Monthly Archives: July 2012

See How We Almost Fly

            “I don’t read contemporary poetry.” That’s what I told Alison Luterman at a recent conference, right before I asked her if I could have a copy of the poem she had just read to the group. That poem spoke to me, and so I decided to get a copy of one of her books, See How We Almost Fly.

            I don’t read contemporary poetry because contemporary poets are self-absorbed and impressed with their own post-somethingism. Alison Luterman is neither. Instead, she does what a poet should do – she tells a complete feeling and a complete story in a tiny block of space. Her words do not dance across the page, nor do they stomp. Instead, they press themselves into place, each with its own deliberate space in time.

            Her poems are about small things that are huge: the death of a friend, a word in a poetry class in women’s prison, women with bags of rice. Luterman makes those deeply personal moments ours, so that even as we see the specifics of the incident, we can burrow within and find the moment a part of our own lives.

            I read one poem before bed every night for almost two months. Now I’m faced with a decision: get a new book of her poetry or start over. I guess I now read contemporary poetry.

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Are You My Mother?

            Oh, Alison Bechdel, why do you do this to me? You publish these books that look like comic books, which sets the mind at easy and then you sock me with a text that requires considerably more concentration than I needed to read Ulysses. And, really, did you have to title this latest Are You My Mother? I read that title and I think of the bird hopping around in a kid’s book.

            Well, this ain’t no kid’s book.

            Are You My Mother? is a companion book to Bechdel’s graphic memoir about her father’s closeted life and suicide, Fun Home. I found that first book challenging and intriguing, well worth the effort. This latest knocked me on my ass. In a good way.

            Somewhere about a third of the way through Are You My Mother?, while trying to keep track of the various therapists and partners that act as signposts for the different time periods Bechdel threads through the book, I thought to myself, “I’m just going to have to read this again when I’m done.” As someone once told me, “You never read Ulysses for the first time.”

            Bechdel weaves psychoanalytic theory and history, Adrienne Rich, and Virginia Woolf in with what appears at first glance to be a rambling through time. In fact, Bechdel doesn’t ramble but tightly controls the twists and turns of the text as she explores her relationship with her mother and her own psyche. She leaves the reader subtle visual clues to help guide readers on their way through the speeding train of a labyrinth that is this book.  

            Bechdel is a bit like graphic writing’s answer to Woody Allen, were he smarter, funnier, and far less annoying. And also not married to his stepdaughter. And a lesbian. So, really not like Woody Allen at all, except for the lots-of-therapy bit.

            At any rate, go read Are You My Mother? But not at the beach. Read something lighter and easier there, like Joyce.

From Our House

            “What I wanted more than anything was for him to acknowledge his part in the mistakes we had made. Not once, after all the times he had whipped me, after all the screaming, cursing fights, had he told me he was sorry. Always, I was the one who eventually apologized for my behavior” (155).  So Lee Martin writes about his father here in his memoir From Our House. The book is an honest yet oddly gentle uncovering of a childhood marked by violence and anger.

            Martin’s father lost both his hands in a farming accident when Lee was a young child. “I know that all our lives began to curve and change that day in the cornfield when the shucking box on the picker clogged, and my father tried to clear it without first shutting off the tractor,” Martin exlains (1). Martin’s father’s stumps were fitted with metal hooks as prosthetics, and he continued to do all the farm work.

            Martin posits that his father became angry after the accident, and at moments through the book, he supplies another image of his father – the happy, loving man he imagines he might have been before. Perhaps young Martin needed that imaginary father to cling to in the moments when he heard the belt coming off, but it’s also part of Martin’s ability to avoid casting his father as villain. His mother is the saint in the story, no doubt – a patient, religious woman who spends a lot of time seeing the best in the husband and son who fight all the time. Yet, his father is not the devil, not in the way Martin tells the story.

            Instead, Martin allows himself to portray his father as a whole human being. He does this by refusing to let himself off the hook. Just as he always apologized to his father as a young person, in the text he shoulders a good hunk of the responsibility for their tumultuous relationship. On the one hand, I have a hard time seeing him assign blame to his younger self for reacting as he did to a father who exerted such cruel power over him. But on the other hand, there’s something incredibly evolved about a person who can say It’s not just the other person’s fault. He writes it not to be a martyr, but rather with sadness that he and his father could never have a good relationship, due to the forces life exerted on them.

            I met Lee Martin a few months ago and took a seminar from him at a conference. He was a remarkable, gifted teacher, and he rejuvenated my work. I got the sense then that I was in the presence of a strong, thoughtful, and unusual person. Reading his memoir, I realize how right I was.

