story from the events of that time. In this case he's focused on what we'd know as the region from Venice to Istanbul - with especial attention paid to the Baltic and Eastern European regions - during the tumultuous times of the Ottoman Empire's expansion into the region. While countries, city states, and regions have been re-named, they're described with enough detail the discerning reader should have no problem identifying, if not their exact identities, their geographical locations. (Readers of Kay's previous books The Lions of Al Rassan, Sailing to Sarantium, and Lord of Emperors will not only recognize the place names but find poignant references to the latter two scattered throughout the book.)

While the earth shattering events of the time are important to the story, Kay's focus is on how their reverberations spiral outwards to impact on lives everywhere. From the proud merchant city states of Seressa and Dubrava to the small fortress town of Senjan and even to far away Asharias, home of the Khalif of the Osmanli Empire. It's these events combined with fate, circumstances, or simply pure chance, that bring the four central characters together initially. From seemingly random beginnings, their fates are irrevocably intertwined.

Danica Gradek is a young woman from the fortress town of Senjan. The Senjans are condemned as pirates by the Seressa and Osmanli, for their practice of raiding merchant ships travelling between the two, while praised as heroes by the Holy Emperor for their willingness to fight the heathens whenever required. A warrior in a society where women aren't supposed to be fighters she would seem to have little in common with those who become her companions; Marin Djivo, the youngest son of a Merchant family from Dubrava, Pero Villani, an impoverished artist from Seressa, and Leonora Valeri, a young woman being sent to Dubrava as a spy for Seressa.

When Villani is commissioned by the ruling council of Seressa to travel to Asharias in response to the Khalif's desire to have his portrait done in by a Western artist, the first stage of his journey is aboard a ship owned by the Djivo family which Marin has accompanied as the family's representative. It also happens to be carrying a doctor and his wife travelling to Dubrava, although Leonora Valeri is only pretending to be the doctor's wife as a way to enter Seressa's rival as a spy.

When the boat is boarded by a Senjan raiding party, including Danica on her first raid, events conspire to change the lives of these four people, and their companions, forever. While each of their tales began some time earlier, this is the moment when they all converge. The first of a series of seemingly random happenings, which will seed all of what is to come. There are many more chance encounters upon each of their roads that will cause both convergences and divergences in their paths.
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What's wonderful about Kay's books is how he builds to each of these moments. We see how nothing, and nobody, exists in a vacuum. Not only does he give us each character's story, showing us how a particular twist or turn brought them to a point. Kay brings us into the council chambers and courts of Emperors, Dukes, and Regents to demonstrate how decisions made in these lofty circles have ramifications for people perhaps thousands of miles away.

Kay's books are a delight to read because he never rushes anything. Stories unfold in an elegant dance with all the elements choreographed. What at first might appear as random and unconnected steps gradually reveal themselves to have been the opening movements in a grand ballet. When you step into one of his books you find yourself surrendering to his pace and then being caught up in the sweep and turn of events to the point where you've read over 400 pages without even noticing.

Accenting his artistry as a storyteller is the fact the language he uses compliments the tone and nature of his work. Elegant, descriptive, and evocative of time and place, it somehow manages to not only capture the beauty and splendour of the Khalif's court in Asharias, but the horror and brutality of a battle scene. At the same time he is also able to convey the thoughts and emotions of his characters with such a clarity of detail they become more than just sketches on a page. These are living, breathing people with complicated motives which even they sometimes fail to fully comprehend.

In Children of Earth and Sky Kay works on a very broad canvas. Though he captures the scope of historical events, it's his attention to detail which makes the book captivating. While a painter might consider these details peripheral to the main subject matter of a work, Kay brings his picture alive by his ability to bring them to life. Through his examination of those who appear on the edges of history we gain a better understanding of what the world was like during this time than we would by reading a book about the rulers and their generals.

Everything about this book, from the characters to the world created - including the subtle elements of fantasy that imbue it - makes Children of Earth and Sky a wonder and a joy to read. Having read it once I can guarantee you'll want to read it again and again.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review - Children of Earth and Sky - Fantasy by Guy Gavriel Kay)

February 5, 2016

Book Review: Massive Pissed Love: Nonfiction 2001 - 2015 by Richard Hell


As its title suggest Massive Pissed Love: Nonfiction 2001 - 2014 from Soft Skull Press is a collection of essays, critiques, and assorted other articles and remarks by Richard Hell. While Hell was initially known as the front man for such seminal New York City bands as Television, The Voidoids, and The Heartbreakers, he's also a poet, novelist, and a essayist.
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Aside from his personal artistic achievements, Hell is also a keen and intelligent observer of the arts and has written and spoken about everything from pop culture to the avant-garde in film, poetry, and the visual arts. He's also been closely associated with some of the foremost contributors to pop culture and art in and around New York City since the early 1970s. All of which gives him the awareness to put his observations in an historical and social context.

Reading Hell's work is an object lesson in being a critic. He makes no secrets of his personal biases or opinions, but still strives to be as fair as possible to the work he's talking about. His writings on film are a perfect example. He makes no bones of his preference for the work of people like Jean Luc Goddard to more mainstream work, but he's still able to critique a Hollywood movie fairly based on its own merits. He judges all art in this manner - by seeing how well it stands up to the standards set by works of a similar style and form.

What makes these articles even more interesting in Hell's personal knowledge of many of the creators. His writings on authors like Jim Carroll (The Basketball Diaries and The Petting Zoo) are made that much more interesting by his personal recollections of the person behind the work. We gain not only a deeper understanding of the artist in question, but we also begin to see their work in a different, more personal, light.

Of course, not all of the articles are going to be of interest to everyone, in fact some might even find some the work discussed in the book disturbing. However, art is not always a comfortable blanket we wrap around ourselves - it should make us ask questions and provoke a response. The aesthetic appreciation of a piece art extends far beyond whether we "like" it.

While Hell never comes out and says this directly, the diversity and range of expression he writes about in Massive Pissed Love gradually bring this point home to us. Art is not created to please us, but meant to challenge us to look at the world from multiple perspectives. Remember, works we now consider acceptable, the paintings of Picasso for example, were once scorned and ridiculed.
Richard Hell by Rebecca Smeyne.jpg
While some of the articles in this book might be inaccessible to some, his writings on popular music are sure to appeal to most. One of my favourites is the piece comparing The Rolling Stones with the Velvet Underground - "The Velvet Underground vs. The Rolling Stones". He examines the albums each group released during the same time frame - the time the Velvets existed - 1966 -1970. (The Velvets' first public appearance was in '65 and their first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, wasn't released until '67 but was recorded in '66 at the same time the Stones recorded Aftermath)

Not only is the article a in depth and careful analysis of both bands' output giving you a deeper understanding of their musical significance and appreciation for their work, its also highly entertaining. Lacking the pretentious bullshit language these types of articles usually end up being couched in, it becomes an honest and candid examination of two bands who seem to be at completely opposite ends of the pop music spectrum.

Massive Pissed Love is not arranged chronologically, rather arranged as to how the articles fit into the three categories of the title. Some are long - "Massive" - some angry in tone - "Pissed" - and others full of adoration for their subject - "Love". As Hell says in his introductory note "It was to dull just to divide it by subject matter". One thing you can be sure of, this book is never dull. Contrary, intelligent, opinionated and perhaps to some people's minds controversial, but always lively and stimulating. If you care at all about modern art and culture this is a must read.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: 'Massive Pissed Love: Nonfiction 2001 - 2014' by Richard Hell)

May 9, 2015

Book Review: Agapé: Heaven & Earth by Bob MacKenzie


Fifty years is a long time to be doing anything. Fifty years as a poet is almost unimaginable. Yet that's just what Canadian poet Agapé: Heaven & Earth, through his own Dark Matter Press, an anthology culled from the span of his career.

Of course there are many people who can claim to have written poetry for an extended period of time, but what really matters is what they have written and is it worth reading. Now some might say that judging poetry is a subjective thing. The old "I know what I like" argument. However, when examining an artist's body of work from an extended period of time, there are objective standards it can be judged against. It's all very well and good to say, well I like this or that poem, but when looking at a retrospective covering this span of years guidelines for its appreciation must be established.

First, and most importantly, is there a noticeable evolution in their work? Do they experiment with style, content and form, or do they just latch onto one approach and never change. Now, experimentation for the sake of experimentation can only take you so far. Content and a poet's ability to use words in order to communicate sensation, emotion or thought are just as important. Some poets are able to stay within one style their whole career because their command of language is such what they say is more important than how they say it.
Cover Agape Heaven & Earth.jpg
MacKenzie is one of those rare poets who is able to combine an adroitness with language and the ability to work in different styles effectively and seemingly effortlessly. While the poems in this volume aren't arranged chronologically, so there's no way of knowing how his style has evolved over the years, a simple examination of the writing shows his diversity. Everything from the formalized structure of haiku to long, prose like, free form verse can be found within the covers of Agapé.

It's in one of the former you get a brief insight into this poet's rather ironic sense of humour. The third poem into the book reads, "never my forte/these brief delicate flowers:/Japanese poems". Here he not only chaffs at the constraints of a highly structured format, but he also shows the self awareness to make fun of his own predilections. Mackenzie is definitely a proponent of allowing words the freedom to breath and create their own atmosphere instead of binding them up within the walls of structure. However, as he proves in this collection, it's not because he can't write a sonnet or a haiku, but that he'd prefer not to.

Instead of arranging the poems in the order they were produced throughout his career, MacKenzie and his editors, Nancy Wills and Faye Batchelor, have elected to gather them by theme or subject. What you quickly come to understand is no matter which point in his life a poem was written, this is a person who is very aware of the world around and his poetry is a reflection of that sensitivity. While the natural world is integral to his work, he is not blind to the human experience in all its pain and glory.

MacKenzie is not shy about telling us how he feels on any given subject either. He won't couch an idea or sentiment in a pretty phrase or obscure aphorism in order to soften its impact or protect a reader's sensibilities. He has no compunctions about directing a spotlight directly into the dark corners of human behaviour. At the same time he doesn't hesitate to celebrate the sublime beauty of a mountain scape at sunrise or the wonder of coming face to face with the wild.

However, that doesn't mean his poems don't have a lyricism to them. MacKenzie's use of language is wonderful. The words roll off the page and tumble around inside your brain until they gradually take shape. They bounce off each other forming thoughts and images which take up residence in your imagination and stimulate your mind and soul. Some of the poems might awe you, some might frighten you, but they can't fail to move you in some way.
Bob MacKenzie Reading.jpg
Mackenzie is not just a poet, he's a novelist, songwriter, photographer and illustrator as well. Being a multidisciplinary artist means he's open to more modes of expression than most artists. Perhaps this is why he's not fallen into the habit of letting conventions confine his poetry. Some might not appreciate his approach because, "it doesn't sound like poetry", but that's missing the point. Poetry is an expression of the human heart and soul - messy and chaotic places to begin with - so the expectation poems should fit some preconceived notion of structure and form is ridiculous.

Agapé: Heaven & Earth is a wonderful collection of poetry spanning fifty years of inspired creativity. If you've never read or heard of MacKenzie's poetry in the past, this would be the ideal collection for you to purchase. Even if you're familiar with his work it does a fine job of putting his career in perspective. As I said earlier, it is a remarkable achievement to do anything for fifty years; to be as innovative, creative and inspired a poet as MacKenzie has for that time span is astounding.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Agapé: Heaven & Earth by Bob MacKenzie - Celebrating Fifty Years Of Poetry<)

June 18, 2014

Book Review: Spirit Quest by Bob Mackenzie and Sharlena Wood


Over the years humanity's relationship with nature has become sort of twisted. On the one hand we admire the beauty of a spectacular sunset or soaring mountains yet we also think nothing of destroying the atmosphere with poison gases or the water table with toxic waste. Further distorting our view of the world around is how we've come to believe nature is okay as long as it knows its place. Let it interfere with our lives though and all of a sudden it becomes an act of God or some sort of natural disaster. When did we become so self-centred as to believe tornadoes, earthquakes and tidal waves are something to be taken personally? These storms would have happened regardless of our presence.

