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An Interview with Jervey Tervalon

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Los Angeles writer and founder of Lit for Life, Jervey Tervalon, in June came to Seattle’s Third Place Books to read from his just released Monster’s Chef. Our interview below:

Jervey and I in Edmonds, WA

Jervey and I in Edmonds, WA

Interview at Los Angeles Review of Books:  JERVEY TERVALON, LA Times bestselling author of Understand This (1994) and Dead Above Ground (2000), has taken on an icon in his latest, Monster’s Chef (Amistad: 224 pp., $24.99). William Gibson, chef and ex-con drug addict, begins working for Lamont “Monster” Stiles, a pop music star who bleaches his skin white, has a “Lair” populated by young boys, his mute wife Rita, and Thug the gay bodyguard, intimidating anyone who wants to delve into the specifics. Take Michael Jackson’s anxiety and hypersensitivity, insert a little bit of the sinister pathologies of Jim Jones and Phil Spector, and the result is one chilling character to mirror the attention given to the celebrity and pop culture of our current age.

Recently Jervey and I conversed over Skype, exploring his novel’s themes of abuse, stereotypes, power, and the obsessions society has with celebrity…

From the LA Times:  Jervey Tervalon has a taste for observation in “Monster’s Chef”

“The novelist Jervey Tervalon likes to share this interesting fun fact about his life: He was born in the same year as Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince. Tervalon, 55, is a professional teller and gatherer of stories and also a busy literary networker. He grew up in Los Angeles, where celebrity culture can feel like a huge planet whose gravity is constantly sucking him in. The collision between the stars of movie, television and music industries, and the lives of ordinary…”

Written by Caleb Powell

July 13, 2014 at 7:15 am

Redployment vs. The Corpse Exhibition

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Thanks to William Vollman’s piece at Bookforum for directing me to the following two collections of stories about Iraq, one from a U.S. perspective, the other from an Iraqi. Below are two excerpts indicative of the power of story:

The Corpse Exhibition, stories within stories:  “The man with the beard was a teacher who went to the police to report on a neighbor who was trading in antiquities stolen from the National Museum. The police thanked him for his cooperation. The teacher, his conscience relieved, went back to his school. The police submitted a report to the Ministry of Defense that the teacher’s house was an al Qaeda hideout. The police were in partnership with the antiquities smuggler. The Ministry of Defense sent the report to the U.S. Army, who bombed the teacher’s house by helicopter. His wife, four children, and his elderly mother were killed. The teacher escaped with his life, but he suffered brain damage and lost his arms.”

Redployment, one sentence:  “She spent all his combat pay before he got back, and she was five months pregnant, which, for a Marine coming back from a seven-month deployment, is not pregnant enough.”

Whether legend or reality, the stories confront corruption, indifference, misplaced justice, and lack of responsibility, always a consequence of war. These two books are about how war exacerbates pain. To enter into war we must be certain the net result will surpass the human cost.

Written by Caleb Powell

June 19, 2014 at 6:06 am

Murder or Suicide? Caleb Powell Interviews Poe Ballantine at The Sun Magazine

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My interview with Poe Ballantine is out at The Sun Magazine:  We discuss Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere (Hawthorne Books, September 2013), a combo of true crime and literary memoir, and also the subject of a forthcoming documentary by Dave Jannetta.

Literary True Crime Memoir? Poe accidentally fell into a genre that includes compelling books like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil , In Cold Blood, and Kathryn Harrison’s While They Slept.

Murder or Suicide?  Poe was searching for material when Steven Haataja’s corpse was discovered. Poe said off page that Haataja’s death brought to mind another similar case in Poe’s hometown of San Diego that involved the death of Medicis CEO Jonah Shacknai’s girlfriend, Rebecca Zahau. Zahau  had a rag in her mouth, she was found naked and bound, hanging from a balcony, but this was ruled a suicide.

Parallels with Steven Haataja: We segued from Zahua to how Steven Haataja’s tortured and burned corpse came, also, to be viewed by the investigating detectives as a “suicide.” As Poe told me, “The suicide scenario, after you pour in all the supporting evidence, weighs about two grams. Murder weighs about eighteen pounds.”

