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:

"...my neighbors slept with confidence inside their heavily mortgaged homes knowing that their children would be icons of socially conscious fashion, win athletic awards, read before kindergarten, earn honors, be beautiful....They would make their parents proud.  They would avoid my daughter like the plague."

I know I'm not the only parent who's felt the deep pain & ongoing disappointment, ongoing grief of watching my child oftentimes be misunderstood and avoided by her "normal" peers. That one line, "They would avoid my child like the plague," packs such an enormous emotional punch I can't help but pause, feel the truth of the artistry in that one line, and think, "Wow, this writer, Hannah Holborn, really gets it!"

Each writer, of course, "gets it" in their own way. Carol Schmidt, in her poem, "A Question of Leaves," gets that moment of epiphany, when a special needs parent of a mentally challenged child reaches that point of understanding that her child will always be a child:

It might have been a sudden blast of wind
that made me catch my breath before
explaining to you carefully
that leaves in the spring are new, 
not the old ones that fell off the trees in the fall.

In "Victoria's Wedding," by Margaret Mantle, another parent dreams of her daughter's wedding, but the grief that never really goes away in the knowledge that her daughter never will have a wedding, is such a loss and sadness to this mother, that she must, while still dreaming mind you, make the dream "go away before I will be allowed to wake up".

Yes, there's much shared sadness in these pieces, but it's not necessarily a sad or depressing read. When we share our sadness over our loss with a good friend, somehow the sharing of the loss eases the pain of loss and enables healing. I want to thank these writers for being so brave as to let us share in their sadness, in their stories; because I know I'm less sad and less isolated after reading them.  Suzanne Kaymata is to be heartily commended for compiling this important anthology that gives a voice to those without one.


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 indies and self-published books which lack the backing of big-time publishers with marketing budgets to burn for a very simple reason: they SUCK. They're embarrassingly godawful. Not so Drawers and Booths.

Remember John Fowles' metafictional masterpiece, The French Lieutenant's Woman? Remember how Fowles lost control of his two leading characters and so inserted himself as a character into his own book in order to take back the authorial reigns? Drawers and Booths is kind of like that -- hard (as in the author's in the book and out of the book and all over the place) metafiction.

Ayn Rand asked: Who is John Galt. Ara 13 asks: Who is Hattie Shore? Figure out who Hattie Shore is in the novel and you've figured out the philosophy and thematic concepts Drawers and Booths repeatedly pivots around, for despite the seemingly arbitrary transitions from third to first person or from past to present tense, or the humorous insertion of its author into the text and ensuing narrative anarchy in which minor characters, heretofore indistinct, begin describing their physical appearance to the reader, blurting out, "Remember what I look like! Remember me! Remember me!" Ara 13 is relaying a compelling even though its long been patented, existential question: Where do I (the reader) begin, and you (the author) end (or vice versa)?

For the first thirty pages or so the reader's just a reader, reading generally about a military base on the fictional isle of Cortinia and its third-world inhabitants, and particularly about a man known only as the Corporal, a media correspondent for the Marines (and I'll bet Ara's alter ego what with Ara's real life years of service as a combat correspondent for the Marine Corps). But then all narrative hell breaks loose....

"Kick approached the church and stepped over the entryway frame. It was dark to his immediate sides, and the sunlit sanctuary made it harder for Kick's eyes to adjust to the recesses of shadows in his periphery.

'Father Atkinson?' he called.

'No,' I reply, emerging from the dark.

Kick turns to his right. 'Who the hell are you?'

'Nobody,' I measure him up, wondering how he will react.

'You don't belong here,' he senses. 'What the hell are you doing? You are going to fuck everything up.'

'How do you know I'm not with the Red Cross?'

'Don't fuck with me. We are well into the story, and here you are speaking first-person and ... and present tense! The readers are gonna immediately realize something is wrong!'

'Well, they will now,' I quip.

'Get the fuck out of here!'

'In due time.'

'What do we do?' Kick panics.

'Relax, no one is reading this. Do you know how hard it is for a first-time author to get published?'

And back and forth we go in and out of Cortinia; from Cortinia to being put on hold for two hysterical blank pages while the author answers his cell phone; to a detective hunt for the mysterious Hattie Shore; to a military grunt declaring "we're in present tense! we're in present tense!" as if present tense were synonymous with "incoming, incoming!"; to a courtroom drama where (gasp!) God is put on trial; and finally back to the Corporal, to a "normal" narrative, and the Corporal's unlikely heroics.