To be able to see nature as something which exists independent of humanity is not something many of us are able to accomplish. One of the ways we have of bringing ourselves closer to nature is through the work of writers and artists. There's something about seeing things through the lens provided by somebody else's work that gives us a clearer perspective on the world we live in.
Cover Spirit Quest.jpg
The new book Spirit Quest, published by Dark Matter Press, from poet Bob Mackenzie and visual artist Sharlena Wood is a fine example of how the arts can give us a new appreciation of the natural world. The two artists have created a series of complimentary works; Mackenzie's poems recount visits to Canada's Rocky Mountains in Western Canada he took as a child while Wood's paintings bring the passion and wildness of the region to life.

Wood has not attempted to illustrate Mackenzie's poems. Instead what she has done is provide us with images which capture nature's untamed essence. In some ways they serve as contrasts to Mackenzie's poems of the human experience of nature as seen from car windows, camp sites and family vacations. It's almost as if the two have combined to show us how the world looks from both perspectives. Mackenzie's highly personal childhood remembrances, which say as much about the warmth of his family life growing up as they do about nature, are the ring side seat to the natural world while Wood pulls us right into the wild unchecked beauty which cares nothing for our opinions.

In his poems Mackenzie recreates the impressions of the Rocky Mountains he formed as a child through the filter of his adult memory and opinions. Remarkably he manages, after the passage of time and experiences, to still convey the sense of wonder and mystery they must have instilled in the younger version of himself. In "no visible means", a poem describing mountain sheep's apparent ability to defy gravity in clinging to mountain sides, we see a perfect example of a child's awe filtered through the mind of an adult. "this space overtakes me/as no book ever can/here the gods can be felt/and I feel very small".
Bob Mackenzie Poet.jpg
While the sentiments expressed are the amazement a child would feel at seeing the mountains and their sheer size, the vocabulary is decidedly adult. However, the combination of the two is highly effective as it allows us to remember the awe we felt as children when confronted with something beyond our comprehension. By showing us this world through the eyes of his younger self Mackenzie is able to depict nature as the raw force is can be. There's never the impression that it was put there for his family's enjoyment; it exists, is seen and described without editorializing or judgement.

The same can't be said for the occasional outside interlopers into Mackenzie's private world of family and nature. The occasional glimpse we receive of other humans isn't exactly flattering. In the poem "Bears" he describes the interaction between the bears in Banff National Park in Alberta Canada. "tourists come here to meet bears/brown bears so cute in daylight/at night fear bears in the dark/approaching their lamp lit tents/bears are in the camp at dusk/stalk between tent and washrooms/watch campers creep out in fear/make shadow art with their paws". The message we receive is that the majority of people seem to hold fast to the tried and true human opinion that nature is alright in its place, but it needs to know its place.

As Mackenzie uses words to describe the world of the Rocky Mountains in an attempt to capture their magical and wild spirit, Wood's visual creations for the book take us even further into the wild abandon of the region. From stark black and white images which express the power that can be found in the austerity of naked woods in winter to wild uncontrolled swirls of colour which wash across the eye, her work constantly reiterates the theme that nature exists for itself, not for our pleasure. There is a raw power to her work which sends shivers down one's spine as it captures the naked energy of both the mountains and the land around them.
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Anyone who has seen the Rocky Mountains anywhere in North America can't help but be reminded of the fact we are only a small part of the world around us. Most of us go through our lives in a sort of un easy co-existence with the natural world. We live in controlled environments where the rains and winds are at most inconveniences to be avoided and wild life is limited to the birds and small animals in our backyards. Spirit Quest is a reminder that the natural world exists in of itself without care for our concerns or worries. We are all that small person Mackenzie describes in "no visible means" whether we know it or not.

The poems and art work in this book do a masterful job of bringing both the natural world and human interaction with it to life. By showing the world through the eyes of himself as a child poet Mackenzie helps us rediscover the awe it can inspire while Wood's paintings remind us of its sheer unbridled power. A picture might be worth a thousand words, but on this occasion pictures and words have combined to create something which speaks volumes to any willing to listen.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Spirit Quest by Bob Mackenzie and Sharlena Wood)

January 24, 2014

Book Review: The Silence Before the Whisper Comes by Bruce Kauffman


Why would anyone write poetry? It's not what you'd call glamourous. You're never going to make money at it. The best you can hope for is if you manage to publish a few books of poems you could possibly get picked up by some university to teach a creative writing class or get some work editing for literary magazines. The best poets I've known or read have jobs working in book stores and coffee shops in order to pay the bills. Yet, still they continue to write and produce poetry which only, perhaps, a few hundred people will ever read. Why?

The answer can be found in the poetry itself. When you read work of such sublime beauty that it takes your breath away; when you come to the end of a poem that makes you question your own abilities as a writer because you can't imagine ever being able to write what you've just read or you find your eyes involuntarily filling with tears while reading a scant twenty to thirty words, it becomes obvious why some people write poetry. They really have no other choice. When you can see and hear the world around you like they do, you have to find a means of transcribing what you're experiencing as there's no way it can remain bottled up. Some people become painters to express themselves, but some few take the far more difficult path and paint their images with words.

One of the latter is Kingston Ontario Canada resident Bruce Kauffman. His latest book of poetry, The Silence Before the Whisper Comes, published by Hidden Brook Press, is the third of his books which I've reviewed, and while I have to admit to a certain amount of chauvinism as we share the same city of residence, he has to rank among the top living poets I've had the privilege of reading. While poetry, like all art, is highly subjective in its appreciation, Kauffman's work transcends anything so trivial as its readers likes or dislikes. Like the natural world it quite often alludes to it simply is, awaiting the discerning eye to glance upon it and appreciate the qualities which quantify its existence.
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Attempting to interpret another's poetry is often a perilous journey fraught with the minefields of our own prejudices and preconceptions. We can only guess at what somebody was trying to say through the filter of our own beliefs. However, in the case of the gifted poets, no matter whether they use metaphor or analogy, the words on the page do more than simply express some thought or idea. Instead of seeking some hidden meaning within the language, listen to the effect the accumulated words have on you emotionally. A poem should be the perfect marriage of heart and mind, the latter transcribing for the former to articulate its inner workings without ladening it with extraneous baggage or complications.

Kauffman's work in this book is as good an example of a poet bringing that union to life on the page as you're likely to find anywhere. While his poems are full to the brim with ideas and thought, there's no wading through tortured intellectual process to enter the emotional core of the matter. At the same time, he doesn't spell anything out for you allowing the reader to follow their own process until they reach a conclusion. You never once feel like you're being either led by the nose to see the author's point of view or made so confused you literally can't see the forest for the trees.

Considering Kauffman's use of the natural world in his poems as a means of expressing his opinions on the world around him, I guess that's a bit ironic. However, there's also a great deal of truth in it. For while some tend to try and overload their poems with imagery or ideas Kauffman's work reminds us of the beauty of simplicity. Instead of gushing forth a torrent of words in order to impress us with his emotional depth, Kauffman manages to find a way of communicating without overwhelming us. Whether intentional or not, his work is a perfect example of the credo less is more.
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As befits any artist, he doesn't limit himself to a single subject matter. Everything, from the act of writing to describing the scene of an automobile accident are talked about. However, the way he sees, and how he describes what he sees, make it feel while he might walk through the same world you and I inhabit, his vision operates in a different focal range from the rest of us. Not that he attempts to make the world something its not. Rather he directs our eyes to see that which is hidden beneath the obvious. The obscure, the beautiful, the ugly and the pain are caught by the simple act of being in a certain place at a certain time. If you didn't know any better you'd think things were waiting for him to come along so he could describe them.

I'm reluctant to quote from any of his poems in this review, because the words taken out of their overall context will lose their meaning. Even when scouring the longer poems, and some of them do stretch over a number of pages, I find it hard to remove a segment as an example of Kauffman's work. The words feel orphaned when separated from their main body. It would be like showing you an amputated limb and trying to tell you what the rest of the body looks like. Could you tell what a painting looked like if someone cut out a small section from the outer edge, or even the middle? You might get some idea of the artist's technique, but you'd still be none the wiser as to the paintings overall appearance. However, at the conclusion of this review I've included a copy of one poem, hoping that it will give you some indication as to the quality of his work.

It's easy enough to write a poem. What's difficult is writing a poem which offers its readers a chance to experience the world in ways they never would have thought of on their own. Most poets are content with offering you glimpses into their own lives or showing you their reflections in the mirror of their paper. Bruce Kauffman is one of those rare poets who turns his vision outward and then reflects it back onto the page for us to bear witness. This is not only the work of a gifted writer, but of a gifted artist. The Silence Before the Whisper Comes can be purchased from most on line book retailers.

blue rain (by Bruce Kauffman The Silence Before the Whisper Comes Hidden Brook Press 2013 pg.28)

with this page before me
waiting to catch moisture
there are times when words
no longer freely fall
from an
ordinary sky

and on those days i take
the lavender bowl to
the barrel beneath
the corner eve of the house

i draw from barrel's surface
the wet words
floating there

then with tongs
dripping black ink
i separate and pull words
from the bowl
and place them gently
on a page

they
content
to be there

but their heart
is still floating
in yesterday's sky

Article originally published at Empty Mirror as Book review: The Silence Before The Whisper Comes By Bruce Kauffman)

November 5, 2013

Book Review: Alice In tumblr-Land And Other Fairy Tales For A New Generation by Tim Manley


"Curiouser and curiouser" was Alice's commentary on the world she found down the rabbit hole in Lewis Carol's Alice In Wonderland. While the land she found herself in was populated by hookah smoking caterpillars, pocket watch bearing white rabbits, vanishing talking cats and other strange and somewhat scary beings, it probably wasn't half so strange as the rabbit hole of social networks we currently live in.

There is no mythical or fantastic country I can think of stranger than the lands of a thousand unknown "Friends" which is Facebook or the 140 characters of sometimes meaningless chatter constituting Twitter. Mobile phones and tablets are the looking glasses of today. Faces glued to screens, oblivious to the world around them, people enter into a cyber world as unreal and made up as any created by the Brother's Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson. All of which makes a new book by Tim Manley, Alice In tumblr-Land (and Other Fairy Tales For A New Generation), published by Penguin Canada a pleasure to read on many levels.

Snow White, King Arthur, Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel and the rest of the fairy tale/folk hero gang, live in the world of social media. Chicken Little feeds her paranoia by Googling illnesses, Snow has fantasies about Ryan Gosling while perusing online photos and Beauty worries what her chic friends will think of Beast. Cinderella divorced the Prince (he wasn't gay, just kind of a prick) and moved back in with her stepmother, vowing never to wear glass slippers ever again - it's Crocs all the way for this modern girl while Arthur and Lancelot have jobs in the sharp end of the service industry and are typical twenty-something slackers.
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Manley, the creator of the blog, Fairy Tales For Twenty-somethings, has put the book together along the lines of blog posts or daily status updates on a social media site. Instead of chapters telling each character's story, each page contains a small blurb and an illustration (all illustrations by the author) of what at first appears to be meaningless pieces of information. All right, it's sort of cute Snow White has the hots for Gosling. (He's not related to the Ugly Duckling is he?) Or, how after pulling the sword from the stone, before becoming king, Arthur takes off on a road trip which includes stops at Burning Man and learning how to make a guitar out of cigar box on the streets of New Orleans.

But like status updates they are merely moments without context or substance. You don't learn anything about a person, or a character, from these types of truncated thoughts. Thankfully Manley understands this, and doesn't just leave it at that. For he uses these blurbs to gradually tell us each person's story. As we continue to read he keeps circling back to his characters gradually revealing more and more about each one.

As the book unfolds you start to see the imaginative and mischievous ways Manley has brought these classic figures into the modern world. He's taken elements of each story and combined these with a character's most distinctive traits to create thoroughly modern versions of the folk/fairy tale. Poor Robin Hood is having a hard time spreading his message of social equality. The whole robbing from the rich and giving to the poor thing just doesn't seem to be working. Changing the world is a lot harder than he thought it would be. Sure it was working on a local level, but what about nationally and globally? Going on the Sheriff's day time talk show wasn't any help - as a firm proponent of trickle down economics he and Robin had a hard time finding anything they could talk about except their mutual liking of ice cream.

As if things weren't bad enough Robin found he was having a hard time opening up about what was on his mind to those closest to him. He was even reticent around his oldest friend Little John. Is this what aging does to you, you slowly just stop talking about things he wondered? However, not to worry. Robin eventually figures things out and develops a whole social media campaign to get his message to the world.