Small Town America:  Poe weaves settling in Chadron, Nebraska, with his wife he brought back from a teaching stint in Mexico, the birth of a son, and the wacky ordinariness of life in America with this puzzling mystery for a highly entertaining and thoughtful read.

The Sun Magazine excerpt:   Poe Ballantine calls himself a “whiskey-drinking, floor-mopping, gourmet-cooking, wildly prolific writer with a penchant for social commentary.” For nearly three decades he…(full excerpt here)

Lionel Shriver’s “Humblebrag” Needs to Be Talked About

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Two authors on writing:

Lionel Shriver:  “If you really want to write, the last thing you want to be is a success.”

Cheryl Strayed:  “Write like a motherfucker.”

Lionel Shriver, author of the compelling We Need to Talk About Kevin, has written an essay at The New Republic:  How to Succeed as an Author: Give Up on Writing – The rancid smell of 21st century literary success. Lionel Shriver has won the Orange Prize, was a finalist for a National Book Award, and her landmark novel was made into a film starring Tilda Swinton. But in her essay she finds success “rancid” as she “humblebrags”  about hotels and travel and how “prizes are a particularly destructive time and emotion suck, since in most cases you don’t win.” Imagine the grueling nightmare of receiving a nomination and, gadzooks, attending the ceremony and not winning. I’m not sure whom she intends to enlighten, but for most writers the greater the lack of publication, usually, the greater the pain. I’m not saying her aggravations are not legitimate, tangible migraines come with success and the related celebrity, but c’mon, Ms. Shriver, thou doth condescend.

An unpublished writer who whines is tedious, but not nearly as tedious as a published whiner. On both ends of success or failure, the “it’s tough to be me” schtick plops into a mushy puddle of wrong. Writing has frustrations and rewards, just like life. Vanity, lack of self awareness, narcissism, respect, graciousness, they apply to all walks. Look at the single mother of two who has to work as a waitress not to mention that same person writing a novel. The woe of the elite is way different than every day suffering, but the latter deserves more empathy. How we handle success and failure is a personal statement.

Most if not all writers cram art between responsibility. I’m a full-time father of three and find time to write/read – half hour blips during soccer practice, guerrilla visits to coffee shops to open the laptop for ten minutes of production, books in the car, by the toilet etc., at night or early in the morning. Hotels? That’s a writing retreat. Long flights? To me it’d be 1-5 hours uninterrupted reading and writing. With success time crunches but with compensations.

Cheryl Strayed on the other hand has similar “problems” as Ms. Shriver, rare and hard earned success, a movie, etc. These perks allow her to enjoy a professional writing career. And she glows in gratitude.

So why does one writer derive inspiration from  success and the other degradation?

Two authors on their success:

“I have grown perversely nostalgic for my previous commercial failure,” Lionel Shriver

“A lot of artists give up because it’s just too damn hard to go on making art in a culture that by and large does not support its artists. But the people who don’t give up are the people who find a way to believe in abundance rather than scarcity. They’ve taken into their hearts the idea that there is enough for all of us, that success will manifest itself in different ways for different sorts of artists, that keeping the faith is more important than cashing the check, that being genuinely happy for someone else who got something you hope to get makes you genuinely happier too.”– Cheryl Strayed

Written by Caleb Powell

November 5, 2013 at 4:31 pm

Jack Remick Reviews Scott Driscoll’s Better You Go Home

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Guest Post by Jack Remick:  Jack Remick co-authored The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery, with Robert J. Ray. He has a collection of short fiction, Terminal Weird (Black Heron Press), a novel, The Stolen House (Pig Iron Press) as well as work in The Seattle Five Plus One, an anthology (Pig Iron Press). Jack’s stories and poems have appeared in national magazines such as Carolina Quarterly, Portland Review, Big Hammer, Cafe Noir Review, and Northwind. Remick has lived and worked extensively in Latin America. Check out his websites:  Remick Writes & Bob and Jack’s Writing Blog.

Better You Go Home

Scott Driscoll nails it here. Writing in America in the 21st Century is about family.

