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Showing posts from February, 2010

Love You to Pieces: Creative Writers on Raising a Child with Special Needs, edited by Suzanne Kamata

I'd like to say first that this collection of short stories, novel excerpts, poetry, and memoirs, stands on its own as good to great literature based solely on the writing: it's quality writing worth reading regardless of one's experience or education in the unique worlds of special needs. Having said that, if you do happen to live somewhere in these unique worlds, what a blessing to see your own struggles, isolation, fears, frustrations, dark thoughts of despair, anger & grief (and hopes and triumphs too!), bluntly and beautifully spelled out on the page as if you're reading a chapter out of your own life!

My 11 year old daughter has the dual-diagnosis of Down syndrome and autism; and it's been hard! This compilation resonates with me -- I don't feel quite so alone after reading each piece. For instance, when I read the following passage from "Without Strings" by Hannah Holborn:

" neighbors slept with confidence inside their heavily mo…

Drawers and Booths by Ara 13

I'm at somewhat of a loss as how to adequately discuss Drawers and Booths without cracking up in both a laughter and asylum sense during the process, and that's undoubtedly a compliment to its eccentric author, Ara 13, so bear with me while I lay out some facts first to get myself acclimated. Ara 13 is not a pseudonym as far as I know; Ara legally changed his last name from Hirsch to 13 in 1998, "mainly because it's funny," his press release states. Funny -- and goofy -- indeed. Drawers and Booths, Ara 13s debut novel, won an "Outstanding Book of the Year" award from the 2008 Independent Publisher Book Awards (an IPPY prize, arguably the indie publishing equivalent of a Pulitzer or Man Booker), and also won a bronze medal for "Storyteller of the Year."

So does Drawers and Booths truly merit these awards and accolades? Hell yes! I've had the misfortune of reading (with always the good intentions of positively reviewing) far too many ind…

The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman

A shocking secret between siblings partway through The Lake of Dead Languages sets off a torrent of Hitchcockian plot twists-and-turns as windy as the windiest mountain road with as many blind curves you never see coming, until … until it’s too late and you sit stunned, eyes all enormo-like, like you’re driving off a cliff, too shocked to scream. Though I’m not suggesting you disregard the first 243 pages of what’s an already intriguing whodunit mystery staged around a lost journal and an oft-lethal lake prone to apparent suicidal drownings (or might they be murders?) in the austere snowbound Adirondacks; it’s just that Carol Goodman so ups the macabre, gothic ante in the novel’s concluding chapters that as a reader you’re all-in no matter what.

Should you recklessly begin this book in the evening, plan on an all-nighter and calling in sick the next day. Best read The Lake of Dead Languages during the day time, Friend, and never by a pine forested lake at night near a boarding scho…

The Safety of Objects by A.M. Homes

Whether Amy Homes is here to shock you in her short fiction, novels, and memoir, is debatable, but shock you or not, how you can you not be amused by how twisted her imagination is in her debut collection of stories, The Safety of Objects,chronicling the emotional destitution of suburbia's parents and kiddos that is all too horrifically real?  Homes' book title is ironic, of course, as there's no safety to be found anywhere in the dark (though often, hysterical) worlds her characters -- both living and inanimate object -- populate.
The parents of "Adults Alone" ship off their two kids (one's a baby) to the wife's parent's house for the week so that our two substance abusing anti-heroes, Elaine and Paul, can take drugs and get high 24/7 while the kids are away. It's a stay-cation of cocaine, hashish, and acid, sans room service. The damn in-laws, though, announce they're bringing the kids home early because, after all, shouldn't a little b…

Last Vanities by Fleur Jaeggy

Haunting collection of loosely connected tales. Connected mostly by their macabre and decadent themes. The psychological horrors her characters inhabit creep up on you...

Boo!....Like that.

Scare you? No? Don't worry, Fleur Jaeggy will. And if she doesn't scare you, she'll certainly disturb you. And she'll do it in only 95 pages, comprising seven stories. Every story lingers, long after you've finished, like regrets.

In the title story, a husband thinks his wife is ill, as their golden anniversary approaches. He's disappointed too when she turns out not to be ill at all...well, not physically ill, as he thought. His wife doesn't much care for him wishing any kind of ill upon her, and does something discreet, though drastic, in triumphant retaliation.