While some people might have problems with some of the choices Manley makes in bringing his characters into the 21st century; Arthur gay, Rapunzel giving up on guys and taking up with a hot girl friend and Mulan having a sex change - she'd always been happier being one of the guys; you never have the impression he's made any of his decisions casually or simply to shock. In fact there's something quite realistic about the way he describes what happens to each of them. Sure it's done with humour, but the process each character goes through is as honest as anything you'll read anywhere else.
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Originally fairy tales and similar stories were written as a means of teaching a moral lesson or something simiilar about the world we live in. Over the years, and thanks to the sentimentality of a certain entertainment conglomerate based out of Florida and California, the lessons have either been diluted or lost. Not only has Manley updated the stories and the characters, he has also restored their original purpose. I don't mean he has made them into modern day morality tales, but he uses them to help us see what's happening in the world around us just a little more clearly.

While it might be funny to think of Sleeping Beauty as suffering from depression, Chicken Little from panic disorder and anxiety and The Ugly Duckling using her superior intellect to cover up her insecurity about her appearance, Manley's descriptions of their conditions gradually becomes uncomfortably accurate. In fact the more we read about each of them, the more poignant their stories become. However, like all good fairy tales, each of their stories has a happy ending. Chicken Little goes into therapy to deal with issues from her childhood and starts hot yoga classes, Sleeping Beauty met up with her old buddy the Prince for coffee and he listened and understood why she was sad which made her feel better, while The Ugly Duckling saw some pictures from her high school reunion posted on Facebook and realized, while she might not be beautiful, she looked right.

As we read about each of the characters we begin to think of them less in terms of who they were originally and more as people dealing with life as we know it. While Manley's illustrations remind us of their fairy tale origins through his use of familiar distinguishing characteristics, his writing turns them into something quite different. They are more than just cute cartoons or figures from stories in our past, they are characters whose concerns and problems are ones we understand. Of course humour is a big part of the book, but underneath the laughter is an insightful mind who understands the foibles and frailties of being human with compassion and empathy.

Social media is a fact of life whether we like it or not. Marshall McLuhan said the media is the message. Through their choice of media some people attempt to send a message or even comment on the media itself. Manley, while maybe poking fun at people's obsessions with social networks and the Internet, embraces the form required for its utilization and gives us an indication of its potential as a means of real communication while neither condeming nor advocating its usage. In his stories the Internet is an accepted part of life just as it is for all of us.

Alice In tumblr-Land (And Other Fairy Tales For A New Generation) is a humorous and intelligent look at life in the 21st century as seen through the eyes of familiar figures from the fairy tales of our childhood. While its sub-title implies the book is geared towards a specific generation the content and humour will appeal to almost anyone. Not only is it a lot of fun to read, it is also thought provoking and smart. Like the fairy tale books of our childhoods Manley's illustrations complement the writing and play an integral part in their telling. Unlike those books however, these stories are firmly based in our current reality and the happy endings aren't dependant on anyone being rescued by a handsome prince.

Article originally published at the Empty Mirror as Review: Alice In tumblr-Land And Other Fairy Tales For A New Generation)

October 8, 2013

Book Review: T. C. Boyle - T. C. Boyle Stories II


In some form or another the short story has probably been around as long as man has had the desire and the ability to communicate. Oral tales told around the fire at night aren't going to be long drawn out affairs. Neither are they going to deal with more than one subject. While they might not have been stories in the way we think of them, early ones were probably embellished tales of successful raids on other tribes or descriptions of hunts, the format they followed wouldn't have been much different from the ones we read in books today. They would have recounted a particular incident or time period in an individual's life.

Leaping ahead to the 19th century with the introduction of mass media, specifically periodicals, a demand for stories to serve as popular entertainment developed. While Charles Dickens might have been serializing his epic works, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was writing the adventures of his famous detective for the Strand Magazine as short fiction. In the early part of the twentieth century the short story was both the province of those writing genre fiction like Robert E Howard and literary fiction, James Joyce. The short story has continued to endure because of its versatility as a vehicle for expression. Whether a sword and sorcery adventure or an introspective examination of the human psyche, the short story can be anything to anyone depending on what its author chooses to do with it.

T.C.Boyle is probably one of contemporary fiction's premier short story writers. There are very few today who have equaled his output in terms of quantity and quality. Proof of both comes in the release of the 900 plus page T. C. Boyle Stories II by Penguin Canada. The volume of work he's managed to produce in the twenty or so year period this book represents is impressive enough (especially considering this is the second of two volumes). However, you'll also quickly discover he is no hack churning out story after story as if on an assembly line. Each is an intricate and surgical examination of human behaviour, unflinching, and rather terrifying, in its honesty.
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I say the latter for while there are undeniably humorous moments in some of the stories, the weaknesses of the characters in them are described so accurately we can't help recognize what we have in common with them. It's far too easy in reading some of his stories to see how given the right sets of circumstances, or the wrong ones, how you could have followed the same path his people end up taking. Like figures out of classical tragedy whose downfall comes about because they refuse to moderate their behaviour, his characters' paths are caused by a similar fatal flaw. However, as they are acting out their lives in surroundings or circumstances we're familiar with, their actions not only ring true, we can see the elements of ourselves in them.

What impressed me the most about the work I read in this collection, (I defy anyone to sit down and read all 900 plus pages of stories contained in this volume in one sitting) was how much his work has evolved since I first read it back in the mid 1980s. While his material was as biting as it is now, it wasn't quite as insightful or nearly as concerned with the hows and whys of his characters. The stories were more general social commentaries instead of the far more sophisticated character studies they have become.

One thing which has remained consistent over the years is his ability to write without sentimentality. Anybody looking for the type of feel good story you'd find in Reader's Digest or Saturday Evening Post have come to the wrong guy. He's not about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps or heartwarming in any shape or form. People in his stories make messes of their lives, and no matter what their good intentions might be, don't often manage to clean up after themselves. However, just because he's not sentimental, doesn't mean he isn't without empathy for those he writes about. We wouldn't be able to read these stories if the characters were cruel or stupid or Boyle didn't feel anything for them. He manages to imbue even the most down and out of them with the humanity required to make them both believable and to keep us interested in them.

It's inherent in any author to be able to postulate "What If?" It's what fires their imaginations and breathes life into the worlds they create on the page. Boyle's ability to look at an idea or situation and ask "What If?" is at the same time the most imaginative and the most grounded in reality I've ever read. Like science fiction and fantasy writers he excepts any premise is possible, yet like a realist his settings and people stay incredibly normal. "After The Plague" is a perfect example of this. The population of the world has almost been completely wiped out by some sort of disease and only a few people, who happened to be in isolated situations, managed to survive. In most instances these types of post apocalyptic settings end up being excuses for zombie attacks or mutations of some sort or another resulting in constant battles for survival.
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In Boyle's universe life just goes on as it did before with far fewer people around. As the protagonist, a teacher who was on sabbatical in an isolated cabin, discovers, just because somebody else survived doesn't mean the two of you are going to get along. Personality clashes can happen even in Eden when you're trying to recreate the world. In fact, the end of civilization as we know is a rather prosaic event. Sure everybody's off the grid now and has to become self-sufficient, but since the grocery stores are still well stocked with canned goods, there's plenty of fresh water and material goods are there for the taking, nobody is lacking for anything. What does it matter if you're now sharing the roads and sidewalks with bears and mountain lions, there's plenty for everybody.

The odds of the planet being hit by an astroid or other object from space big enough to cause the type of calamity which wiped out nearly 75% of all the species on earth including the dinosaurs during any individuals lifetime are roughly ten thousand to one. Which just happen to be the same odds you have of being killed in an automobile accident in the next ten months or living to be a hundred with your spouse. When Chicxulub hit the earth 65 million years ago in the area where the Yucatan Peninsula now sits it left an impact crater 120 miles wide, was six miles across and is thought to have been travelling at a speed of roughly 54,000 miles per hour. In the story named for the asteroid Boyle uses details of a variety of different similar strikes to help us fathom what it would be like to lose somebody in an accident.

What are the odds your daughter will be walking down the road at the same time somebody who had too much too drink will begin to make their unsteady way home down the same road? If the odds are the same as those of the earth being hit by an interstellar object capable of destroying civilization, will not the damage be equal as well? For anybody who receives the phone call in the middle of the night telling them their daughter has been involved in an accident wouldn't it be the equivalent of their world being destroyed, their universe crumbling? What at first seems to be a means of distancing us from the experience actually ends up bringing it into proper perspective. Their shock at what's happened is made even more real when we begin to understand how unlikely an event it really is. By comparing the death of a child to the end of civilization we are brought into the heart of the experience and made to understand it with chilling clarity.

Whatever Boyle chooses to write about he always manages to find a way to bring us into the heart of the central character's experience. The usual distancing effect of fiction doesn't seem to exist in the worlds he creates. We are plunged into the lives of his characters with all the chill of diving into a mountain fed stream. Like a portrait painter who doesn't gloss over warts or beauty marks Boyle's work is compelling for all that it is frightening. This is the work of an uncompromising artist. Don't expect to find much comfort among his words, but be prepared to be amazed at the images he creates and the emotions he's able to stir within you.

(Article originally published at Empty Mirror as Review - T.C.Boyle Stories II)

August 12, 2013

Book Review: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon


The issue of race in North America, specifically the relationship between people of African descent and those of European ancestry (white people) is something most of us don't want to talk about. While there are no laws left on the books discriminating against people of colour, nothing we legislate is going to prevent the way people think or feel. Of course its not just race at issue, it's gender, religion and anything else that marks one group of people as different from another. The problem is further exasperated by the tendency to refer to distinct groups as communities. So in stead of communities being made up of the people living together in a geographic area, a geographic area is made up of various segregated communities

Of course there are those who are always willing cynically make use of the word community in order to further their own ends. How many times have you hear a business man or professional athlete talk about giving back to the community? How opening a chain of fast food restaurants or other business is anything but a grab for a neighbourhoods disposable income is beyond me, but it's amazing how often businesses openings are called gifts to a community as if they're supposed to be grateful for more minimum wage service industry jobs. Also which community are they talking about? Is it everybody within the geographic area, or just the people who are the same colour, sexual persuasion or religion as the person making the announcement?

The notion of community and its subtext of race plays a major role in Michael Chabon's most recent release, Telegraph Avenue, first published by < a href="http://www.harpercollins.ca">Harper Collins Canada in 2012 in hardcover and scheduled for release as a trade paperback in October 2013. There aren't many artists today both talented and brave enough to enter into these types of dangerous waters without seriously floundering or running ashore on some shoal or another. However Chabon not only navigates them safely, he does so with such aplomb its only after you've finished and enjoyed his story you realize the keenness of his observations regarding modern urban life.
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Set in what the author refers to as the freewheeling borderlands of Berkeley and Oakland California circa 2004, with a couple of sojourns into the 1970s, in an ethnically diverse but still predominately African American neighbourhood, Telegraph Avenue details the lives of two families who have intertwined professionally and personally. Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe are co-owners of Brokeland Records, a used/collectible record shop barely hanging on by its fingernails financially. Their wives, Gwen and Aviva run Berkeley Birth Partners, mid wives performing home and hospital births according to their clients' wishes and needs.

The two partnerships have worked amicably, with the women's financial success compensating for the men's shortfalls, but events are about to become turbulent enough to shake the foundations of everything they have built. For the boys the threat comes from ex- professional quarterback Gibson Goode, the fourth richest African American in the US, and his plans to open his latest "Dogpile Thang" just down the street from them. Goode's multi-story entertainment complexes not only contain all the latest in entertainment diversions, they also include large used record emporiums selling the same mix of jazz, soul, funk and other classic African American music as Brokeland and at much "competitive" prices.

While the boys fret over what looks to be their impending doom, the women have their own problems. When a home birth develops complications and they're forced to rush their client to the hospital they work with, Gwen gets into an argument with the doctor on call. Patronizing and condescending he pushes all her buttons until she loses it. Unfortunately the consequences of her actions result in him filing an official complaint against the two, which means they could have their hospital privileges revoked and their business ruined. Just to make matters worse the husband of the woman who had to be rushed to the hospital intends to sue them because of what happened.