Early in our writing we hungered for adventure, the high mountains, the desert, the hunt. We wrote about the diaspora from the Old World to the New and in so doing we lost contact with our roots. Something happened—we fragmented. We got got off track. But family is salvation, and Driscoll makes that clear. Writing in our century is taking us home.

We have to write about family. We are so hungry now for home and family we write about the Marines as family, the family of a baseball team, a business as family. We seek out friends who treat us like family. Family is our great quest—we need to belong.

We are now a nation of single parents, lost children, broken homes, and brother and sister separated by insane immigration policies—once it was no Jews, please, no Chinese, please, no Irish, please. Now, nobody is welcome. Immigration built the country, but in this century, somebody slammed the lid on the melting pot and we’re all cut off.  In these first two decades of the 21st Century, we are shattered. We need to get home. Home, as Robert Frost tells us:

“is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in.”

In Scott Driscoll’s novel Better You Go Home (Coffeetown Press, 236 pages, $13.95 trade paperback), you’ll find the word family 106 times, the word home 100 times. Something’s going on here. We return to the Old Country with the protagonist—Chico Lenoch—to a family torn apart by the early diaspora, the Nazi rape of Europe in the Second World War, the Communist theft of the body. Here, in Mother Europa, Driscoll dives into the meaning of family:  Family can hurt, family can heal. Family can punish, family can save. Chico Lenoch is in pain. He’s dying. “I’m looking at renal failure. My doctor gives me a few months, tops. If my internist had his way, I wouldn’t be here now. I’d be home on my couch preparing for dialysis…”

Chico needs help and there’s one chance for salvation—a half sister, the child of the father who abandoned the Old World. Searching for his sister, anxious about his future, Chico returns to his roots but can he even ask family to make the sacrifice that will save him? Family can give you a body part, save you, keep you going. Chico needs this half-sister. On the quest for salvation, Chico discovers that only family can give answers to all his questions about life and death.

The story is complex, the characters rich and thick and vibrant. There’s love and sex, there’s hope and redemption, there’s sin and forgiveness, there’s death and torture. But, as Driscoll tells us, in the right circumstances “…even torture can be a sign of love.”

Reversing the thrust of diaspora and immigration, Chico returns with his father to the Old Country. In the end, homecoming is what it’s all about: “I’m the lucky man,” the father says. “I am with my family in my birth land and free of the hungers that will eat him alive.”

This is a novel we all should read because it might help us get in touch with where we came from. We’re not all that different. Some of us just drive bigger cars.

Discloser:  Jack and Scott both write for Coffeetown Press.

Book Launch Party for Better You Go Home as seen in the Seattle Times Fall Arts Preview:
When: Wednesday, October 2, 7pm
Where: Hugo House, 1534 11th Ave, Seattle, WA 98122

More:  Seattle Times Bestseller Paperback Scott Driscoll / Seattle P-I Interview with Scott Driscoll

Written by Caleb Powell

September 24, 2013 at 4:42 pm

Posted in Book Review, Books

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David Shields vs. Caleb Powell: I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel

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Publishers Marketplace
New deals for April 26, 2013

Art?

Art?

Caleb Powell: You excoriate the traditional novel and fiction in Reality Hunger, yet you began writing fiction. It turned out not to be your forte. Why the attack? Isn’t it like an impotent man vowing abstinence?

David Shields: That’s a funny analogy. And I’d be a fool to think that type of criticism won’t emerge… (from The Rumpus)

David Shields and I, at antipodes since the UW, headed into the Cascades for a few days and threw down. The focus? Art vs. life. The result was announced 4/26/13 at Publishers Marketplace:

Life?

Life?

NONFICTION - General/OtherNYT bestselling author David Shields’s I THINK YOU’RE TOTALLY WRONG: A QUARREL, a debate about life versus art, in which Shields’s co-author, Caleb Powell, always wanted to become an artist, but overcommitted to life (stay-at-home dad to three young girls), whereas Shields has overcommitted to art and forgotten to become a human being, to Ann Close at Knopf, by PJ Mark at Janklow & Nesbit (NA).

