Friday, January 06, 2006

Satisfied With Havoc. by Jo McDougall. Pittsburgh: Autumn House Press, 2004. $14.95 (pa)

In her fifth poetry collection, McDougall meditates on loss and the chaos of life. Within these spare poems she manages to capture complex relationships between men and women, parents and children, and parents bereft of children, with no clutter, no image wasted.

McDougall is showing us the top of the iceberg, leaving us to feel the body of it, below. Between the lines we see her struggling to hold back a monster of grief, a ghost that haunts these pages. In "Gurney," we see a hint of this ghost. The narrator is visiting her daughter, " the last stage/of her disease" And while in her daughter's room, "Fighting for my life/I water the flowers on the windowsill."

McDougall's poems are haunting and graceful with no pretense. In "Work," McDougall describes the writing life. "You think of the day's work you have done/ how you lowered yourself into it slowly/ as a coffin might enter a grave." The imagery is rich as crème sauce, something to be savored.

But there is peace in nature. In "The Crows of Mica Street," McDougall hears the sound of birds: "I receive their song in my ruined life/like scalding water in a new wound./ I walk on, redeemed." Snow, the land, animals and growing things all offer hope. After all, they are still alive.

And in the wildness of people, McDougall finds hope, and humor as in "The Boys From Brewer Bottoms," in which the narrator describes high school football players who'd "...grown up/defending their father's stills." "Envy and moonshine drove their brains," she says. "With those boys on our team/our high school won All-District in football/every year."

There is humor in these poems, and great wisdom. In "The Widow Speaks," McDougall tells us, "Here's something I've learned...It's not enough, but something." McDougall has a knack for taking characters who might, in other, less careful hands, come off as familiar. It's no great stretch to make a widow into a carrier of loss, but McDougall grants her characters life, puts a twinkle in their eyes, then steals it and gives it to us.

-Originally published in The Hollins Critic
* Yesterday I received a note from Jo McDougall thanking me for the review. She is a very nice lady, in addition to being an incredibly talented poet.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Dead in the West, Jo R. Lansdale. San Francisco: Night Shade Books, 2005. Hardcover $25.00. ISBN: 1-597800-14-7.

Hey wait a minute, that's not new. That book came out like almost two decades ago. What gives? Okay, you got me. Night Shade Books recently reissued Lansdale's Zombie Western in a nice little hardcover edition. I didn't write reviews in 1986, when it originally was released. Plus, it's a zombie western. I mean come on.
Originally written as a serial in the style of the great old pulps like WEIRD TALES, this particular version of Dead in the West tells the story of Reverend Jebediah Mercer, a heavily armed preacher with a sweet tooth for sour mash. Mercer arrives in Mud Creek hoping to set up a tent revival and stir up a little bit of that old time religion. And he could use it, but it might be a little late for the town. It seems that strange things have been happening in Mud Creek ever since they lynched an Indian medicine man and his wife. And what have we learned about lynching Indian medicine men? Now, it looks like the dead are rising and Mercer might just be the only one who can do anything about it, if he can get himself together. (Good thing he's so good with that pistol, huh?)
I hate to sound biased, but I'll go ahead and say that if you buy just one zombie western this year, make it this one. It's got zombies. It's a western. It's even got a snappy cover. In the last couple of years, Lansdale has released a handful of well written, thought provoking stories of young people coming of age and dealing with race issues, sexism and generally important social problems. A FINE DARK LINE, THE BOTTOMS, these are good, strong novels that are giving Lansdale's oeuvre respectability and firmly entrenching him in the annals of American literature. But this one has zombies in it.

-Originally published in Ghoti Magazine
Some Days It's a Love Story, Jason Irwin. Niagara Falls: Slipstream, 2005. Paper $7.00.