With Gwen expecting her's and Archy's first child the threat to their finances couldn't come at a worse time. Further straining their marriage is the sudden appearance of the child Archy fathered with another woman before he married Gwen. Compounding Archy's difficulties is the sudden reappearance in his life of his deadbeat father, Luther Stallings, former martial arts champion and star of a couple of Blaxploitation movies in the 1970s. Stallings brings with him not only the smell of failure, but a history with the city politician in Goode's pocket, who also doubles as the local undertaker and is one of the prime movers and shakers in the neighbourhood. Stallings relationship with said undertaker dates back to the days when the Black Panthers and drug dealers vied for control of the streets. Stalling hopes to cash in on this relationship due to his knowledge of certain events and information about the role played in them by the undertaker/city politician.

All these characters and plot lines play out against the backdrop of the faded beauty of the American urban landscape. Chabon's lively mix of people drawn from all ages, backgrounds, gender preferences and ethnicity are the mortar holding this crumbling, but still standing edifice together. When the politicians and business people who look down on them from their lofty perches of commerce and ambition talk about the good an enterprise like Dogpile Thang will bring to the "Community", they are playing a game of divide and conquer. They are trying to sell an image of African American prosperity. However, the reality is a store with little or no economic spin off for other businesses that will create a couple hundred minimum wage service industry jobs while lining the pockets of its owner and his supporters.
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Chabon has captured the way in which these type of people cynically manipulate the race card in order to feed their own ambitions. By making it sound like the opening of the store is some sort of benevolent gesture on their part, giving something back to the "community", all they're really doing is cloaking their greed in a veneer of fake "black pride". Opening a homeless shelter, sponsoring a lunch program for local schools or providing the funding for a recreation centre for neighbourhood people is giving back to the community. Opening a mega store is expanding your retail empire.

On the other hand the crazy mixed up and jumbled mess of people, businesses and streets Chabon describes in Telegraph Avenue is a real community. The premises Archy, Nat and Brokeland records occupy was a barber shop in a previous life. The men who gather in the record store on a semi-regular basis to talk music, life and the whole damn thing are continuing a tradition of community gatherings dating back sixty years or more. The store is a microcosm of the community at large as black, white, Indian, old and young congregate to while away the time in the useless conversations men so dearly love and have specialized in for eons no matter what their backgrounds.

Communities grow from the ground up and can't be created artificially or imposed by those from the outside. These flawed utopias, like the one Chabon describes so beautifully in his book, exist all over urban North America. While the fight between Brokeland records and Dogpile Thang ends in an unexpected way it also shows how change isn't a bad thing for a community, but only if it comes from within and isn't imposed on it. Like any living thing they need nurturing, and if there is any message to be taken away from this book its we've all missed the boat on what's needed for urban redevelopment. Instead of trying to impose order from without, governments and whomever need to help them build from within. Anything that will improve the quality of life for those living in a community from school meals to community health clinics are of far more use than more minimum wage jobs with no future.

Chabon writes in a kind of free flowing stream of conscious. As we move back and forth between his four major characters as they travel through their world and try deal with their situations, their perceptions and observations bring their community to life for us. We join them in the very public ritual of a funeral for one of the community's long standing fixtures, a musician and friend of the boys, and for the very private ritual of the birth of Gwen and Archy's child. We listen in as they do their best to try and hold on when events move so quickly they can't keep up and how they each manage to find a way to meet the needs of the occasion.

Chabon has managed to capture the essence of community. Whether its a family group or people loosely connected through geography and a shared appreciation for the history and traditions of the region, his descriptions of how people manage to coexist, if not in harmony than at least in a state of mutual acceptance, is remarkable. There's nothing neat and tidy about a community, or life, which is what makes them both all the more valuable. Telegraph Avenue is a wonderful celebration of this glorious mess which is a pleasure and an inspiration to read.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon)

August 9, 2013

Book Review: I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp by Richard Hell


Where do ideas come from? How does an individual up with an idea that starts a whole movement? Does he or she think it up in a momentary flash of brilliance which causes them to have some sort of magical insight? Or is their insight born of a natural progression of events they have experienced up to that point in their lives combined with the environment they find themselves living at the time? Artistic movements don't just spring out of the ground without any antecedents, so the people, or person, who are the motivating force behind them must have come from somewhere as well. What is it about a person, what type of personality does it take, to be the individual who shapes an entire genre of artistic expression?

As it turns out, not very different from the rest of us in the beginning. According to his autobiography, I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp, recently published by Harper Collins Canada, Richard Hell had a pretty much normal first few years growing up in America of the 1950s. So how did this guy who was weaned on Howdy Doody and other staples of middle class America stolidity become the person most now credit with founding the look and sound of punk rock in 1974? How did this person turn into the guy behind the short spiky hair, ripped clothes held together with safety-pins and the unbridled anger and irony which was copied so faithfully by punk rock bands and its fans from the early 1970s until today?

According to Hell his life started out conventionally enough. Born Richard Myers in 1949 in Lexington Kentucky, the son of two academics. His father parlayed a PHD into a professorship at University of Kentucky and his mother put off a career to raise her family. Who knows how he would have turned out if his father hadn't died of a heart attack when he was eight years old. For he describes an incident which occurred just a few weeks before his father died. Hell and a couple of buddies were planning on running away to sleep in a cave near by. The plan was they would meet up at midnight. When his father stumbled across his preparations for running away - a stash of cookies and other foodstuffs under his pillow - instead of punishing Hell he made him a deal. He would drive his son to the cave for midnight and if his friends showed up he could stay with them. However if the friends didn't show up he would have to come home with his dad.
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According to what Hell writes his academic career peaked in grade six and it was all downhill from there. Even though standardized testing in grade seven showed him to be one of the smartest kids in school throughout junior high school he was consistently close to failing. Although he would stay up all night in fits of anxiety over not being prepared he still couldn't bring himself to do the work properly. He describes the feelings this evoked in him in words akin to those one would normally use to describe the symptoms of withdrawal from drugs. Even then he resented the authority teachers had over him, and he says he elicited a promise from his future adult self to never forget how arbitrary and unfair adult rules were. He promises himself a life of adventure as an adult. The most important thing to remember as he grow older is to never let anyone tell him what to do.

However tempting it is to dismiss this as the self-fulfilling prophesying of somebody trying to impress readers with how deep his anti-authority roots were planted, he wouldn't have shown us how they were rooted in his resentment of those who were accepted by authority or the anxiety his refusal to bow to authority caused him initially if this the case. The behaviour is in keeping with a lot of kids - resentful of having to do work just because someone has told them to, but being too concerned about the consequences of not doing it to do anything about it. He shared the concerns, but still refused to do what was needed to assuage his anxiety shaping a pattern which was to continue for a good chunk of his life up until he quit music.

When he went onto high school the pattern of behaviour only intensified especially when he found another out cast to partner up with, Tom Miller. This was the beginning of a relationship that would see the creation of the seminal band Television in the early 1970s. Myers and Miller would eventually become Hell and Verlaine and be the founding fathers of New York's punk scene. What I've described is a compressed version of Hell's his early days and meeting with Verlaine. On the surface his story reads rather simplistically. Two young guys, far too smart for their own good, bored out of their minds by what the world has to offer, go looking for something, anything to stimulate their minds and imaginations.

While Verlaine was able to get some satisfaction out of forming Television and trying to perfect it, Hell was a different kettle of fish. Once the initial thrill of creating something was complete, he needed to move on to the next challenge and the next one after that. Of course the other problem with Television was the fact neither of its founders were willing to submit to anybody's authority which resulted in inevitable conflict, If either of them had even a semblance of emotional maturity they might have been able to resolve their problems, but the truth of the matter is both Hell and Verlaine come across as emotionally crippled and completely lacking in the ability to communicate any emotion aside from contempt.

Hell is brutally honest about himself. For while his younger self is busy sneering at those around him, the Hell who's writing the book tells us he was every bit as arrogant and self-serving as those he's busy deriding. We watch as the downward spiral which began in junior high continues to plunge him deeper and deeper into a pit as he descends into the abyss of heroin addiction. What's terrifying is how easy it was for him to go from lost teenager to adult searching for the next great adventure he promised himself as a youngster. It's hard reading about how he would degrade himself and others in his search for adventure. However, there are occasional flashes of brilliance which illuminate the pages and make you understand just what a gifted artist Hell has become.
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It seems like it's almost in spite of himself Hell was able to make an impression on both his peers and others in the music industry. Music critics from local rags to the New York Times raved about his final solo album, Destiny Street, with Robert Palmer of the Times going so far as to name it the best album of 1982. In 1976 Chris Stein, lead guitar player in the band Blondie, showed him a picture of four British musicians saying, "hey these guys all look just like you".

It was the Sex Pistols. Their manager had been in New York in 1974 and had been taken with Hell's look. He'd even offered to manage his career, but Hell didn't want anybody telling him what to do. So Malcolm McLaren went home to London and created his own band based on the template provided by Hell. Maybe punk would have happened without Hell, but he was definitely a major catalyst. No matter how inert he might have thought himself, he was the ingredient the music industry needed to shake itself out of the lethargy it had fallen into after the fall of the hippies.

Hell cuts the story of his life short at 1984, the year he quit music and began the serious quest to stop heroin. As he says there's nothing much more to tell - he's still alive and a writer, and there's nothing really exciting about the life of a writer. You do much the same thing day in day out. Aside for a little trouble at the end of the 80s and in the early 90s he was drug free from that day in 1984. His life of running from adventure to adventure was over. If one didn't know better you could say he had grown up.

While its by no means an easy read, I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp is worth every moment spent in its pages. There are moments of sheer poetry among the dirt and grime which shine out like beacons guiding us ever onward in the hopes we will find something redeeming in this story of self-destructive genius. However Hell isn't interested in redeeming himself in our eyes. He concludes by saying if he had died at the point where this book ends, 1984, "there would have been left such scant evidence of me that my life would be mostly just a sad cautionary tale... My life is not different for having written this book - my life only comes into being by having been written here."

This isn't one of those life affirming autobiographies designed to inspire any of us in our own work. Instead its a glimpse into the creative mind pushed to its extreme in its search for stimulation. Anyone who still might have stupid romantic notions about artists and drug use will soon be cured of them after reading Hell's book. It's impossible if you're a creative person of any sort not to identify with at least parts of Hell's story and at some point I guarantee you'll think - there but for the grace of who the fuck ever, go I.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp by Richard Hell)

June 20, 2013

Book Review: How The Light Is Spent by Gail Sidonie Sobat


The compulsion to tell stories is probably as old as humanity itself. Originally histories were recounted through the simple act of passing information from one generation to another orally. When we first started to record information it was in the form of long poems, similar to the way the stories had been told when sitting around the fire or hearth. Eventually as we grew more sophisticated prose replaced poetry and the stories became more impersonal. Instead of telling the history of a family or a village histories have turned into a listing of events. However, while it is no longer our main means of written communication, poetry is still used on occasion for the recounting of personal and family histories.

In her newest collection of poems, How the Light Is Spent published by Wintergreen Studios Press, Gail Sidonie Sobat gives us poetry relating to her family's history in Western Canada, her personal adventures travelling in Turkey and finally meditations on various people and moments in her life. Each of the book's three sections, "Badlands", "Sailing To Byzantium" and "How The Light Is Spent", provides the reader with a collection of poems who's cumulative effect is to describe events in such vividness we are left with an emotional and intellectual understanding of the histories prose could never match.

In the early part of the twentieth century Canada desperately required people willing to settle its three prairie provinces, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Opening the country's doors to immigrants willing to settle on the prairies resulted in a large influx of Eastern Europeans, especially Ukrainians, into the region. Lured by the promise of free land they came to Canada and attempted to build new lives for themselves. Not only did they face the challenge of clearing the land, building housing and dealing with a harsh climate, they were treated as second class citizens and given the derisive name of Bohunk. Although originally a degradation of the word Bohemian - an area in what is now the Czech Republic - the word quickly became slang for any person of Eastern European extraction.
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In "Badlands" we find ourselves among poor immigrant farmers and coal miners. Like their counterparts in the United States the badlands in Alberta Canada are an unforgiving and fierce environment. While Sobat doesn't spend much time describing the surroundings the people in her poems live in, she still manages to convey the role it played in their lives. In "Bohunks From The Hills" she describes them thus, "those badlands are lonely lands/despite childhood joys/misplaced memories/these hills hold neither charm nor hope/remind instead that loss/is so sadly permanent."