“Twenty years ago, another undergraduate, Caleb Powell, was in my novel-writing course; we’ve stayed in touch. I’ve read and critiqued his stories and essays. A stay-at-home-dad and freelance journalist, he’s interviewed me occasionally when a new book came out. We disagree about nearly everything. I’ve sacrifice my life for art; Caleb, vice versa. He’s one of the most contrary people I’ve ever met…” David Shields, from How Literature Saved My Life

Caleb:  …that opening of our interview in the Rumpus, when I asked, “You began writing fiction; it turned out not to be your forte. Why the attack? Isn’t it like an impotent man vowing abstinence?”

David:  Only about fifty other reviewers used the same trope. I’d say I’m more like a man in love pointing out to the man on Viagra that he’s fucking a sex doll. (from I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel)

Update:  I Think You’re Totally Wrong - The Move

“Riding a Mower” vs. Reality Hunger:

Written by Caleb Powell

May 2, 2013 at 8:48 am

Dalkey Asshole Press

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The Dalkey Archive Press has recently solicited applications for employment. Dalkey books I love and respect, but the head honcho deserves excoriation for the inquisition-inspired demands. Despite Sir Dalkey-himself John O’Brien’s defense at the Irish Times, where he calls for the appreciation of his ironic epiphanies, he leaves too much genuine sentiment to mitigate the arrogance. O’Brien wants free labor, and he wants to condescend to their ambition. Here, straight from the mouth, are some of his requirements:

MUSTS:

1) …are willing to start off at a low-level salary and work their way upwards.

2) …do not have any other commitments (personal or professional) that will interfere with their work at the Press (family obligations, writing, involvement with other organizations, degrees to be finished, holidays to be taken, weddings to attend in Rio, etc.).

MUST NOTS:

1) …being unavailable at night or on the weekends.

2) …giving unsolicited advice about how to run things.

3) …taking personal phone calls during work hours.

4) …failing to respond to emails in a timely way.

The LA Times has a more comprehensive response, and my Facebook “friends” certainly are not silent. Yet, to me, this job seemed intriguing and a challenge. I like challenges. Thus I fired off this to DAP:

Dear Dalkey Archive,

I would like to apply for a position at the Dalkey Archive Press. Here are some of my talents:

1)  I love working for psychopaths.

2)  I’m a masochist.

3)  I have no life, professional or otherwise.

4)  I have no self-respect.

5)  I’m compulsive in my dedication and addiction to literature.

As you see, I meet all the criteria implied in your request.

Let me know if you would like to see a C.V.

Best,

Caleb

Afterword:  I imagine Dalkey is being deluged with snark. As they well should be. Certainly, if you take art seriously you must have discipline and commitment, but you cannot be so insular, inhuman, and anti-social that you sacrifice mutual respect and bottom line courtesy. The control-freak-OCD mania that oozes out of the Dalkey Manifesto indicates a lack of reasonable protocol.

Written by Caleb Powell

December 13, 2012 at 4:11 am

Posted in Books, Bullshit Art

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William Giraldi vs. Alexander Chee: The NYT Alix Ohlin Chainsaw

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William Giraldi recently panned Alix Ohlin’s latest in The New York Times Book Review. Alexander Chee didn’t like it, so he posted on Facebook:

What a giant pile of horseshit this review is. Alix deserved better. This is a disgrace. Also, to review the reviewer, William Girardi can’t write worth a damn. This reads like a frantic doily stretched to fit around his narcissistic projections on literature, himself and Alix. May we all be spared anything from him further.” - Alexander Chee

Chee then quoted Giraldi and tacked on: “‘When self-pity colludes with self-loathing and solipsism backfires into idealism, the only outcome is insufferable schmaltz.’ Yes, Giraldi. This in fact describes your review.”

Gee whiz Chee, so let me get this straight, you evidently disliked Giraldi’s review because ‘Alix deserved better’, and to hammer the point you take a cheap shot at Giraldi?

Chee, though, had an ally in hitman Richard “Three Fingers” Bausch, who responded, “I’m working on a mystery novel in which a critic like this is murdered and there are seven thousand three hundred and fifty two suspects.”