An overly generous man, in "The Free House" has opened his large house to the mentally ill. He and his wife sleep in separate beds. The man's wife spies on these mentally ill while he…

Lightning on the Sun by Robert Bingham

Asher, the jaded anti-hero of Lightning On The Sun, was once an idealistic young man, much like the young author who created him, Robert Bingham. I suspect to know Asher is to know a bit of Robert Bingham, since Bingham worked for a couple years (like Asher) in Cambodia as a reporter. Before Bingham (M.F.A. from Columbia University) fatally overdosed on heroin in late 1999 at the age of 33, just five months prior to the publication of his first novel, Lightning On The Sun, he'd published a short story collection, Pure Slaughter Value, and his fiction and non-fiction had appeared in The New Yorker -- he was definitely destined to be a writer to keep one's eyes on in the new millennium. He'd just started his own literary journal too, Open City Magazine, and he'd just gotten married. Robert Bingham had a lot going for him both in his fledgling career as an author and in his personal life. Critics compared his debut novel to Robert Stone's 1975 National Book Award-win…

Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives by Dr. Laura Schlesinger

Another stupid thing a woman could do to further mess up her life would be to read this book or any book ever written by this "author".

Yeah, there's common sense advice that might prove helpful to some women who're prone to making the same repeated mistakes in, say, picking mates, but "Dr." Laura's diatribe deliveries (if you thought her radio show sounded glib and grating, try reading one of her books!) and her just general overarching conservative condescencion permeating every sentence that drips with arrogant goop like some incurable Republican plague, really makes for a sucky and annoying read. Her know-it-all schtick and pompous demeanor - her icky bitchyness - may work fine for her radio cult, but not for thoughtful or non-knee jerk, intelligently crafted and complex writing. If I want black-and-white I'll go to an antique store and buy me one.

She's right, she writes she knows she's right, and writes that if you don't believe s…

Fucking Frankenstein by Mr. Matt Allen

This Fucking Frankenstein shit is what Mary Shelley might have written back in her day were she possessed by the washed-up spirit of Andrew Dice Clay. It's that bad: Crass, unfunny vulgarity for crass, unfunny vulgarity's sake. Fucking Stooo-pid!

Fucking Frankenstein is the Jackass or - worse - Beavis and Butthead of a terrible trend occuring with alarming regularity in recent literature: the mashup, er, perversion and distortion of classic literature, be it the disrespectful drivel of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or some dumbed-down graphic novel version of a classic, so abridged as to be unrecognizable and irrelevant to the author's original intentions.

If you're a skinny boy of thirteen, you'll probably guffaw your pimply little face off, you dweeb, once you see the "F" word in all it's magnificent variants: "fuck," "fucking," "fucked," "fucker," - inserted indiscriminately - for no fucking artistic p…

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

Perhaps if Jean-Dominique Bauby's story of "locked-in syndrome" - a rare cerebrovascular condition in which the mind ("The Butterfly") is vibrant and wide awake, while the body ("The Diving Bell") is a slumbering mass of perpetual immobility and inertia (a very personal prison cell comprised of his own flesh and blood) - were fictive rather than so terribly true, I'd of more so savored each of his spare sentences. For each sparkling sentence is a story or a truth unto itself.

"But to keep my mind sharp, to avoid descending into resigned indifference, I maintain a level of resentment and anger, neither too much nor too little, just as a pressure cooker has a safety valve to keep it from exploding."

Chew on that lyrical gem a bit. Words to live by, even if your body, unlike Bauby's, is not permanently paralyzed.

Perhaps if this poor man, victim of a massive and usually lethal stroke at forty-three that left him in a coma for two mont…

The Body Artist by Don Delillo

Suicide, or more to the point - the awful aftermath of suicide; the grief of the loved ones (in this case, the widow) left behind - would be a pretty tough sell for most works of fiction. Too depressing. Too damn real. But not in Don DeLillo's sage-like hands. He sells the devastation wrought by suicide beautifully and tenderly in The Body Artist: an existential study of time and our relationship to time as we travel through it, conveyed along for us in the imaginings (i.e., is the little miming man discovered in the third floor bedroom real or unreal?) of Lauren Hartke, and in her introspections; that is, in her deep loss and deeper longings, and ultimately in the transformative power of her body art sculpted from the raw pain and suffering she endures as a recent, bewildered widow.