The poems in this section follow the maternal line of her family from when they first arrived in Canada down through the generations. Occasionally a poem will be from the perspective of one of her ancestors, describing how she fell in love with the man she married, while other poems fill us in on the attitudes of other people towards the "Bohunks". As many of the immigrants ended up working in the coal mines, references to coal and the toll it took on those who dug it run through a number of the poems like a vein of the ore they suffered to bring to the surface. "coal seeps into pores, the mind/sullies a man's outlook/steals the sunlight and substitutes/a black vitriolic madness." ("Coal Mad"- How The Light Is Spent, Sobat, Gail Sidonie p8)

As we follow the lives of the women the poet describes we see how they we're shaped by the way the mines affected husbands. In one poem, "From Rosedale To Cambria Suite" we learn the details of one woman's childhood. Her father working in the mines and coming home embedded with coal. Her mother growing old before her time in the constant struggle to feed and shelter her family until finally "your mother's heart burst at last/worn out from trying to live". Her father remarried a woman with five children of her own and at ten years old she wasn't wanted, at fifteen she was sent out in the world to earn a living.

Each of the poems in this section describe another piece of the journey along the road this woman travelled in her life. From falling in love at seventeen, her boyfriend's refusal to tie himself to the mines and decision to join the army as a way of avoiding digging coal, to her being left widowed with a young daughter in 1943. As well as the poems, Sobat has included photos of the people she talks about, the photos from her family albums which inspired the work. They stand posed and smiling for the camera creating a veneer of happiness to be pasted over the truth of their history. However as the final lines in "P/O M. E. VanDeKinder" say "there are no happy endings/just the brief joys of living/and if lucky, loving/a boy from the hills even once".
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The section of the book titled "Sailing To Byzantium" deals with a description of a voyage to Turkey. While some of the poems deal with the culture shock experienced by a Westerner travelling in a culture almost completely alien to them, others deal with the feelings of wonder at being in a place so completely different from what a person is used to. In "bottle blond on the golden horn" the poet reflects on the former, "I see the bridge and the minaret/against a filthy dawn sky/cough up yesterday's dirt and grime/wonder if there's anything/clean and pure to be found/in this Janus-faced city". However in "Istanbul #2" she is much more appreciative of the city's differences. "to touch the woven fibres/made by women sold by men/in centuries-old bazaar/sip hospitable teas/with barterers smiling benignly through tooth rot", is only part of her description of the wonders of the famous street markets of Istanbul.

However, what I found most interesting about this series of poems was her using the ancient Christian name of Byzantium for the region. I wondered why she referred to what was once the heart of the Ottoman Empire by this extremely archaic name? Is it to remind us of the impermanence of all empires? Or by referring to it by the name the region has often been called in Romantic poetry does she hope to heighten the contrast between the gritty reality she finds there and any romantic notions she might have had about the area prior to her arrival. If the latter, than she is remarkably successful. The descriptions we read in her poems about Turkey, Istanbul specifically, are of a big dirty city like any other, with only hints of its former glory.

After travelling in time and across the world with Sobat, the poems in the final section of the book show her turning her eye slightly inward. Here she reflects on various people and incidences which describe the simple acts of living and how her energy, "The Light", is spent on them. Whether it a celebration of a slightly hedonistic meal in "pilgrimage to Hardware Grill", and its honouring of the earthy delights of a gourmet meal and good wine; "smiling Russell suavely/sets before us verdant greens/succulence swims in sauce/garrulous garlic wafts willfully/tastes scents textures/exotic exacting/our glasses/our hearts/are full/and we give thanks"; or the more profane "Fecal Incident on the Sunshine Coast"; "the dog took a dump in the Pacific Ocean/as we horrified, mortified watched/even the seagull flapped off in disgust"; each poem in this section is a slice of an everyday life lived,

Here she shows us history is not only made up of momentous occasions from the past, nor do we have to travel half way around the world to have new and varied experiences. In fact each moment we live, each action we take, are part of the creation of history no matter where we are or who we are with. The stories we tell each other everyday are as redolent with significance as those we've learned about the struggles of our ancestors to survive or the adventures we've experienced among other people and cultures.

History is definitely far more than just the actions of famous people written down in text books for us and others to study in school. While history texts might tell us about the famous battles and the heroes and villains who fought on every side, it's the poet who looks between the cracks and tells us about the people who ate, worked, loved and died in these wars and the families they left behind. In How The Light Is Spent Sobat has created a personal history which not only tells the story of her family and her self in this world, but helps us see the world is far more complex, beautiful and awe inspiring place than any text book could hope to tell us. This is history as it should be, told through the pen of a poet with an eye for the important details of life.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review:" How The Light Is Spent" by Gail Sidonie Sobat)

June 4, 2013

Book Review: a seed within by Bruce Kauffman


Unfortunately most of us look upon poetry as something unintelligible and not to be read for pleasure. In fact most of us probably don't even think of poetry. If reading prose as a form of entertainment has gradually lost its popular appeal because of other entertainment on offer, poetry isn't even considered an option. However if you could bring yourself to read a book of contemporary poetry I think you'd be surprised at how easy it is for you to identify with what today's poets are writing about. Like any artist he or she looks at the world around them and does their best to recreate what they see in a few carefully chosen words. For while a prose writer might take two hundred pages to expand upon a theme, a poet tries to distill the essence of their subject in a couple of hundred words or less.

Initially you may think a poet is being deliberately obscure because they never seem to say exactly what they mean. Yet, it's the abstract poems which are not only the most powerful, but which end up being able to speak to more people than the one written in so called plain English. Like the abstract painter who captures an emotional moment on canvas anybody, no matter what their life experience, can relate to, the poet finds a way for their creation to be about something everybody can relate to. You need look no further than the latest collection of poetry by Kingston Ontario Canada poet Bruce Kauffman, a seed within, published by Hidden Book Press, to see wonderful examples of poetry which will strike a chord of recognition in anybody no matter their background.
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Kauffman's poems look at the world with a kind of wide eyed wonder. That's not to say they're naive or even childlike, it's more they suggest an amazed appreciation for the variety and diversity of the human experience and the universe. It's as if the poet has been able to put himself in a place where he is able to recreate what it would be like to experience everything for the first time. To his credit Kauffman doesn't limit these expressions to things we would consider positive, but covers the full spectrum of what might be experienced emotionally, physically and spiritually during the course of a lifetime.

He accomplishes this through the simple process of observing and recording. Each poem is like a delicate specimen pinned delicately and preserved in pristine elegance under glass for us to study at our leisure. Each carefully chosen word leads into the next, building upon each other's meaning, until jigsaw puzzle like, the individual pieces coalesce into an image. Unlike a puzzle, whose component elements are meaningless fragments, these pieces have a distinct character. Like life, none of the emotions or ideas expressed by these poems occurs in a vacuum and are always the result of some action or events.

Looking at the poem "torrent" we can see Kauffman doesn't merely describe an experience, he allows readers to see and feel what has gone into its making. He starts by describing a rainfall, first from the perspective of the rain; "comes the rain/as if it knew/knows/a world/and a heart/wait to be/cleansed", and then from the rivers and waterfalls who have been anticipating its arrival; "knew of its coming/before the shadows of clouds/carpeted themselves on bank and rock". However, the final two stanzas reveal the "torrent" being described is something more than just a simple downpour, he's been describing the process of the emotional buildup leading to tears. "but how long/ does it take/ a teardrop/ to roll/ across a/ continent/and how long/before/it reaches/there/did she/taste/its salt"

We might be able to anticipate sadness like bodies of water have foreknowledge of a rainfall. However, there is a major difference between knowing something is going to happen and actually experiencing it. The words Kauffman has used in the poem not only suggest the complexities of emotion behind a single tear, but shows us the process of its development. Through his depiction of every stage along the way, we gain a deeper appreciation of both the emotion and how its created.
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As this poem shows, Kauffman's poetry is replete with images from the natural world. Yet he doesn't use them casually or in any of the ways we've become accustomed to seeing them employed. Instead of merely using nature as merely a source of metaphor it assumes its rightful place in our world. Everything we do is played out against the backdrop of the world around us whether we acknowledge it or not. Long before humans dominated the world with our presence the rocks and stones were here, and they'll still be here after we're long gone.

For while in poems like "friendship" he uses water to describe something of the nature of the word, "friendship is the water in our lives/coming with/moving against/the dryness/of calendar/clock", in the poem "threads" the natural world is the permanent fixture against which our transience is played out. "with air and water watching/each of us/endlessly moving/along this path/from that which was to that which is/". While the poem depicts how we are a continuation of what came before by describing our life as being a single thread "from the ball of all thread of lifetimes woven" and how, no matter what we do with our lives someone or something will come after us, "and each of us/the needle guiding this thread/this colour/into this tapestry of days and nights/and leaving again/at the end/a single thread", what stays with us is the opening lines, "with air and water watching".

No matter what we do, no matter who we become, and no matter how many generations came before or might follow after us, we will never be as permanent as the natural world. Those first five words remind us we're not the centre of the universe, but only a minor player in the overall scheme of things as far as the rest of the world is concerned. We build huge monuments to ourselves but time, water and air will erode them all. In this one poem Kauffman captures how we are a continuation of what's come before us and our part in shaping what comes after us while reminding us we're only part of something even bigger.

After reading a collection of poetry like a seed within you can't help but feel regret more people aren't interested enough to read poetry. Poets like Kauffman have the ability to not only bring elements of the human condition to life in ways which would help people understand themselves better, but to put our lives into their proper perspective in regards to the world around us. You'll learn more about the world and yourself by reading this one small book of poetry than you will from watching hundreds of hours of television or reading any number of books. Not only that, you just might find yourself enjoying it.

If you happen to be in the Kingston Ontario vicinity on Wednesday June 5 2013, Kauffman will be reading from a seed within at Novel Idea bookstore, 156 Princess St. as part of a double book launch starting at 7:00p.m.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: a seed within by Bruce Kauffman)

April 27, 2013

Interview: Augusten Burroughs Author of This Is How: Surviving What You Think You Can't


You can't walk into a book store these days without seeing them. Self-help books. Not only is there usually a section reserved for them, they can take up the majority of some store's floor space. It seems like almost everybody with a pulse has the perfect solution for making your life better. There are self-help books on everything from how to lose weight to how to deal with the pain of heartbreak. You can buy a book that will tell you how to find your perfect match and right beside you'll find another book on how to dump him or her when they turn out not to be so perfect.

Normally I wouldn't be caught dead in that section of a book store let alone reading a self-help book. However, when I found out Augusten Burroughs, the man who wrote Running With Scissors, Dry, You Better Not Cry as well as a number of other books had published something people were calling a self-help book I was intrigued. This Is How: Surviving What You Think You Can't turned out not to be nothing like any self help book I've ever come across for any number of reasons. The main one being its author appears to not only care about what he's talking about, but you also get the impression even if he's not lived through something he has the empathy and compassion to understand another person's experiences.

So,when I was offered the opportunity to talk with Burroughs, I jumped at the opportunity. However, I ran into a slight hitch, I had a difficult time in coming up with questions. Anything I came up with concerning This Is How he'd pretty much answered in the book. It was that good. Don't despair, I did come up with some question eventually and the result is below. Without further ado - Augusten Burroughs
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You've written very publicly about what some might think are very private matters. How do people react to you when they find out you're the guy behind stuff like Running with Scissors?

They don't react like I expected as they often share something really personal or make reference to something personal. One of the first stores I ever did a reading/signing in was in LA. I looked at the audience and it was full of well dressed cool people, people who I thought would never be my friends in real life. I was really nervous. But afterwards people were coming up to me, and telling me stuff that had happened to them. I'm constantly surprised by what people share. They tell me how much they identify with the books or certain parts of them and that leads them to share highly personal events in their lives. I've had perfect strangers, some of them people you might recognize, come up to me and tell me things. It's actually kind of daunting because I feel a responsibility to them. However, the implicit trust they have in me that allows them to talk to me is a real gift.

Writing has enriched my life in ways I never imaged. When I first thought of being writer I had visions of stacks of books in stores with my name on them, that sort of thing. But I never imagined this would be the reaction. I was just at a book signing in Portland Maine and three young women, maybe in their early twenties came up to me. One of them mentioned she had just lost her younger brother. Then one of the others said they were from New Town in Connecticut, you know where the shootings took place and it turns out all three of them had lost a younger sibling during the shootings. They had come to the signing because they wanted to tell me how much This Is How had helped them deal with their loss. I can't begin to describe how this made me feel

(There was a kind of awe in Burroughs voice as he recounted the details of the three young women, as if he couldn't believe he could have had this kind of impact on someone. I could tell he was still incredibly moved and more than a little awed by the fact they had come to see him just to tell him about the book. This had just happened the night before our interview and I think he might have still been feeling a little overwhelmed by the event as I could still here the wonder in his voice)

What are you hoping/ have hoped to accomplish by telling your stories ?

