Monday, January 26, 2009

Fire to Fire by Mark Doty

I know it's shocking, but yes, I'm actually reviewing a relatively new book for a change. Usually by the time I get around to things, they're scuffed up, dog-eared, and there's only a little residue to show where the "new" sticker once lived.

But here I am, and with a National Book Award winner, to boot!

Fire to Fire is an odd choice to win an award, at least from my perspective. It's not really a new collection of poems--only the first 50 pages are new material, meaning that essentially a chapbook takes the cake over whatever other poetry books were published in 2008. I find it odd that a "Best of..." wins an award over entirely new material, but since I don't read enough new poetry to say this was or was not the best, I'll just note my eyebrow quirk at the selection and move on.

I must admit that I had trouble with this book. Because it featured a lot of selections from over Doty's life, it was hard for me to get a feel for his poetry at any given time. (I do not, as a rule, care for "best of..." books, preferring to make my own decisions in this regard.) This was further compounded by Doty's seeming desire to show how large his vocabulary is.

When I was in school, my mother made me look up any any all words I didn't know the meaning to, which gave me a life-long hatred of two things--the dictionary and people who used obscure words where common words will do. As a result, Doty's style was not a good fit for me personally, as I kept thinking about how I was really glad I didn't have to read any of his work in high school.

This does not, however, mean I disliked his poetry as a rule. Far from it. I liked his turn of phrase (when not going for five dollar words), and as long-time readers of my reviews know, I am a big fan of poetry of the personal, which Doty writes in abundance. There are quite a few poems dealing with the interrelations of himself and his friends, particularly those who are dying. I am assuming the most personal deal with a dying lover or lovers, but they could possibly be fictionalized.

Here's an example, "Brilliance":

"Maggie's taking care of a man
who's dying; he's attending to everything,
said goodbeye to his parents,

paid off his credit card.
She says Why don't you just
run it up to the limit?

but he wants everything
squared away, no balance owed,
though he misses the pets

he's already found a home for
--he can't be around dogs or cats,
too much risk. He says,

I can't have anything.
She says, A bowl of goldfish?
He says he doesn't want to start

with anything and then describes
the kind he'd maybe like,
how their tails would fan

to a gold flaring. They talk
about hot jewle tones,
gold lacquer, say maybe

they'll go pick some out
though he can't go much of anywhere and then
abruptly he says I can't love

anything I cant' finish.
He says it like he's had enough
of the whole scintillant worldm

though what he means is
he'll never be satisfied and therefore
has established this discipline,

a kind of severe rehersal.
That's where they leave it,
him looking out the windowm

her knitting as she does because
she needs to do something.
Later he leaves a message:

Yes to the bowl of goldfish.
Meaning: let me go, if I have to,
in brilliance. In a story I read,

a Zen master who'd perfected
his detachment from the things of the world
remembered, at the moment of dying,

a deer he used to feed in the park,
and wondered who might care for it,
and at that instant was reborn

in the stunned flesh of a fawn.
So, Maggie's friend--
is he going out

into the last loved object
of his attention?
Fanning the veiled translucence

of an opulent tail,
undulant in some uncapturable curve,
is he bronze chrysanthemums,

copper leaf, hurried darting,
doubloons, icon-colored fins
troubling the water?"

Though a bit longer than the poems I usually quote for reviews, I think it's the best example of Doty's closeness to whatever his subject is, whether it's getting a constantly one-upped massage, the love of a dog, or picking out kimonos with a friend. There is an intimacy of communication that I find deeply enjoyable, when I am not being hammered by the poet's wealth of obscure words.

I really wish I could quote in full another poem that shows, I think the personality of Doty, called "Homo Will Not Inherit," a poetic screed against those who would judge people who don't share their religious views. It starts with the setting, goes on to describe a posting with the title words on it, and then Doty shows the world that he as a homosexual (and to some extent, all outsiders from the norm--childfree couples, atheists, pagans, goths, punks, zinesters, and the like can all find a similar theme here, I think) inhabits is the kingdom he wishes to inherit. The city after dark, uncaring police, the love of a strange man--this is Doty's paradise.

I think this exerpt says it best: "...the exile you require of me,/you who've posted this invitation/to a heaven nobody wants." is a line many people I know can take to heart. "I have my kingdom," is the poem's last line. I couldn't agree more.