First off, you're probably wondering why I'm reviewing a chapbook. Well, it did win the Slipstream chapbook competition; that's prestigious enough. And chapbooks aren't often reviewed, so there's a novelty factor. But I'll be frank. I received this book as a conciliation. That means I entered Slipstream's chapbook contest and lost and they sent me a copy of the winning book for my $15.00. That means I'm about to say that this book is a piece of...well, it's pretty good, actually. See, I cracked it open fully expecting it to reinforce my fervent belief that I'd been gypped. No such luck.
Irwin's collection is spare and yearning, his characters desperate and driven. The poems center around a working class reality. Though he hails from NY state, Irwin manages a Midwestern scarcity, an immediacy in the lives of his characters that reveal a poet wise in voice but young enough to capture the fire of a 20-something looking down the long hall of a blue-collar career. "Sons of Sisyphus," he calls them, in "Cadillacs," "toil(ing)/in the purgatory of/Monday through Friday, men/ hard as gravel."
Irwin's poems are lean and brooding, quiet portraits of characters leading dissonant lives. "I think/how my father and grandfather worked," he says in "At the Grocery," of all the dreams they must've swallowed/to put food on the table, pay the mortgage/and know I'm not that faithful or strong."
I found myself reading and reading these poems, savoring them like dark chocolate. In taking notes for this review, instead of finding lines to quote, I kept marking whole poems. I see my father in these poems, my brother, myself. This is rare. Usually all I see in poems is the poet. If that.
>So, if I'm going to lose to a collection, I'm glad it was this one. This is, of course, what I should expect from Slipstream, who've previously published chapbooks by Sherman Alexie, Robert Cooperman, Gerald Locklin, etc. etc. So, go to the Slipstream website, ( print out the order form, write a check for $7.00 and send it in. So maybe you can't afford to go see that movie you've been looking forward to until next week. That's okay. Another remake or sequel will be along by then. You won't have missed anything.

-Originally published in Ghoti Magazine
Stranger Than Fiction, Chuck Palahniuk. New York: Doubleday, 2004. Hardcover $23.95. ISBN: 0-385-50448-9

In his second nonfiction collection, Palahniuk delivers twenty three seemingly incongruent essays on topics as diverse as a combine demolition derby, the strange trend of castle building in America, and the death of his own father. There are many similarities to his previous collection, Fugitives and Refugees, which acts as a sort of travel guide to Portland broken up with personal essays in the forms of 'postcards,' from various times in his life in Portland. In both books, Palahniuk reveals brief portraits of the man behind the Club, giving the die hard fans choice bits of background info on the origins of some of the more memorable moments in his novels. But more than this, Palahniuk reveals himself as strangely (and inspiringly) detached from the hype. In "Almost California," he delivers a hilarious send up of Hollywood, triggered by a mishap while shaving his head the day before meeting with the studio about Fight Club. "Tomorrow, I was going to Hollywood. That night, I couldn't get my head to stop bleeding. Little bits of toilet paper were stuck all over my swelled-up scalp." His head becomes infected and scabby and "...would just bleed and bleed," he writes. "Whoever was lowest in the pecking order, I had to ride in their car."

These essays are loosely tied together by their strangeness, their honesty, and Palaniuk's dark humor. He interviews actress Juliette Lewis, writes of his profound respect for the writings of Amy Hempel, Mark Richard, and Palahniuk's experiences studying them in Tom Spanbauer's workshop. He meditates on the future of writing, the spurt in self-publishing and how this could positively affect the lives of writers. "What's going out is the cathartic transgressive novel," he says. and admits to his own dabblings in steroids. One of the funnier essays, and there are many, is "The Lip Enhancement," in which he wants so badly to have full, pouty lips (like Brad Pitt) that he uses a device to suck his lips into a fuller shape, finally realizing that this will only last for a few hours. "The whole evening would then be a race to get naked and accomplish some lovin' before your parts snapped back to their original size." These systems are for more than lips, he discovers. "I was visitor number 921 to the Lip Enhancer website. I was visitor number 500,000 to any of the penis enlargement sites." He defends his preoccupation thusly: "These are systems you can buy, and use, and write funny silly essays about and therefore tax-deduct; needless to say, several of these systems are now in the mail to me."

These essays are “funny silly” essays at times, and profoundly revealing at other times. Sneaking into the market just before the release of Palahniuk’s newest novel Haunted, many fans may miss sight of these essays completely, and that’s a shame. They are well worth reading, whether one is a fan of Palahniuk’s work or just curious the voice in Tyler Durden’s head.

-Originally published in Ghoti Magazine
Bumper Crop, Joe R. Lansdale. Illinois: Golden Gryphon Press, 2004
Hardcover, $24.95 ISBN 1-930846-24-x

Following the best-of short story collection High Cotton, Joe R. Lansdale, collects more of his best short stories from the 80's in Bumper Crop, spanning the early career of one of the most underrated writers in America. Generally billed as "horror," these stories span a gamut of styles from old fashioned edge-of-your-seat thrillers such as; "God of the Razor," where a man encounters an other-worldly terror in the basement, to surreal portraits like, "Fish Night," where two men on a lonely road suddenly find themselves swimming in an ocean in the sky, or "Bestsellers Guaranteed," where even the least talented writer can have success...for a price. But these stories aren't your run of the mill horror. Don't forget, Joe R. Lansdale is the man who brought us Bubba Ho-Tep, the soon-to-be cult classic film portraying a not-quite-dead Elvis in his waning years in a nursing home in Mud Creek, side-by-side with a black JFK facing a hillbilly mummy.