I just want them to be useful. I think if you're going to write this type of book, a self-help book, you have a moral obligation to the people who read it to make it something that will be of use to them. If you write these books you have to have done the work, or at least gone through something similar, or how can you talk about the experience with any authority? Some might call it a case of the blind leading the blind when it's one person telling you something based on what they've lived through. But if I were blind I'd rather have another blind person leading me around because they know what I'm dealing with and they're experiencing the same things.

You cover a huge variety of topics in "This Is How" where most people seem to focus on one subject. Was there any particular reason for this?

(At this point I interjected to tell him how much my wife had appreciated his chapter on Anorexia as it was one of the few books she had read - even with studying the subject when training as a therapist - which had understood the disease. So we talked a little about that before moving on.)

The chapter on Anorexia was the hardest to write in the book. For one thing I've no personal experience with it. But what I discovered in all my readings about the subject is how little actual work has been done on researching the disease. They still make the girls, and it's mainly girls who still suffer from it, keep food diaries (records of what they eat each day) which just makes them fixate on food even more. There really needs to be more work done on treatment.

There's a deeper commonality running through the book aside from the issues relevant to the individual topics. Honesty with yourself is at the root of pretty much everything I talk about. Take for example if a person feels like they are fat and when they look in the mirror all they see is fat. And they say they want to feel sexy, what a lot of people will conclude is they need to be thin to be sexy. However, they might not necessarily want to be thin - the thing they want is to be sexy - so no matter how hard they try they can't get thin because that's not what they really want. What they have to do is figure out how to be sexy without being thin. It's a process of stripping away everything you think you know to get the actual truth. You have to be ruthlessly honest with yourself, almost brutally so, in order to understand what it is you actually want. It can be expensive to be honest as you won't get certain things you want, because it turns out you only thought you wanted them. Only through honesty can you figure out what and how to get the things you want.

Do you have any expectations, or hopes, for what readers will take away from your books in general and "This Is How" specifically?

I wanted to change people's lives, to give them the tools to allow them to experience really profound changes. In the book I describe the things I've done to change my life. When I first had the idea of writing this book the last thing I wanted was to be associated with self-help books, it's such a cheesy category. Most of them just have people chasing after the ever elusive confidence, and most of the time they end up confusing it with competence, which has nothing to do with it. It's funny, people look at me up on stage giving a reading or a talk and they say how confident I am. There's no confidence involved in what I'm doing - I'm just focused on what I'm doing and not worrying about anyone else. You've just got to stop worrying about what other people may be thinking of you and stay focused on what you're doing in the moment.

When I wrote the book I sat down and thought about the things people have shared with me and the issues they talked about. Weight or finding someone to love and be truly connected to. I then tried to take readers through my thought process. There are too many of these books out there which give people recipes that don't work. I'm trying to not only give them the means to work through things but to show them how to do the work.

I noticed you didn't talk about a couple of issues - repressed memory and flashbacks. Was there any particular reason why you didn't address them in This Is How

They're not something I've experienced so I didn't think I should talk about them.

What do you think of the idea of forgiving an abuser as a means of getting on with your life?
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I don't know that forgiveness is necessary. I don't think one needs to spend so much time on the abuser. It's almost like waiting for an apology from your abuser, you're just giving them too much of your energy. Lets define forgiveness - what does it imply? A form of accepting what's happened. Forgiveness is a very loaded word - it means different things to different people. I'd rather focus on getting on with life. I wouldn't want to waste any of my brain cells on forgiving if it's holding me back. The implication is that you're still actively angry with your abuser and you need to forgive them in order to get over the anger so you can move on. However, if you obsess with forgiveness you're still spending time with the abuser and you won't be getting over the abuse.

For example, take what happened in Boston, with the bombs during the marathon. If I had my legs blown off by a bomb, which would I rather be doing. Finding a way to forgive the guy who set the bomb or figuring out a way I could run the Boston Marathon without legs? I'd be doing the second one. That's not the easy choice - it's easier to stay angry and stuck in the past. It's one thing to react to something, but to stay there is not conducive to healing. You've got to move on.

Then there's also the whole issue of there are just some things that are unpardonable. Forgiveness implies a pardon for doing something unpardonable. I'm not going to waste my energy looking into the eyes of someone like the guy who blew my legs off trying to find a way to forgive him for doing something that horrible when there are way more productive ways I could be spending my life. You've got to focus on moving on.

Why should readers follow your advice or even think you know what you're talking about?

(laughs) Who is this guy anyway? I may not have degrees but I've street smarts. I've overcome a lot - sexual abuse, death of a loved one, bad parents and experienced life. My nature is such I not only survived all this but I have thrived. I've always been psychologically ambitious in that I've never been willing to settle emotionally for anything less then what's needed. I've wanted more then that from life. I've learned how to turn the adversities in my life into enriching experiences. You can actually gain a lot from adversities and they make you the person you are today. You can make almost anything a learning or positive experience. I think I offer a good example of how to make the most out of what life gives you and how to keep moving on.

Which is roughly when his other phone started ringing which meant I had run over my allotted time slot. However, let me say a couple of things before ending this. Reading this over I realize it doesn't really capture Mr Burroughs as well as I had hoped. If you've read This Is How you'll know how much of a good example he is for anybody wishing to cope with whatever it is they want to cope with. Yet what impressed me the most, was how talking to him on the phone made me realize how much of himself he let come through in the book. In the book he comes across as compassionate and honest. In my review I had likened him to a loving and honest friend. Well that's just how he comes across in person.

I go back to when he told me about the three young women who talked about losing their siblings and the sense of wonder in his voice at the fact his work was able to help them. There was a humility about him which you can't capture on the page with the written word. He was genuinely grateful, and a little bit amazed, how he was able to help them. Coupled with the sense of responsibility he feels because of the impact his words have on people, this makes him a pretty remarkable human being.

(Article first published as Interview: Augusten Burroughs Author of This Is How on Blogcritics.)

April 23, 2013

Book Review: The Honey Thief by Najaf Mazari & Robert Hillman


Whenever I've wanted to learn something about a culture I'd read the stories the people told each other. Not the stories others tell about them, or what's been written about them in history books, but the ones which have been passed down from generation to generation. They could be anything from myths to family histories, but they all contain elements of what a people believe in and their view of the world's history. The more stories you read the clearer a picture you begin to develop of how a people live and what matters to them.

In this era of globalization and cultural homogenization I think its even more important than ever to understand the things which distinguish various peoples from each other. It's become far too easy to make pejorative statements about an entire race or creed because we've not taken the time to understand the various nuances and distinctions among the wide variety of people who make up the population of a country let alone a religion. In the West we are especially guilty of making these types of generalizations when talking about countries outside North America and Europe. One of the most glaring examples of this is Afghanistan.

If ever a country has been the plaything of Western powers it's been this remote country bordering Pakistan and Iran. From the British and Russians manipulating its rulers back in the 19th century to the Russians and Americans using it to fight the Cold War in the 1980s and today's supposed ongoing war on terror being conducted by occupying NATO troops, peace is something that breaks out between what has been an almost constant state of war in the country for almost two centuries. Yet in spite of our countries direct involvement with the affairs of this nation, we know little or nothing about it.
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In the hopes of learning more about the country and its people I requested a copy of The Honey Thief written by Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman published by Penguin Canada. Mazari immigrated from Afghanistan to Australia in 2000 escaping the Taliban. Technically speaking this book isn't about the people of Afghanistan, mainly because there is no one group of people who can be said to be Afghanistan. The country is divided along ethnic lines both geographically and socially and Mazari is Hazara. The Hazara now live, predominately, in the central mountainous region of the country known as the Hazarajat.

While the Hazara are the third largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, one of the first things we learn from Mazari is they have been one of the most persecuted. From the 19th century well into the 20th century they were the victims of what amounts to systematic genocide by the ruling Barakzai family of Afghanistan. When whole villages weren't being exterminated by government soldiers their land was been taken from them. When the members of the royal family weren't busy plotting against each other, they were buying the loyalty of their soldiers and friends by giving them Hazara land.

While the history of persecution obviously colours and shapes the lives of the Hazara people it's only one thread running through the narrative of the people. The stories in The Honey Thief are filled with details which will never find their way into history books. We learn about their ingenuity and their will to survive in spite of what the world throws at them. In "The Snow Leopard", a British photographer is taken into the mountains by a Hazara guide in search of Snow Leopards to photograph, we are given a guided tour of the environment they live in. We learn how the valleys in mountain ranges are used to grow food and how if a valley doesn't have good soil, they will carry soil from other areas into the valley in order to grow crops.

We also learn a little of their philosophy regarding the world around them. In the book's title story, "The Honey Thief", a young man is apprenticed to a bee keeper to learn the delicate mysteries of collecting honey. His new master tells him how he became a bee keeper after he was caught stealing honey by the young man's grandfather. It was thought, he explains to his new apprentice, since he was able to steal honey from the bees without being stung he would make a good bee keeper because bees hate it when people steal the honey they've worked so hard to collect. The bee keeper goes on to explain to his young charge bees, like all domestic animals, are slaves to men, and we steal from all of them.

This tale isn't meant as a morality lesson, rather a lesson in the realities of existence. Be aware of exactly what it is you're doing in order to survive and you will understand why others act they way do in response. Is it any wonder chickens will attempt to hide their eggs or bees attempt to sting us when we keep them enslaved and steal from them as well? This is quite a bit more sophisticated and honest understanding of the relationship between man and the beasts we use for food and domestic work than we hear expressed by most people.
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While the stories are both profoundly beautiful and moving they also serve to fill in the details of everyday life among the Hazara people outsiders would only learn after years of observation. While they might have a natural mistrust of strangers, especially those from other ethnic groups, once a person has shown his or herself to be harmless they will be accepted. Or, unlike other subsistence people whose lives depend on what they can produce from their fields or by the labour of their own hands, they understand the value of education. If the chance arises they will send their children, both boys and girls, to school.

While every Hazara child learns from their parent basic precepts of respect and obedience for their parents and their God, they also recognize there are exceptions to every rule. In the story "The Music School", a mute teenager learns how to give voice to his thoughts with a musical instrument. He is desperate to tell the young woman he loves how he feels about her, but his teacher has forbidden him to play in public until four years have passed from when he began his lessons.

Fearing she will have found someone else in that time he disobeys his teacher, plays for the young women and wins her heart. When he goes to return his instrument to his teacher's house he fully expects to be punished and probably be forbidden from studying anymore. Instead his teacher gives him six gold coins to help him start his new family and tells him to take the instrument home and bring it back the next day for another lesson. As the young man is leaving, stunned by his good fortune, his teacher says to him "God is patient with the obedient, but he treasures the disobedient".

Trying to write out stories which have only previously been told aloud is one of the hardest tasks facing a writer. However Mazari and Hillman have done a remarkable job with this collection of capturing the immediacy which exists between the storyteller and his or her audience. In fact there are times when reading these stories you can hear them being told to you in your mind's ear. There's something about the writing style they've employed which makes them read like they're being spoken aloud to you. The more you read, the more this world comes alive until you can almost picture yourself amongst a community as they gather to hear their stories.

Mazari finishes the book off with a collection of recipes for various Hazara dishes. The instructions for preparing the dishes are stories in of themselves as the various asides offer us even further insights into the people's attitudes towards life. The Honey Thief goes a long way towards belying the impression we've been given of the people of Afghanistan as either savages or ignorant peasants desperately needing to be saved by the West. Stories like this collection should be required reading for every journalist or politician prior to them making public statements about Afghanistan.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Honey Thief by Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman on Blogcritics.)

March 30, 2013

Book Review: River Of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay


When I was making my first tentative steps into the world of the arts it was the writers who used words to create works of wonder and beauty who inspired me the most. I remember being filled with awe at their abilities to make even the grotesque seem wondrous and amazing. But somewhere around the middle of the 20th century elegance and beauty began to be supplanted by harsh terse prose posing as realism. It was if we had become convinced the only way to convey the human experience was by sucking the beauty out of it and reducing it to its base elements. While it's true the excesses of romanticism needed to be checked, the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.