Doty's poetic style is a bit of an aquired taste, I think. He grew on me as the collection moved deeper into his earlier work, as I absorbed his world from the lines on the page. If you let yourself do that, too, I think you'll find this book, while a collection of the past, is worthy of an award nod. While I prefer whole texts, and will seek out Doty's other books, those looking for a sampling will find "Fire to Fire" well worth the read.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Lincoln's Youth by Louis A. Warren

In honor of the 200th anniversary of his birth, I am going to read at least one of my Lincoln books every month. This might be hard for other people, but I have about 20 or so of them, so there you go.

This was the only book I had that specialized in the early years of Lincoln, so I decided to start with it. Acquired a few years ago on a trip to Indianapolis, it boasted an account of Lincoln's time in the Hoosier state. Written for the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, I was hoping for an accounting of his time spent growing up, challenging his father's primitive world view and outgrowing the pioneer surroundings about him.

Now the thing is, there are two kinds of old history books. On one hand, you have the ones that, while not having all the modern access of today, are still worth reading. On the other hand, you have jingoistic false-faced simplistic texts that don't dare to criticize the subject at hand. They are worthless to anyone who doesn't think John Wayne movies are historically accurate.

Well, unfortunately for me, this was not only one of those books, it was really a 40 page pamphlet masquerading as a full book, with the extra 150 or so pages filled with childish morality comments, extracts from books "Abraham must have read", and listings of people who had little or nothing to do with Lincoln himself, by the author's own admission.

I should have known I was in trouble when Warren began the book by showing that Lincoln was descended from hearty New England Protestant stock. (He doesn't refer to Lincoln's bloodline as being "pure American" but you can tell by reading through the lines and the pains he takes to find the bloodline for both of Lincoln's parents as well as his step-mother that this is of vital importance to Warren.) But I soldiered on through the scanty facts and past pages of quotes from Franklin's autobiography, Murray's English Reader, a glowing biography of Washington filled with historical inaccuracies that Warren actually praises because it's "the perfect example for youth to follow!"

Perhaps the worst sections are where Warren tries to play child psychologist, predicting when Lincoln got interested in girls (despite ignoring evidence that suggests he may not have been interested in girls at all--that he himself quotes!), began to be his own man, and so on. They're so classically 1950s as to almost be laughable if this book wasn't being reprinted as a good text to use for information on Lincoln's early years.

However, the clincher for me is that Warren repeatedly tries to patch together a good relationship between Lincoln and his father, which is exactly the opposite of everything I've ever read, going all the way back to children's books on the subject. He even claims that:

"Thomas Lincoln was a worthy parent. There is not recorded a single factual incident in which he brought discredit to his family or himself. The death of Abraham's mother tended to draw him closer to his father. It is not difficult to visualize a congenial filial relationship between a father who was good-humored, 'loving everybody and everything,' and a son who was 'kind to everybody and everything.' Certainly these parallel characteristics should have created an ideal father and son companionship."

Now first of all, the quotes come from Lincoln's step-mother, not a person inclined to criticize her husband. Second, Warren places in a footnote that Lincoln's first extensive biographer, William Herndon (his law partner) states the exact opposite was true, rather than deal with that in the main text. (After all, you have to have room to quote the laws of a church Lincoln worked at, which is far more important than his relationship to his father.) And third, Warren himself says "should have created", proof that he cannot find a way to substanciate his family values claim.

It's shoddy research like the above which causes me to question everything else that appears factual, such as Lincoln's first jobs away from his father, or his ambiguous love life at this time. While I appreciate sections that quote Lincoln's writings in his school books, proof that Thomas Lincoln was not poor by pioneer standards, and a little of the history of the surrounding neighborhood, there's simply too much padding and supposition for my taste. Add on the overtly Christian opinions of the writer, who must insert his values onto Lincoln at every opportunity, and I'm left with a bad taste in my mouth.

The book calls Lincoln "Indiana's finest contribution to civilization," which would be like Pennsylvania claiming Dwight Eisenhower was formed here (he lived here for a time, just like Lincoln lived for a time in Indiana). Warren can be excused for not listing David Letterman, as he was only a baby when the book was written. It's an exaggeration that's typical of the book's text--a lot of fluff and only a bit of substance.

Those looking to learn more of Lincoln would be better served elsewhere. Meanwhile, my Lincoln collection just got reduced to 19. I hope for better luck as the year goes on.

Outsiders edited by Nancy Holder and Nancy Kilpactrick

Everyone needs to step out of their comfort zones now and again. Try some ethnic food, walk an extra mile, root for the Cleveland Browns, that sort of thing. So I, despite my reservations, thought I'd give this a try.

After all, there's a Neil Gaiman story in here.