22 Britannia Road

It’s hard to imagine simply losing your spouse and child, but that’s what happened to Janusz, a Polish soldier in World War II.  Now, six years later, he is living in London and has located Silvana and seven-year-old Aurek, who lived out the war in the forests of Poland. That’s the premise for Amanda Hodgkinson’s strong debut novel, 22 Britannia Road.

The confusion of war meant that Janusz was not long with his unit and Silvana couldn’t remain in their apartment. After the war, there must have been many people in this kind of predicament – married, no longer in their country, and unsure of whether their families were alive or dead. The premise itself is fascinating – Hodgkinson conveys the real feeling of “families torn apart” – but the way it plays out is what makes this novel so compelling.

Written in third person and alternating between the characters, 22 Britannia Road shows everyone to be fallible, yet makes each character sympathetic in his or her own way. Tragedy comes not from a single person’s fault, but rather from a set of people, bumping up against one another in difficult circumstances, each making completely understandable mistakes.

In a text with such pared-down, direct prose, readers nonetheless get a full sense of the characters in all their human complexity. My favorite relationship is Aurek and Janusz as they try to build a father-son relationship here in this strange new land. Aurek hasn’t even been in civilization for most of his life, and now he has to go to school and relate to this guy Silvana tells him is his father. Hodgkinson handles their relationship with just the right touch, avoiding sentimentality or heavy-handedness. As in the rest of the book, she sketches in the outlines and shadows, and somehow we see all the colors.

The plot resolves in a satisfying yet far from pat way. I really liked this one, and I walked away with the sense that this is how a novel ought to be written.

Whimsy & Soda

P.G. Wodehouse’s writing is, in a way, a parody in itself. All that “What ho, Jeeves?” and “Very good, sir.” Wodehouse carefully controls his characters and language; the humor comes from us outside watching Bertie Wooster, a man who never really knows the joke is on him. Wodehouse’s humor never spills over the edge, it’s never campy.

So, how do you parody a parody ? How do you pay tribute to (and gently poke fun at) Wodehouse without taking it too far? The same way you brush an alligator’s teeth.

Very, very carefully.

Matthew David Brozik’s new e-book, Whimsy & Soda, does just that. Brozik gingerly plucks up Wodehouse’s characters and pops them down into new, kind of surreal situations. What would happen if Wooster turned into a budgerigar overnight? How would Jeeves handle it? And that’s just the first story. Wait till you get to Bruce Wayne.

What makes Whimsy & Soda such a fantastic parody is that Brozik manages to stay completely true to the characters, no matter how bizarre the situation. He has a perfect handle on their voices and personalities that can only possibly come from a devotion to Wodehouse. The situations he comes up with for the characters can only come from a brilliant and probably somewhat disturbed mind.

Brozik’s humor is as tightly controlled as Wodehouse’s. He, too, never slips over the edge and never breaks from Wodehouse’s voice, except in the one twist of the situation he sticks the characters into.

It’s a great book for a Wodehouse fan. I had actually never read Wodehouse before this, but since I’m rapidly becoming a Brozik fan and I love a good parody, I invested the time in a Wodehouse book before coming to Whimsy & Soda. It was time well spent, because a good parody is hard to find.

Cutting for Stone

Did you ever go on a road trip with an eight year old and an eleven year old during which the older sibling decides a trip from Pennsylvania to South Carolina is the perfect time to teach her little brother the lyrics to “This is the Song That Never Ends”?

That’s kind of what reading Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone feels like.

I don’t mind 670 page books.  I did write a chapter of my dissertation on Henry James, after all, and another on Sister Carrie.  I’ve read Ulysses like the rest of you.  I’ve even read The Making of Americans, a thousand pages of Gertrude Stein, which is what I imagine dropping acid feels like.  No, I’m OK with really long books. 

And I’m OK plot-driven books. I’m no snob; it can be all about the plot and the characters.  I don’t need fancy themes and artistic motifs.  What I’m not so good with are 670 plot-driven pages in which I never really care all that much about the characters.  That would be Cutting for Stone

It’s not that the plot wasn’t interesting; it’s just that the plot didn’t deserve 670 pages.  A strong writer could have accomplished a lot more with the plot in, say, 283 pages, and maybe made me give a crap about the characters in the process.

With the kids and work and strawberry season, I only get 20 or so minutes a night for book reading, so it took me over a month to get through this book.  That’s over a month of reading time I’ll never get back.

On the bright side, I borrowed it from a friend I’m seeing tomorrow, so as of tomorrow, it’ll be out of my life once and for all.