I don't know how DeLillo does it. I feel ill-equipped describing his precise way with words. I've revised this section of the review at least ten times, knowing I'm not getting it right…

The Royal Family by William T. Vollmann

Rarely has a book evoked in me such deep abiding disgust (and that's a compliment, definitely a laud) over what I'm witnessing described that I cringe practically every page, close my eyes every other paragraph, almost vomit in my mouth each chapter, feeling simultaneously repelled and yet compelled (how does William T. Vollmann do that?!) to continue reading.

Reading The Royal Family's akin to viewing macabre masterpieces like the The Exorcist or Alien, watching with one eye open and one eye closed as the gross images elicit visceral reactions that shock and shock and shock some more, and just when you thought you'd become desensitized or too jaded and couldn't be shocked anymore, Vollman somehow ups the ante and shocks you worse again -- and that's a compliment (not a complaint) to Vollmann's genius documenting what in lesser hands would appear as exploitation or cheap titillation, rather than a gritty, streetwise, all-too-horrifically-real authenticity…

Sadika's Way: A Novel of Pakistan and America by Hina Haq

Sadika's got a HUGE problem: She's a girl. Not only is she a girl, poor thing (and I say poor because she's literally impoverished in every way possible, both physically and psychologically), but on top of having had the misfortune of being born female in a severely gender-biased society that considers girls chattel, she's got a Pakistani matriarch-of-all-matriarchs for a mother that makes even Leona Helmsley seem genteel and generous by comparison.

So what does a poor girl like Sadika get to look forward to growing up in a confined, filthy Islamabad neighborhood? Not much, other than getting married off asap (one less mouth to feed after all, and such a pity, isn’t it, Khanum, Sadika’s mother figures, wasting food on girls). Getting married off, that is, assuming her poor (but hardworking) parents can scrounge enough goodies together for an attractive-enough dowry to tempt even the pickiest of prospective future mother-in-laws out shopping through the neighborh…

Fierce: Stories and a Novella by Hannah Holborn

Hannah Holborn’s prose is rife with poetic sensibilities in her debut of fiction, Fierce: Stories and a Novella. In the opening story, "We Were Scenes of Grief," the hometown to grieving teenage orphan, Penny Dreadful, a dilapidated and claustrophobic community, Holborn describes as “a cornered wildcat,” an apropos phrase which serves also the added function of describing the desperate outcome of Penny Dreadful’s tragic circumstances — and her personality’s resultant fangs and claws — to a tee. Penny’s grandmother, a character culled from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, lives in a “clinically depressed neighborhood”. And like that humongous Indian out of Ken Kesey’s classic, it's a mentally ill inmate, Penny’s debilitated grandmother, who pleasantly surprises the reader as being the key unlocking Penny (no-longer-Dreadful’s) poignant epiphany as she settles debts with her painful past and recognizes her potential (sans her tragicomic-goth-makeup'd-blue-dyed-hair-reb…

Only Revolutions by Mark Danielewski: Wasted Talent

What an astounding disappointment!

After House of Leaves, I couldn't wait for Mark Danielewski's follow-up, Only Revolutions. I bought Only Revolutions (big mistake!) without even bothering to open it up and scan a few pages, figuring it had to be great based on how fantastic its phenomenal predecessor was.

Buyer beware: What a waste of money, purchasing Only Revolutions! I'm all for non-conformist narrative styles in fiction that oftentimes, in surprising and sublime fashion (e.g., House of Leaves,) broaden the scope of storytelling in breathtaking ways, but Only Revolutions, it pains me to state, is simply experimentation for experimentation's sake, and it's a book like this that gives the term "postmodern" a bad name in contemporary literature.

Some of the images Danielewski employs, when they're taken alone, are quite striking; the language sparkles with originality and power, but I believe the images don't connect together in meaningful wa…

Walter the Farting Dog by William Kotzwinkle and Glenn Murray

What kind of horrible message does a book like Walter the Farting Dog send to our precious children? That it's okay to fart? - and fart publicly? That farting is somehow...funny? Or that breaking wind repeatedly at an opportune time might make you the family hero someday when burglars try to rob your house?