There was a time when writers like Dickens and Poe were considered popular fiction. Now, those who would strive to be their equals are relegated to the seemingly elitist genre of literary fiction thus deterring the average reader from experiencing their writings. As a result the publishing industry groans under the weight of the equivalent of fast food it produces each year and wonders why they are losing money. When someone rises from the dining table feeling stuffed but unsatisfied, not only is their health put at risk, but they gradually lose interest in what's set before them. With nothing to hold their attention they will only pick at their plates or be easily diverted.

The sad part is that most of the time we don't know what we're missing. When there's almost nothing to hold up as a standard against which to judge everything else, it's easy to think there aren't any options. However, there are still the occasional authors out there writing popular fiction able to create approachable work while aspiring to make reading an inspiring and special experience. As soon as you open the pages of Guy Gavriel Kay's latest book, River of Stars published by Penguin Canada, you know you'll have such an author.
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This is Kay's second book set in Kitai, a fictional version of Imperial China. Its predecessor, Under Heaven, was set in the period when the empire's borders were protected by the Great Wall and the world flowed down the Silk Road to fill its cities with splendour and wealth, a few hundred years have passed since then and much has changed. The Wall has long since fallen and the barbarian hordes it once kept at bay control much of what was the empire. Instead of deciding which of the tribal leaders they should prop up in order to best serve the empire, the Emperor's advisors must now ensure they placate the powerful among them with annual tribute payments.

In some ways Kitai has become a mockery of its former glory. In reaction to what were deemed the excesses at the heart of the civil war which tore he empire apart (see Under Heaven for details radical policy changes were instituted by the court. As it was a military governor responsible for the civil war martial competence is seen as dangerous and discouraged among high ranking officials in the court. The contraction of the empire's borders is the price they have paid for instilling the belief a person of breeding is above such earthy concerns. After all if the barbarian hordes are so adroit at warfare, than it ill behooves those at the centre of the universe serving the Emperor, the son of heaven, to sully their minds with with such lowly thoughts. So what if the empire send armies off to die when their commander in chief forgets to bring siege engines when ordered to conquer the capital city of another country.

The conservatism, or fear, which dictates policy in Kitai has also seen changes to the way women of higher rank are treated. More and more daughters and wives are pushed into the background. The idea that a respectable family would educate their daughter, teaching her to read and write, to have opinions and think for herself is unheard of. What use would that be to her when she is destined for a life of service to whomever she is lucky enough to marry..

This is the Kitai both Ren Daiyan and Lin Shan are born into. The former is the son of a clerk to a provincial magistrate and the latter the only daughter of a scholar. Both are ill suited to the new realities of the empire. Ever since he was a boy Daiyan has dreamed of leading the armies of Kitai in reclaiming the territories they've lost to the barbarian hoards. Shan is equally ill advised in her ambitions as she writes poetry and even sets it to music. While she would not be considered a threat like Daiyan, her abilities have made her a figure of oddity in her social circle.
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Aside from their having unconventional behaviour in common, Daiyan and Shan are also fated to come to the attention of people of influence. While this helps Daiyan in achieving his dreams of becoming a military leader and allows Shan to be recognized for her abilities as a poet - even by as an exalted a figure as the Emperor - attention, intelligence and success aren't necessarily a winning combination in this world. When those in power notice you, they make use of you for their own ends and you may end up wishing you kept a lower profile.

While Daiyan and Shan are important to the story they are still only two figures on a crowded canvas in the elaborate painting of events Kay has brought to life. With great care and skill he draws our focus to events and characters at its furthest reaches. What happens on the periphery might at first seem inconsequential and have no bearing on the lives of those at the centre. However, as every brush stroke relates to the one next to it when the artist lays ink to paper, everything is interconnected. Over the course of the book Kay carefully brings together the disparate elements of plot and character to form a cohesive, multi-textured and vibrant image.

Through the careful attention to detail he uses to bring even the most minor characters and their environments to life, Kay is able to bring home to us the reality of what it must have been like when the empire was in its death throes. From the arrogance of the high court officials, the peasant who suffers the consequence of their leader's actions to the vengeful barbarian hoards intent on pillage and conquering we see the world through a multitude of eyes. Each of these perspectives is another layer of reality and serves to make Kay's work all the more vivid and arresting.

While he doesn't stint from depicting the brutal realities of the world, men think nothing of ordering someone beaten to death with bamboo cane or enjoy watching their enemies heads being eaten alive by fire ants, neither does he glory in them or sensationalize them. They are facts of life, nothing more, nothing less. However, and in some ways more importantly, he doesn't glorify the opulence of the Empire either. While we are given lovingly detailed descriptions of beautifully decorated chambers and the resplendent garden the Emperor has built, we are also given carefully detailed descriptions of their costs in lives and money. These are not the symbols of an Empire's glory, they are signs of its dissolute nature and arrogance.

Kay has the uncanny ability to depict the grand sweep of historical events through the eyes of those living through them. In doing so he lets us see how history is never the cut and dried thing it appears in history books. He shows us how seemingly unrelated events, both large and small. build upon each other until they finally reach a tipping point from which there is no return. While on the surface it may appear there was one pivotal moment upon which everything depended, no moment stands completely alone or is unaffected by what came before it.

What's even more amazing is how through his careful rendering of character and environments we are drawn into this history. The people and the culture they live in become more than just descriptions on the page as he manages to capture those elements of each which make them vital and alive. Yet there is more than just simple realism at work in his depictions. There is an emotional depth to Kay's work which takes it out of the realm of the he did this and then followed it up with that action we find in most fiction. Nor is there the hyperbole, melodrama or emotional manipulation which too often passes for "depth". His work is a delicate balancing act between 19th century naturalism/romanticism and the realism of the modern era that satisfies all of our emotional and logical needs.

River Of Stars is an exceptional piece of work. Right from the start we are drawn into a rich and exotic but very real world. The people populating this world are multi-dimensional individuals with an emotional depth one hardly ever sees in popular fiction anymore. While the book describes the grand sweep of major historical events, because we experience them through the eyes of his characters we never lose sight of the those who are caught up by their turmoil. History has never felt or been more real and reading about it such a pleasure.

Book Review: River Of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay on Blogcritics.)

Author photo John W MacDonald


March 28, 2013

Book Review: Tripping With Allah by Michael Muhammad Knight


The idea of using drugs in order to achieve some sort of spiritual enlightenment has been around for probably as long as humanity. Whether looking for answers to great mystical questions or just on a personal quest for enlightenment the use of external stimulants cut across all lines of race, creed and colour. However, there's also a lot of bullshit associated with the whole take drugs and see god line of thought. First there's the whole one man's sacrament is another man's criminal offence or sacrilege. Then there are those who will look for any excuse to take drugs and pass it off as looking for god in an attempt to justify their actions.

Complicating matters is the fact there seem to be just as many ways to achieve hallucinations without drugs as with. Is a vision more valid because you starved yourself until you were out of your mind instead of ingesting a peyote button? The intent is the same after all. You're trying to enter an altered state of conscience through artificial means. Of course, you also have to ask why does a person feel they need to have some sort of vision about their god. Are they looking to make themselves important because they've received some great communique to spread among the masses? If not that, what is it people are looking for when they try for these visions? They must feel like something is lacking if they are so desperate to talk to god they're going to put themselves through any of these ordeals.

It was with all this in mind I read Michael Muhammad Knight's book about drugs, Islam and his continued attempts to define his place in the world Tripping With Allah, published by Soft Skull Press and distributed by Publishers Group Canada. Knight writes about himself with an honesty that borders on public flagellation. However, unlike most of those who write about themselves it's never his intent to either garner followers or his reader's sympathy. If he ever ended up on Oprah instead of her her audience of repressed middle class housewives' feeling all warm and cuddly from hearing about someone else's suffering, their world view would be so shattered they'd probably wind up trashing the studio before heading home to castrate their husbands.
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Okay, maybe that's a little over the top, but you get the idea. Not only do his books expose things about himself most people wouldn't admit even to their shrinks for fear of being strapped in a jacket whose sleeves face the wrong way, he also has a nasty habit of reminding white Europeans that most of what's happening in the world is as a direct result of actions carried out in their names. Whether it be our colonial history coming back to haunt us or our current form of colonial oppression in the form of global markets and the exploitation of developing nation's natural resources. What's even scarier about Knight is now he has a Harvard education, he can map out the patterns clearly enough, with examples, anybody can understand them, and then cite sources confirming what he's talking about. Examples in this book range from how the desire for sugar cane in Europe led to decimating the population of West Africa via the slave trade to how the colonial powers in Rawanda sowed the seeds of discontent between peoples which resulted in genocide.

So what the hell does any of this have to with drugs and Allah? Well, Knight looks at the world in terms similar to that of chaos theory. What are the ripple effects of him, and others like him, ingesting a drug. What's the history behind a drug's availability in the West and what's had to happen in order for this drug to end up in his hand? Then there's also the whole question of the cultural implications of a white guy taking a drug whose origins lie somewhere in the depths of the Amazon rain forrest and the indigenous people of the region. Doesn't this just make him another one of those New Agers with more money than sense? Taking some indigenous people's tribal rite and by turning into a commercial commodity (pay X amount of money for a weekend retreat with Shaman and drug and see god) make it impossible for them to afford it any more.

Of course there's also the whole question of whether or not there's a role for drugs to play in Islam. In spite of the myths about assassins and hash eating and tales told by the Beat generation of ingesting drugs in Muslim countries, much of mainstream Islam takes the lines in the Quran prohibiting prayer while intoxicated as the final word on the matter. The good scholar he is Knight collects and compares all the arguments for and against using drugs to aid in receiving messages from Allah. While there appears to be some wriggle room depending on interpretations and traditions followed, its really only the mystical Sufis who talk openly about utilizing drugs to achieve enlightenment.

Of course all these arguments and discussions are presented in Knight's own unique style. He flips between scholarly dissertation and free association/stream of conscience without skipping a beat or losing his thread. He circles around his primary subject matter of drugs like a bird of prey hovering over its target until he finally drops out of the sky and brings us smack dab into a moment. However, just as we settle into what are expectations have caused us to anticipate, as he brings us through his experience and their impact on his life, he slams on the brakes and begins to deconstruct the book your holding in your hands.

He had set out to write a book about drugs and Islam in the style of his early novels but Harvard University and academia wouldn't allow it. He worries aloud how and what his university education and studies have done to him. What happened to the wild and crazy voice which spoke to a generation of disenfranchised young Muslims? Has schooling doomed him to the world of footnotes and cited sources? Yet when he looks back on the days when he was the anarchist/punk author, describing the physical, mental and emotional abuse he put himself through, you wonder what he's missing.
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Yet in the midst of this furious retracing of his path he also has what I think is the most important revelation of the book. His drug of choice, his addiction if you like, is writing. He talks of those he's met who say they are writers yet have somehow never managed to put pen to paper. While he, on the other hand, can't stop writing. He's stayed up late into the night abusing his body writing, he has a variety of incomplete manuscripts stored in his desktop computer and he has his clearest visions through the spilling out of words on paper or into his keyboard. Other drugs have proven to be hit and miss in their effectiveness, but writing is the one he always comes back to and the one which always seems to deliver.

Knight is at his self analytical best in this book. For all his apparent flailing in different thematic directions he is carefully guiding us through his personal process. He has travelled the byways and highways of North America, Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia visiting shrines, holy sites, mosques, mosh pits, Seven-Elevens, punk clubs,gyms and wrestling rings looking for his truth. He has read the work of Islamic scholars dating back to the early days of the religion, the writings of Elijah Muhammad and listened to the wisdom of Clarence 13X who would become Allah, the founder of the Five Percenters, via the words of those in the movement today.

The voice he is so worried about losing is strong and clear - it is the culmination of all his experiences. He is a reflection of everything he has seen, been, experienced and prayed for and this book is both a summarization and conclusion to the journey he set out on when at the age of seventeen after reading the autobiography of Malcolm X he converted to Islam. Out of the chaos that has been his life, highlights of which are included in this book, he has come to the calm of acceptance. He's dealt with his personal demons and is now ready to move on to whatever awaits him as an artist, an academic and a Muslim.