What is the matter with some writers? Anis Shivani, after his “The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary Writers“, and Dale Peck, with Hatchet Jobs, pissed people off. Why? I don’t go out of the way to review bad books. I usually don’t finish them. But a couple times I received a review copy, finished, engaged, and felt the crappy novel deserved a howl, and that’s my call. Reviewers shouldn’t fear offending tissue paper shelled writers and their fans/friends, they should address readers. I’ll bet many people who never heard of Ohlin now have, and some may even buy her book as a result of this publicity. She’ll survive.

As for Girardi, I’ve  read stories by him, not his novel, but he can write. His NYT review gets absurd (he criticizes the title), but he hated Ohlin’s work and unleashed. So? I have not read Ohlin thus cannot defend her fiction, but:  1) to hate negative criticism and take similar cheap shots is lame. 2) Giraldi’s opinion is just that, deal or move on.

I said all this to Chee, in so many words, and he responded with, and I quote verbatim, “Hey, fuck you.”

Giraldi’s opinion carries weight, as problematic as his review might be. I suspect Chee didn’t discover what a bad writer Giraldi was until post-NYTBR, which speaks volumes of Chee.

UPDATE: Great review on topic by Bill Marx of NYT book critic Dwight Garner’s take on Jack Green’s Fire the Bastards.  “The book world doesn’t need more yes-saying novelists and certainly no more yes-saying critics. We need more excellent and authoritative and punishing critics—perceptive enough to single out the voices that matter for legitimate praise, abusive enough to remind us that not everyone gets, or deserves, a gold star.” – Dwight Garner

Bill Marx also cites Edmond Wilson’s battle cry against the incestuous world of writers, while he reminds us that going overboard has flaws as well. Good stuff, Bill.

Writers need to remember: Praise everyone and you praise no one.

Related: On the absence of hatchet-work amongst Canada’s Book Reviewers - by Brian Fawcett at dooneyscafe.com

NYTBR:  Are novelists too wary of criticizing other novelists?

Written by Caleb Powell

August 20, 2012 at 1:42 pm

Scott Driscoll Reviews A Very Minor Prophet

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The following is a guest review of James Bernard Frost‘s A Very Minor Prophet (April, 2012, Hawthorne Books, 8.5×11, 200 pages, $18.95) by Scott Driscoll, teacher at the UW Extension Creative Writing Program.

James Bernard Frost’s new novel, A Very Minor Prophet pulls the curtain on an underground Portland peepshow that won’t disappoint.  For all its graphic splatter of Voodoo donuts, Stumptown coffee, ecstatic bike rides, and rambling sermons delivered by a midget preacher to a modest congregation of anarchists, prostitutes, lesbians, and zinesters, Frost’s novel, aside from its likely appeal to twenty-somethings swilling their own PBR-fueled search for identity, is really, at its heart, a touching love story.  As well, to his credit, Frost offers a pretty authentic portrait of Portland, Oregon’s underbelly, not to mention life in the damp chilly Northwest.

“My friends, America is not cute anymore, it’s run through its adolescence, and it’s looking more and more like Mommy raised a psychopath,” claims Booker, the midget preacher in a “sermon.” This observation, in the wake of the 2004 presidential election, generally sums up the lament of the liberal youth culture that populates this novel. More specifically, it sums up our hero’s journey.

It starts off cute enough.  “At age twenty-two,” opines Bartholomew Flynn, “I lacked the ink that marked my generation of misfits, but I wasn’t lucky enough to find a corporate office admin job.”  With a “coffee degree” in English from a Midwestern university, Flynn realizes his destiny—he works at Mecca Café.  But what’s lacking in his slice of American Pie is made up for in creativity and sheer brio.  After  listening to Booker sermonize, Flynn starts writing “His Church that Sunday,” a “zine” replete with graphics that earns him the right to call himself the preacher’s scribe.

Enter Mercyx.  Nothing happens without the pedaling force of the bicycle messenger/Photocopy Queen.  To appreciate Mercyx, you have to appreciate her power to transform.  “Mercyx was wearing a strapless dress, a kitschy cotton number with Ferris wheels on it in pink and yellow pastels…The contrast between the hard tattoos and the soft colors of her dress was a visual fiasco, making her appear comic and freaky and completely stunning all at once. Seed for romance thus planted, with help from a mooching professional illustrator, the zine gets traction, most significantly at Ben Dover Books (pun intended), where eventually it will bring real world riches to someone but not to our hapless hero, who signs away his rights for five hundred dollars, chump change he eventually, in despair, spends on a hooker he can ill afford for a variety of reasons.