For too long our children have been brought up believing that flatulence, be it canine or Homo sapien in origin, is hysterical, something to joke about. But it's not hysterical; it's not something to joke about, and this book did not make me laugh. I swear by God it didn't.

Even my three-year old knows better when it comes to excretory etiquette. When one of his older sisters toots (never me), he immediately goes all wide eyed, and declares, "ewwwww, that's dis-gus-tus!"

And it is disgustus isn't it, especially when you turn every page of Walter the Farting Dog, a supposed children's book for crying out loud, only to see a big 'ol sm…

Look Out! Satan Wants You: The Cult of Devil Worship in America

Uncle Sam wanted you, and so did Satan!, circa 1988, when a grimacing, bald, goatee'd-human-gargoyle named Anton Szandor Lavey, stared straight into my eyes out of the pitch black background of the chilling cover of the book - the grotto-ish shadows of his eyes on me - me - seemingly calling all rebellious dweebs like me to buy it, the book, Satan Wants You, by Arthur Lyons. Foolishly, perhaps under the subliminal influence of LaVey's sinister satanic spell, I bought it.

Very disappointing read, I remember, spell or no spell. Who cares if Sammy Davis, Jr. spent some time as a converted satanist after he was a converted Jew? - or vice versa? I forget. Not me! Where were the disemboweled black cats, I wanted to know? The human sacrifices? The blood? The lighted candles at each point of the pentagram? The gore?

Instead, we get mediocre, sensationalized history of mostly the rather dull Church of Satan, rather than those, admittedly, less formally flamboyant, but far more wac…

'Salem's Lot by Stephen King

I remember being completely enrapt reading 'Salem's Lot. I don't know if I just eventually outgrew Stephen King or if King indeed sloughed off talent-wise somewhat over the years, but rarely have I read something so outstanding, whether genre or literary since those late nights sometime in the 1980s; a book so ridden with doom, so sickly sinister, and such a phantasmagorical page-turner that it sucked in its blood lust all my free time dry (and sucked time dry I didn't have that should've been spent studying or sleeping!). O what a brooding, gloomy, pseudo-gothic (gothic-chic, let's call it), macabre masterpiece, 'Salem's Lot.

A vampire novel written the way vampire novels were meant to be written back when they were still written right by writers with actual know-how and skills (Anne Rice's debut included): with actual, that is, creative and ingenious implementation of literary stylistic and narrative techniques such as character and plot developm…

Ulysses ... Ick! It Makes Me Sick!

I loathe Ulysses the way that most sensible folks loathe the very existence of Bernie Madoff. It's an all encompassing and consuming loathing leaving no room for mercy. In fact, if I were The Blob or a Killer Tomato on the attack, I'd consume every volume of Ulysses extant (and Bernie Madoff) with my acidic, dissolving loathing. I wish the book were still banned and my access to it summarily and arbitrarily denied me by Big Brother, so that I wouldn't have wantonly wasted my precious, irreplaceable time and energy reading it, is how deep my Ulysses-loathing goes.

Yes, it's true, reading Ulysses (even just half of this poo poo) feels like being disemboweled (or at least like having bad, painful gas; and that's bad, painful gas when you're stuck inside somewhere with other people and it would be too impolite and embarrassing - even as painful as it is holding it in - to let it rip). Oh yeah?! You think that's tacky and tasteless of me to mention? Well,…

Coming of Age with James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man

I resisted appreciating Joyce in college (and still don't appreciate his last two novels to this day), but in college I couldn't stand him because I resented every English Prof. I encountered (and it was practically every one) passing him off with hushed, reverent tones of obeisance like he were Holy Literature's Second Coming. Perhaps had I been that student now they would have passed him off with hushed, reverent tones of obeisance like he were the circa 2008, can-do-no-wrong, Barack Obama. Then, maybe, I would've resented James Joyce a little less, at least.

My fellow classmates and I -- excepting the always diligent-attending brightest and most brilliant ones among us heading on to their doctoral dissertations and on, undoubtedly, to their prestigious academic careers in lofty institutions of higher learning (smarmy smartypants, I was so jealous!) -- avoided attending absolutely every lecture given by what amounted to a professor-priest proselytizing upon the aw…