Tripping With Allah may not be the great Islamic drug book he set out to write. Instead, Knight has treated us to a kind of post modern Portrait Of An Artist As A Young Man. It now seems he's ready, as James Joyce put it, "to go forth to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his people". Don't come looking to this book for the answers to your own questions. What you will find is one of the more vivid descriptions of the artistic soul taking the next steps on its long road of creativity and one man coming to terms with himself and his beliefs written with passion and truth. It might not always be a pretty picture, but its always thought provoking and intelligent.

(Article first published as Book Review: Tripping with Allah: Islam, Drugs, and Writing by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics.)


March 7, 2013

Book Review: Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories by Sherman Alexie


Have you ever noticed how people react when you tell them you're reading a collection of short stories? They've asked, 'What you reading?', and when told short stories their smiles sort of freeze in place and they quickly change the subject. If it had been a full length novel they would have probably continued asking questions, 'What's it about?' or even the dreaded 'What's it like?'. It's almost as if they don't think short stories somehow merit the same consideration as a full length novel. That they're an inferior form of writing and those who write them not as accomplished as novelists.

I've no idea where or how people formed this impression. For not only can short stories be just entertaining and intelligent as any novel, in some ways they are even more difficult to write. For while a novelist has a few hundred pages at his or her disposal in order to build his characters, develop his plot and establish the environment the story takes place in, the short story writer must be able to do the same in far less time. Of course they also have to tell their story at the same time. Which is why as far as I'm concerned a well written short story is every bit as deserving of our attention as any novel, and a collection by a good author is something to be treasured.

Anybody looking for proof of the short story's merits need look no further than the recently published anthology of Sherman Alexie's short stories, Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories, from Grove Press distributed by Publishers Group Canada. Alexie a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene born on the Spokane Reservation in Wellpinit Washington, is not only a prolific short story writer but also a poet, novelist, screenplay writer and a performer.
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In this collection people familiar with Alexie's work will find some stories they've read before including "The Toughest Indian in the World", "This Is What It Means To Say Phoenix Arizona" (The basis for the movie Smoke Signals) "War Dances" and "Because My Father Said He Was The Only Indian To See Jimi Hendrix Play The Star Spangled Banner At Woodstock" (hands down the best title for a short story I've seen yet). However, this is not just a repackaging of old favourites and there are about as many new stories as there are previously published ones.

Whether new or old Alexie's stories wear their hearts on their sleeves and aren't afraid to speak their minds. Characters drink, take drugs, sleep in alleyways, marry, have children, work for a living, pan handle, live, die, love and hate. Just like the rest of the world. The only difference is most of them are either members of the Spokane or Coeur d'Alene nations, conquered people living among their conquerers. Sometimes you don't really notice any difference between the characters in his stories and those in other people's stories. You wouldn't even know they were from a different nation unless you were told.

Yet even those stories with seemingly assimilated characters still give the impression of being about those on the outside looking in. There's something about their lives which makes you realize they're always going to be separate and not equal no matter how much they try to blend. They never seem to want to talk about where they come from and they try to avoid thinking about their families. For it's when they do the pretence of belonging falls apart. How many of their friends have parents who drank themselves to death? How many have had to go more funerals then birthday parties before they left home?

Of course there are the stories where its bloody obvious you've entered a world completely alien to anything you've ever experienced. "Cry Cry Cry", the first story in the book, takes you into the world of desperation and hopelessness New Age bookstores and their talk of "Native Spirituality" pretend isn't reality. "Whenever an Indian says he's traditional you know that Indian is full of shit" says the narrator in reference to his cousin Junior, the drug dealing Pow Wow dancer. Maybe Junior's story, his descent from using drugs, to dealing, to serving time for dealing drugs to white people and screwing white girls is repeated in ghettos all over America. Maybe not.
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"Cry Cry Cry" is also about the person who has to see his friend and cousin go into free fall. The guy who's there when he finally goes off the deep end and kills someone, and is then considered a pariah for turning Junior into the cops. How far has a community fallen when the person who turns in a drug dealing murderer is considered a traitor? When he considers himself a traitor? These are dangerous questions to ask, but Alexie doesn't shy away from the nasty shit. When the narrator of the story takes up Pow-Wow dancing he does so thinking he's honouring his dead friend. However, the truth he comes to understand is something different. He's honouring all those who have died, he's honouring what his people once were and what they might be again.

How many people ask when they see the homeless Indian drunk on the sidewalk "How did this happen?" No, most are going say something along the lines of "Fucking drunk Indian" or "What do you expect there all a bunch of fuckin' lazy welfare bums who'd rather drink than work". In an "Indian Education" we learn the lessons most Indian kids learn in their formative years. The ones which are part of the answer to the question hardly anybody asks. Humiliation, despair, hopelessness, hunger, self-pity and self-loathing aren't on most Public School curriculums, but are the equivalent of the three "r's" of an Indian's education.

When a State Trooper asks why a guy who is happily married with kids, has a good job and is sober drives his car straight into a tree everybody shrugs their shoulders. What they don't say out loud is "...when we look in the mirror, see the history of us our tribe in our eyes, taste failure in the tap water and shake with old tears, we understand completely. Believe me, everything looks like a noose if you stare at it long enough." (Alexei, Sherman "Indian Education", Blasphemy Grove/Atlantic Press, New York, 2012 p. 292)

Alexie is one of those remarkable writers who are able to write about truly gut wrenching and heart breaking events without making you feel sorry for those in the stories. What good is pity to these people anyway. It won't put food on the table or take away the ingrained pain of being broken across the wheel of history. The people in his stories are real. Some of the situations they find themselves in aren't going to be ones very many of us can identify with. However, somethings are common to all of us, no matter who we are and where we come from. The heartbreak of losing a parent, feeling lost in an overwhelming world and the need to have our pain understood. Alexie uses these to bridge the immense gap between the world of the conquered and the conquerer allowing us to begin to understand what it would be like to stand on the other side of that divide.

There are very few authors who can write with the same amount of honesty Alexie brings to his work. Some of the stories aren't pleasant, others are hilarious and some are just sad. However all of them are brilliant, multi-faceted gems guaranteed to make you think.

(Article first published as Book Review: Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories by Sherman Alexie on Blogcritics)


February 9, 2013

Book Review: The Theatre Of e. e. cummings Edited by George Frimage


Most people, if they've heard of him at all, will identify the name of e. e. cummings (Edward Estlin) as the American poet who didn't like capital letters. Even in the spelling of his own name he eschewed the normal use of upper case letters. What they might not know about cummings was the body of work he produced aside from poetry. There were his works of prose recounting both his time as a volunteer ambulance driver in France during WW 1, the enormous room, and his time spent in communist Russia in 1931 in the novel Eimi. He was also a painter. In fact he had initially set out to be a painter, travelling to Paris in 1919 to study art. While he eventually focused his energies primarily on writing, he continued to paint for the rest of his life and he published several books of poetry and prose which he provided the illustrations for.

On top of this extensive library of work he also wrote four pieces for the stage; three plays and a treatment for a ballet based on the book Uncle Tom's Cabin. While there have been a number of plays produced based on cumming's poetic works, of his three actual plays, Him, Santa Claus and Anthropos, only the first has ever been staged. While all four works for the stage were each individually published initially, only Him was released in something other than a limited edition. Eventually all four were gathered together and published under the title of Three Plays and a Ballet in 1967. Out of print since 1970, it has now been reissued under the title The Theatre of e. e. cummings by Liveright Press, an imprint of W.W. Norton & Company and distributed by Penguin Canada.

In his poetry cummings dealt with themes ranging from the nature of love to social/political issues of his day. While he would put down American consumerism he was also opposed to anything he saw as a threat to what he considered sacrosanct, the individuality of the artist. His experiences with Stalin's form of communism garnered while traveling in Russia were enough to convince him there wouldn't be any room in that system for free thinking. Critics on both the left and the right dismissed his work as politically naive and overly romantic. However, close reading of his poetry shows he, like almost no other American poet, showed a man in love with the ideals upon which his country was founded. While everyone else might be giving lip service to things like the freedom of the individual, cummings celebrated its true meaning.
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It didn't mean a person should be able to do what he wanted at the expense of others. Nor did it mean everybody should desire to amass material goods and personal wealth. You should be free to celebrate the act of living, loving, being and experiencing the world. His poems were chaotic explosions of words which took readers on flights of fancy. They encouraged readers to think outside the box of success being measured by the accumulation of wealth. In the four works for stage in this volume not only are these themes expressed, you will see how throughout the span of his writing life cummings continued to experiment with language and the ways it could be used for communication.

Him, the earliest piece written in 1927, is a mixture of realism and absurdity. There are two central characters, the playwright Him and his mistress Me. Interspersed between their scenes together are, we are led to believe, scenes from the play Him is currently struggling to write. However the various scenes we are presented with seem to have no relationship with each other. They range from an elaborately staged musical number based on the folk song "Frankie and Johnny" to absurdist skits with a variety of characters. At various points characters who appeared in earlier scenes show up again, but are loosely disguised as someone else. It's clear cummings wants the audience to know this is still the same character pretending to be someone else.

The action between Him and Me takes place over what is apparently a number of years and follows the ups and downs of their relationship. His struggles with the creation of his art run concurrent with their struggles with love. While he doesn't appear to have any problems expressing his passion for his art, he always resorts to absurdities and playacting when it comes to expressing how he feels about Me. As a result the play contains some of the most beautiful and stirring language concerning the creation of art and the nature of love you'll ever read. ..."And always I'm repeating a simple and dark and little formula...always myself mutters and remutters a trivial colourless microscopic idiom - I breathe, and I swing; and I whisper: "An artist, a man, a failure, MUST PROCEED". (The Theatre of e. e. cummings (HIM) Liveright Press 2013 New York p.12)

Both Anthropos (1930) and Santa Claus (1946) are more in the line of social commentary and satire. Unlike Him both are quite short and focus on a single theme. In the first cummings uses cave men like beings, he calls them infrahumans, to comment on the role of art in society. For while three infrahumans are trying to come up with slogan to motivate their fellows one is busy creating a cave drawing depicting their life. While they eventually decide on evolution as their slogan, their means of devising it reduces it to something meaningless so it becomes just another cliche.
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In Santa Claus cummings has created a commentary on what he sees as the great imbalance in the world. We put great store in science and knowledge, but love is given short shrift. The character of Santa Claus, wandering alone and bereft, encounters Death. Death convinces him happiness can be found through Science and Knowledge. However, it's not until Santa Claus is reunited with his long lost wife and daughter, and by extension, love, he finds happiness. Subtitled "A Morality Tale", this short play is a little simplistic, but this does nothing do depreciate the author's point. Science might be able to explain things, but it can't teach us to appreciate something for its beauty. Its about finding a balance between the mind and the heart in order to fully appreciate the world.

The final piece in this book is probably the most difficult, the outline for a ballet based on Harriet Beatrice Stowe's book Uncle Tom called simply Tom. cummings divides the story into four episodes with each one depicting an important part of the book. However, instead of merely describing the action he gives detailed descriptions of the type of movements the dancers should be performing and the emotions that motivate them "George, right-frontstage,whirlleaps inward, catching Eliza when she is about to fall - files of dogmen swoop from left- and right-midstage convergingly outward - enter, right-and left-backstage, a group of men and group of women (the Friends or Quakers) all dressed in grey; all holding bibles over their hearts" (The Theatre of e.e.cummings -Tom Liveright Press New York 2013 p. 170)

Anyone familiar with cummings' poetry will recognize the manner in which he manipulates language in order to allow it to express more then it was originally intended. The above excerpt from Tom is a mild example of how he employed those techniques in this instance to both give instructions to potential dancers and choreographers and to heighten the experience for those simply reading the piece. In fact, one of the amazing things about reading Tom is how cummings creates the sensations of dance with just his words. His words actually convey movement and have a fluidity that catches the grace and expressiveness of dance.

The Theatre Of e. e. cummings sees the return to print of four pieces in the e. e. cummings' canon that have been unavailable for far too long. Fans of his poetry will appreciate how he manages to incorporate both his sense of the absurd and his appreciation for the beauty of the world around him into his prose. Plays like Him show not only was cummings breaking new ground in poetry with his experiments with language, but the conventions of the theatre as well. Further proof, if any were necessary, that he was the first great modernist American writer.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Theatre of e. e. cummings Edited by George Firmage on Blogcritics.)