Except that it's a Gaiman poem, and was over all too quick. From there, it was a steady slide into the type of fiction that I really have no interest in:

vampire lust
borderline bestiality, guised as "fantasy"
infodumps larger than a garbage scow
thinly veiled pornographic writing (just write porn and be done with it)
gratuitous violence

This is not to say the entire anthology was like that, but it seems the editors opted to decide that "edgy" and "out there" meant picking things that pushed the envelope for the sake of doing it rather than to tell a good story. It leads to overly clever stories like "Lighten Up" about a group of people who rob those who dislike smoking in bars. That's not outsiders, that's just ridiculous.

None of the stories really have anything going for them. Even those that aren't bad, such as "Ruby Tuesday", a takeoff on RHPS with a grieving girl using a cult movie to assuage her pain, can only be best described as, well, not bad. "Craving" was rather creepy, but the narration style is so narrator-heavy that the reader doesn't get to feel anything or be surprised.

All in all, I just need to accept that this just isn't fiction geared to me. But if you like any all all kinds of fantasy and can stand sex in places it doesn't belong--and I know there's a huge market for that--you might like this better than I did.

The Gun Seller, by Hugh Laurie

Before we get into anything else, yes, it's *that* Hugh Laurie, the guy probably best known now for his role as Dr. House. Apparently, it's not enough that he's a great actor, he also has to be a great parody novelist as well.

This book is a knockoff of the standard spy novel, as our character blends old-style pulp commentary with a plot right out of a Tom Clancy novel. Thomas Lang is a man down on his luck, a former military agent turned something of a drifter. With not much going on, he promptly gets into a hell of a lot of trouble, with all the worst people.

Quipping left and right, Lang tries to unravel the mess he's managed to get in, which involves the British military, rogue CIA agents, defense contract profiteers, and pretty much everything except a cameo appearance by Jack Ryan or the Russians. (Hell, maybe the Russians did show up and I managed to miss it.) As the plot gets more confusing, Laurie piles as many possible problems as he can on poor Lang, who takes it like a man with a joke writer on standby.

Perhaps this sticky wicket was just the thing to get Lang energized, you see, and just as he's getting set up to be the fallguy in a terrorist plot that involves going to Minnesota and pretending to be an American, then shuffling off to Casablanca for a bit of CNN screen time, our hero (well, the best person we can find, anyway) pulls together an even more desperate scheme to keep the profiteers from profiting.

Oh, and keep himself alive, of course. He's not out to save the world, after all, just his own skin.

Deftly handled by Laurie and featuring a plot more exciting than other action books I've skimmed, this book was a fast and enjoyable read. Lang reminds me very much of Marlowe, having read a Chandler book after this one. He's out skirting the law and using people as need be, all the while trying to get the girl. The quips and jabs are also very Marlowesque.

Where Laurie differs, however, is that the entire book is written that way, not just the dialog. Here's an example from the first chapter:

"His name was Rayner. First name unkonwn. By me, at any rate, and therefore, presumably, by you, too.
"I suppose someone, somewhere, must have known his first name--must have baptized him with it, called him down to breakfast with it, taught him how to spell it--and someone else must have shouted it across a bar with an offer of a drink, or murmured it during sex, or written it in a box on an life insurance application form. I just they must have done all these things. Just hard to picture, that's all."

If there's a chance to be Pythonly-pedantic about something, Laurie takes it. A British comedian from the days of Black Adder (and I'm sure, other things), Laurie has that ability to make the mundane funny simply by placing it front and center.

If you generally enjoy spy books and are looking for a clever spoof that doesn't insult your intelligence with its obviousness (ala "The DaVinci Cod" or similar direct ripoff books) this is definitely for you.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood

I was going to start this review off by talking about Atwood is one of the few authors I've read more than two books by, but then when I realized that list also includes Michael Crichton I'm not really sure I should brag about that list after all. So I'll just mention that Atwood is one of the few writers I've read more than two books by that makes me want to keep reading more books by that author, and we'll leave it at that.

This is a book that tells the story of one woman in the form of a series of short stories that together give us a picture of her life, though each works as its own piece. In fact, since I don't read jacket blurbs and Atwood doesn't give much in the way of names until much later in the book, I was under the impression the stories weren't even related!

That's part of the beauty of this book--you can take the stories as a collective whole, think of them on their own merits, or, as I did, look at them in both ways.