En route to betrayal, Flynn survives encounters with a band of anarchists led by charismatic bad boy Diogenes.  While held down and forced to ingest cheap beer through a tube, Flynn notes he is looking at, “two chef paramedics, a pirate, an ape man, Tiny the Clown, and two bearded Mad-Max looking guys…” you get the picture, “a bunch of future-thinking guys” who are “learning skills that the rest of the world thought was laughable, learning how to weld, learning how to endure pain, learning how to live as a clan,” a bunch who go into action as “gas-masked, tall-bike riding anarchists who shouted insults and hurled beer cans at…” the windshields of “the stupid manatees, the bulbous lard-addled American masses…” soon to become victims of the “apocalypse” they “deserved.”

It’s Mercyx who finally pushes Flynn to a point of no return.  One guess as to who he finds in bed with the midget preacher.  Howling in psychic pain, Flynn hurls his beloved bike from the Broadway bridge, strips, don’s a whore’s wig, wags his naked wiener at traffic, is pummeled by an ice-cold Vanilla Coke, and arrives at this insight: “In order to reach the Kingdom of Heaven, or whatever you want to call it—your higher calling, your fullest potential—you have to make an ass of yourself.”

This novel is Less Than Zero meets coffee degree Zinester anarchists in soggy Portland with a midget messiah thrown in for theological spicing.   Add bold graphics.  Add speech bubbles.  Add asides to discourse on coffee and Catholicism.  Okay, and with all that it’s actually by turns funny and sad.  The novel’s main shortcoming is its tendency to resort to shock—in our first real love moment, our two bicyclists puke side-by-side—where delicacy and finesse might have left a taste more savory to the discerning palate.  Maybe tastelessness is the point?

Don’t ask how Booker has his John the Baptist head end up on a platter, you’re told in the prologue and it’s heavy-handed and hardly factors in the story except to clear the way for someone else’s happy ending.  Don’t worry about that.  And don’t worry about the morning-after taste.  Just climb on and go for a wild ride.

Scott Driscoll, winner of an Educational Outreach award for Excellence in Teaching in the Arts and Humanities 2006, has an MFA from the University of Washington and makes his living as a writer and teacher. His short stories and narrative essays have been published extensively in literary journals and anthologies.

DISCLOSER: Scott Driscoll has no relationship with Hawthorne Books or the author.

Written by Caleb Powell

May 11, 2012 at 4:52 am

Not Reviewing Daphne Gottlieb & Ned Stuckey-French

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Daphne Gottlieb’s 15 Ways to Stay Alive (Manic D Press, April 2011, $14.95 paperback, 128 pages)/Ned Stuckey French’s The American Essay in the American Century (University of Missouri, May 2011, $60 hardcover, 272 pages)

Aside from a few reviews in my brief time as a journalist for the University of Washington Daily, and an occasional screed on Amazon, I didn’t write literary criticism until about two years ago. My first review was published in December of 2009 at the Texas Review, and since then I have written slightly over a dozen. This small sample allows me to appreciate greatly the time and involvement for the craft of reviewing. No matter what you think of Michiko Kakatuni or James Woods or Michael Dirda, they have put in the hours.

At first I enjoyed the process immensely, I requested books, and sometimes was asked (see recent solicitation on my About Page).  But I’m done. What happened? As I tried to review the two subject books of this post I considered how, since summer I have thorougly taken quotes, looked into the histories of each individual author, and done requisite background reading. Whenever I started to churn out a draft, though, I questioned my desire, not to mention qualifications. It’s not that I dislike writing reviews or taking part in the process, I think any aspiring writer can benefit from writing literary criticism, but I have to choose how to spend my writing time.

Therefore, I would like to offer condensed reviews to finish what I started. I hope Ned and Daphne and the kind people at U. of Missouri and Manic D can forgive me for not doing justice to their books.