Armed with Texas wit and an eye for telling detail, Lansdale plops us down into worlds filled with monsters and foolish men, vampire houses, and blood drinking aliens who just happen to hang out in bars. These stories are at turns funny, gripping and wry. Sometimes commenting on society, sometimes just scaring the hell out of you, but always effective. Each story is introduced by the author with a little background info on how the story came to be, why it came to be, where it was published, or not published, and whatever happens to be on Lansdale's mind about the story. These introductions are often nearly as entertaining as the stories themselves, and give us insight into the mind behind them.

Lansdale has written over twenty books, including the Leonard Pine and Hap Collins mystery series, and has received the Edgar award, American Mystery Award, two New York Times Notable Book awards, and others. He has published over two hundred short stories, and has written for comic books, animated televisions shows such as Batman, and the big screen.

-Originally published in Ghoti Magazine

Stories From a Moron: Real Stories Rejected by Real Magazines, Ed Broth. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2005. Hardcover, $18.95. ISBN 0-312-32676-0

Imagine you're the editor of a trade publication like Steamboat Magazine, a quarterly magazine for steamboat enthusiasts, and some guy sends you a story about the Earth, Wind, and Fire cover band, Shit, Shower and Shave. What do you do? Say you point out that your magazine only publishes writing relating to steamboats. Now, what would you do, if the guy sent you back the same story, but he's added a scene where Shit, Shower and Shave are flipping through a copy of Steamboat Magazine one day on the way to the drycleaners, and talking amongst themselves about how good the editorial section is? Now what do you do?

In this act of blind retaliation against editors everywhere, Ed Broth presents the results of dozens of attempts to place wacky (yes, that's the word I want to use) stories in random publications in which they do not belong. Whether it's Young and Alive Magazine, or Muzzle Blasts: the Official Publication of the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association, Broth has been rejected from them all, and he has collected the rejection letters alongside the stories that earned them; stories about his bedwetting father, Al Pacino look-alike stool, his girlfriend Kitty with her cat named Kitty who are always being mistaken for each other, and Tourettes Sign Language, among other even stranger topics.

With an introduction by Jerry Seinfeld, obviously, this is a light read. These stories tend to be very short and heavy on surreal humor. My immediate reaction was fear that this would become tedious, but Broth constantly injects new and stranger scenarios into the mix. Broth creates a twisted little world (Cumberland County) with running-gag characters that pop up throughout the course of the book. And the joke of sending these odd stories to unlikely magazines is quickly overshadowed by the joy not only of seeing what the editors will have to say, but how Broth will respond in turn.
-Originally published in Ghoti Magazine

With, Donald Harington. Connecticut: Toby Press, 2004 Hardcover, $19.95 ISBN 1-59264-050-8

Sog Allen is a hard nosed cop facing a bleak future, when he decides to buck the tide and retire to an abandoned, nearly unreachable mountain cabin where no one will bother him. But before he can go, he'll need companionship. So he decides to kidnap Robin Terr, a young girl he's spied from afar. When Sog brings Robin to his mountain top cabin, her only friends are Hreapha, the ugliest dog in creation, and the ghost of a 12 year old boy whose family once inhabited the cabin. This new life is strange and disturbing for Robin. Everything she has ever known is gone, and worse than that, Sog has some unpleasant ideas about how this new life should go. But soon after they get to the cabin, something happens to Sog. He's getting sick. He can barely walk and he's drinking more and more, making him even less dependable. With this mixed blessing, young Robin must learn to survive, without the help of her captor, who grows weaker each day.
And so begins Mr. Harington's latest tale of Stay More, Arkansas. A beautiful and terrifying story of self-reliance and flowering self-discovery. This is a fairy tale more vivid and real than many a nonfiction story, and Mr. Harington employs his usual wit and warmth to show us the girl, stranded in the woods without her trail of bread crumbs.
This is the latest of ten novels chronicling Stay More, the legendary fictional small town in the Arkansas Ozark Mountains. Many of these books have recently come back into print through Toby press. Always a treat, Mr. Harington's novels are stylistically inventive, warm and funny. Capturing the best in "Arkansas Traveler," mountain wit, with a depth rarely matched in modern fiction, Mr. Harington's novels are not to be missed.
-Originally published in Ghoti Magazine