I recently described Atwood as writing good stories that aren't "earth-shattering" and by that I mean that we aren't going to learn a big social lesson by reading a book like Moral Disorder. No one's facing racial discrimination or trying for gay rights or any of those things that might take a novel and make it trendy. This is book about Nell, a woman who comes from a dysfunctional family, tries to deal with her own issues, and ends up making choices that seem to benefit everyone but her.

Like many of us, Nell's going through life as best she can, and like many of us, we can see her flaws but not our own. It's easy for me to say, "Why does she stay with Tig?" but I bet in her shoes, I'd have dug myself deeper, just like she did. (And you know what? I think you would, too.) That is the brilliance of this book. While we may not have matching problems, Nell stands in for those of us who feel like life pushes us about, and the best we can do is try to hold our own. Whether it's making it by in school, dealing with relationships, juggling friends, or dealing with the emotional problems of our relatives, all of us have to face the same types of things Nell does. (If you don't ever see yourself doing this, if you think you have control of everything you do, then don't bother reading this book. You won't like it. It's like listening to Pink Floyd's "The Wall"--you either get it or you don't.)

To be sure, Nell does herself no favors. She seems to be more adrift than anyone else, and that leaves her as a doormat, especially in relation to Tig's ex-wife. Still, there's the feeling that everything that happens, right up to her watching her parents grow old and die, fits into a life that's disordered. Whether it's because the character is too moral or too immoral is left up to the decision of the reader.

Atwood's prose is very lyrical, which makes sense since she also writes poetry. Little lines like, "free at last from the thought rays beamed out by my parents" pepper the text in the way that only a truly great writer can do. Her description of Nell's thoughts really put us squarely inside her head. She never tries to break the viewpoint--the only way we see Nell is through her own, highly critical, eye. We don't get an objective opinion of Tig, Nell's sister, or any of the others. This is a novel squarely in the first person viewpoint, even when it's not directly narrated by her.

There is no clear beginning or end to this book, as befits the idea of short stories. Nell and Tig are made to be timeless at the start, morphing from themselves to a Roman couple, talking about the same meaningless problems as the larger world revolves around them. At the end, Nell tries to piece together parts of her family's past, but to no avail. We can't ever get the closure we're looking for. There will always been options not pursued, ideas unknown, pictures uncaptioned. Nell shows us this in her life, and Atwood confirms it with the wrap-up story. We all live in a moral disorder, whether we realize it or not.

On the Bloodstained Field by Gregory A. Coco

The Battle of Gettysburg is almost a cottage industry in and of itself, amongst a larger industry of putting out as many Civil War books as the reading publish will purchase. (At last count, this was more titles than dollar bills in the national debt.) It is particularly notable for being a battle that contains little dramatic stories that get collected into books like, "On the Bloodstained Field," a collection of "130 Human Interest Stories" as stated on its cover.

This is not to say that other battles lack human interest. A lot of more modern books on the war try to capture the feeling of the common solider, with varying results. It's just that Gettysburg, because of its name recognition, tends to draw more memories out of the woodwork, leading to a plethora of books in the style of this one.

If you are a fan of anecdotes, then this is a book you'll love. Short, sweet, and grouped into the different phases of the battle, each story tells a small part of the battle from those who experienced it, or at least their best memory of what happened. I admit that I am skeptical of a lot of the book's stories, simply because so many of them are memories from long after the war was over. Time heals all wounds and embellishes all good stories, just anyone who ever hears any of mind. (Coco does provide a source for all the stories--it's not like I'm saying he's made them up. I am simply of the opinion that tales recounted over the fireplace in 1893 need to be looked at carefully.)

This is a very typical example of the material within, called "The Twelfth Battle":

"Just before the Battle of Gettsyburg, Sergeant Edward B. Rollins of Company A, 15th Massachusetts Infantry, sent a card to his wife with the name of eleven battles he had fought, beautifully inscribed upon it. He left space for inscribing one more name, and wrote to her that after he had fought in his twelfth battle, he would come home.
"He was killed at Gettysburg on July 2 -- his twelfth battle."

Not unlike a Twilight Zone episode, no?

Some of the stories, such as Hampton's duel or John Burns' wounds, are things I've read before. Others are light fare like a man who shoots in the air to "scare" the enemy. While the topic is deadly serious and the tales are often poinent, the reading depth is light. It's a nice break from deeper, scholarly accounts and a fun read for those looking for another way to witness the battle or material to tell the kids on vacation.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Cartoon Modern by Amid Amidi

Cartoon Modern is the story, told partly in words, partly in stills, of the animation revolution of the 1950s. While Ike kept us out of World War III and America tried to pretend it had no seamy underbelly (the idealistic view of the 50s as the perfect, Happy Days world is total crap, in case you didn't know), cartoons were experimenting with form and foundation.