The foremost problem I had with Daphne Gottlieb’s 15 Ways to Stay Alive (Manic D Press, April 2011, $14.95 paperback, 128 pages), is that it’s poetry. I spend little time reading and writing poems, and cannot recognize quality. Daphne Gottlieb, the author of Fucking Daphne, exists outside conventional poetry, and images of her body adorned with tattoos and piercings spoke more to me than the dozen books she’s edited or authored and that I had not read. What could I possibly say about her poetry?

Yet perhaps I have undervalued. As her personality emerged I became involved with 15 Ways to Stay Alive, and found myself appreciating the way she played with form while staying on topic. She juxtaposes Bukowsky amidst New Orleans quotidiana and sadness: “and at night walking the streets for hours,/raped for hours until she was dead”, or, in “to prove that I was someone,” she alternates Tookie Wilson’s call to a White supremacist’s response: “Dare I take My tattoo the master/slave-connection my tattoo a step further is a rebel flag…”. Good stuff.

Gottleib engages in politics, and I find this attractive in a writer. One example: In “no poetry after auschwitz” she attacks the war machine in various ways. She writes, “yes, remember/Rachel Corrie/killed by a bulldozer – but she put her body/ on the line/ using her own privilege”. But just when I think Gottlieb’s views on capitalism and war will turn into a venue to launch platitudes, she writes: “End the Occupation”/becomes/”Kill the Jews”. No one is for abortion, but some people are pro-choice. No one is for war, some people are pro-choice regarding self-defense (if this seems morally ambigious and contradictory, that’s the intent).

Whether or not you agree that Israel is equally if not more culpable in the conflict, or that the Palestinian side lost moral superiority long ago, or recognize that two forces are wrong in the Israeli-Palestine conflict, or wonder if Rachel Corrie took one wrong side, you understand that Gottlieb is making a statement for peace and action. This is a difficult, very difficult subject matter, and I applaud Gottlieb’s willingness to express.

Next is Ned Stuckey French’s The American Essay in the American Century (University of Missouri, May 2011, $60 hardback, 272 pages). The book is academic, and as with poetry, not the sort I normally read. I am no academic, and my college days were ignominious. I took advantage of Cliff’s Notes more than once to churn out a paper on Charles Dickens Dombey and Son or even Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and my grades subsequently matched my ambition.

Stuckey-French, though, makes a case that we should pay attention to the history of the essay, “…few issues are more current and controversial than that of subjectivity, yet the literary genre most explicitly focused on subjectivity – the essay – has not received much scholarly attention.” He explains further that “essays were caught between retreat and departure, between America’s past and future. That tension is the subject of this book…(with the focus being) the period 1880 to 1940.”

Stuckey-French highlights the characters of this age; we find out about unknowns such as Sara Willis: “perhaps the most popular essayist of the middle of the nineteenth century…(she) wrote on crime, poverty, corruption, prisons, and especially rights of women and children.” Willis was described in the New Yorker as a “a columnist before columnists were heard of” she went through death of a child, a horrible marriage to a jealous man whom she left after two years, and she might have remained forgotten if not for teachers such as Stuckey-French. Quotes from essayists on essays also add to the book, such as Richard Burton’s, who felt that “when the essay becomes the mere venting of a mood and is emptied of thought, the essayist is reduced to happy idiot.”

Stuckey-French writes about Mark Twain and E.B. White, along with a slew of important writers who exited the stage, and how literacy in the US rose, along with the prominence of many magazines, and writers such as W.E.B. DuBois attained fame.  The book closes by asking what might happen if essays “were released from the first-year writing anthologies and read against history?” And hey, if I were to teach a class and wanted to sound like an authority on the topic, a reading of this book would be a sufficient start.

I hope, in the future, that I may have time to solicit and write credible reviews, rather than this evasive attempt to “review” these two books. For now, though, I will take a hiatus from reviewing and will be happy, going forward, to simply read literary criticism and participate in the conversation.

DISCLOSER:  Caleb Powell has been published by Ned Stuckey-French in Fourth Genre, and was solicited for this review by Manic D Press. He has no realationship with Daphne Gottlieb.

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