If you are a fan of animation, you really owe it to yourself to pick this one up. Amidi has a great love for his subject, and it shows. He spends time with the big guys--Warner Brothers, Walt Disney, and Hanna-Barbera, just to name a few--but also deals extensively with people you may not have heard of before that, while not making things that survive into the DVD age, were no less innovative than the people working for Chuck Jones. Fine Arts films, Storyboard, and Terrytunes all have stories to tell as well.

In fact, some of those "lesser studios" paid better--Bill Melendez (the Charlie Brown guy) left United Picture artists to join John Sutherland Productions, and had his pay doubled! Those are just some of the little facts this book provides to those interested in reading it.

Most people will only think of this art as primitive, something to be parodied on the Simpsons or Family Guy. Heck, seeing modern Scooby Doo cartoons put the originals to shame in terms of art quality, if "as close to real as possible" is your definition for quality. But without these groundbreaking attempts to get out of the Disney-Warner Brothers mold, there would be no South Park, because that type of cutout stylings just would not exist. We'd all be watching soft pastels and perfect pictures, rather than, say, the Powerpuff Girls.

In fact, anyone who's a fan of anything from Cartoon Network owes it to themselves to read this book and see the men who made those shows possible. (I'm afraid it does appear to be almost exclusively male. I don't remember if there are any references to women cartoonists at all, come to think of it.) Flip to almost any page in Cartoon Modern and you'll see the designs that inspired the current crop of animators. That alone is worth the price of admission.

If there is a problem with this book, it's that there's no DVD to go along with it. While I realize that the author makes the reader aware that most of what he is discussing is not available on home video, I think a companion DVD with some snippets, at least, of what the publisher could find would have improved this book immensely. But that's like saying meeting the President would have been better if you could have talked to him for an hour instead of forty-five minutes. It's a minor quibble, but does make me wish they'd consider a documentary based on this book.

Cartoon Modern is an excellent addition for those, like me, who love classic animation and want to learn all they can about the work of those who were contemporaries--and sometimes collaborators--on the shorts we grew up with on television. It's a great find, and I urge you to read it. You should also check out the Cartoon Modern blog, for more pictures!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Benny King of Swing designed by Lawrence Edwards

[The book cover is bland and tan. This picture is a better one!]

I can't remember exactly when I tumbled to jazz, but the older I get, the more I love the sounds from about 1920-1970, from early New Orleans hot to the beginnings of jazz fusion and jazz funk. I think about 80 percent of the CDs I buy are jazz at this point. The more I listen to jazz, the more I want to know about the people who played it, so about once a month or so I get a book out on the subject.

I am also a fan of big old picture books on subjects I like, such as trains, haunted houses, favorite television programs, and so on. They're nice to pull out and review a few pages at a time, or show to friends with similar interests.

This book is a combination of both, featuring Benny Goodman. Goodman was one of the major swing band leaders of the 1930s and 40s, and is notable for both a great clarinet sound, strong band members such as Lionel Hampton, Harry James, Gene Krupa, and several others who went on to great solo careers. He also was one of the first bandleaders to break the color barrier, or so I understand. (My jazz history knowledge is limited, so I may be wrong on that.) In short, he's an iconic figure in jazz--the perfect person to do a cofee table book on for the jazz enthusiast.

We start with a brief (about 60 pages or so) biography of Goodman, focusing primarily on his early days and his start in the jazz world. It's a total puff piece, but that's okay because you're not getting this book out for the text.

Like a jazz version of Playboy, you're reading this one for the pictures.

And oh what amazing pictures there are in here! Goodman dominates, of course, with a lot of solo and family shots. There are also stills of the various bands he led over time. However, the real treats are the "team-up" pictures, with everyone from Louis Armstrong to Duke Ellington to Frank Sinatra. Count Basie's in here, too, along with Hampton, Krupa, Glenn Miller, Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O'Day, and many others.

There's even musical celebrities from other genres, like Bernstein, Bartok, and Stravinsky! If you prefer celebrities, try Jack Benny or even President Kennedy. If you're communist, you can swoon over Kruschev! (Don't worry, we won't rat you out to Congress.)

This is a book not so much to be read as to be enjoyed by lovers of jazz. If swing is your thing and you get a chance to take a peek at this book, by all means do you. You'll enjoy it almost as much as listening to Goodman himself.