No offense to Ara 13s present publisher, Covington Moore Publishing House -- thank God (or thank fate for you atheists) that great independent presses exist and offer up-and-comers like Ara 13 a chance they might not otherwise get -- but were I a corporate head honcho at, say, FSG, Random House, Putnam, Viking, Scribners, etc. et al., one of the Big Boys on the hunt for the Next Big Thing, I'd be saying hup-2 pronto, Ara 13, sign right here on the dotted line.


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 school for nice and naughty girls, and especially not by a pine forested frozen lake which moans and creaks as its ephemeral ice shifts and cracks, eliciting eerie sounds all too hauntingly human.

Need I praise more the exceeding Excellency of The Lake of Dead Languages? I could further extol the virtues of its liberal use of Latin, or champion the literary allusive depths it plunges, how a working knowledge of Virgil’s, The Aeneid, in particular, aids and enriches our psychological/motivational understanding of the painful choices made by the main characters, Jane Hudson (our narrator-heroine), and Lucy and Dr. Lockhart; as well as foreshadowing the varied dire consequences and outcomes of these character’s actions, for those, that is, who are in tune with the designs of Virgil’s ancient classic. But I’ll conclude and say no more, other than what a delight to have “discovered” the debut novel from one Carol Goodman, which launched what looks to be an extraordinary career.


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.
signed first printing

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 baby be with its mother? Frantic, the dopester parents clean up the house in a hurry but, thankfully, for their precious baby's sake, aren't so wasted as to forget checking the cushions on the sofa prior to the baby's return in order to ensure there's no empty drug vials. A curious baby deep into its oral stage of human development might place an empty vial of cocaine in his or her mouth and choke to death. And that wouldn't be good, no sir-ree bob.

Another child disappears in "Looking For Johnny," and we see his perspective of his own kidnapping, much as we saw the girl's perspective of her own rape and murder in Alice Sebold's, The Lovely Bones - only this child, in Homes' story, hasn't realized he's kidnapped at first. We'd expect, as readers in this predictably tense situation, to read about the child being molested and ultimately worse, right? Instead, Homes, as she's prone to do, throws the reader one of her patented screwballs and we read of the boy only being forced to go fishing and to eat the fish he's caught (which he hates) and forced also to learn how to cook. Huh? That's it? Or, could it be, perhaps, since the child narrates the story, maybe the humiliated child doesn't want anyone knowing if stuff besides fishing and cooking went on, maybe? We can guess over the ambiguity, but probably only A.M. Homes (and our imaginations) knows the answer for sure.

An obese teenage girl in "Chunky In Heat," is so subtly disturbing (as all these biting gems of suburban nightmare black comedy are) I don't think I can write appropriately about it, but I'll try. It's about, well, an obese, lonely, sixteen year old girl, Cheryl, nicknamed, "Chunky," by the girl's mother after the girls favorite candy bar. We meet "Chunky" while she's sweltering in the summer heat in the backyard of her home on a K-Mart lawn chair, fantasizing in lewd and lucid detail about the thirteen year old boy next door having his way with every ounce of her. The ardor of her fantasy consumes her and before long she's half naked on the lawn chair. By the time her mother returns from grocery shopping, she's completely nude and nearly orgasmic. Her mother, without looking outside, calls for Chunky to come inside and help unpack the groceries. Chunky obliges. And here's where Homes masterfully lowers the boom (albeit an understated backhanded boom) describing a mother-daughter emotional disconnect so severe it borders on criminal neglect:

"Her mother is just outside bringing in bags from the car. The boy from next door passes by on his skateboard and looks in the door. He sees her and calls out her name, "Chunky". Cheryl stands there, sees him see her, hears her name, and still stands there. Without realizing it she drops her hand to her crotch, covering herself. Her mother comes in carrying three bags, looks at her, and says, "Get dressed, dear."

And that's it! That's all her mother says to her! As a reader I'm shrieking, 'Wake up, you cruel and clueless Mom you; your exhibitionist daughter is screaming HELP! She's literally naked before you, masturbating for all to see. Are you blind? Can't you hear her?' Homes is quite gifted at evoking outraged reader reaction in such a way you don't necessarily feel manipulated even though she's definitely angling for a strong response, especially when it comes to witnessing the wretched parenting "skills" of some of the most apathetic and oblivious parents imaginable.

I love too how Homes can say so much by saying so little. "Get dressed, dear." Three words says it all about that particularly disturbing dysfunctional relationship.

And Homes says even a lot more about how absurdly relationally disconnected we've become in suburban, North American culture, in what has to be the most darkly comic and bitingly satirical short story I've ever read (so biting there's practically fang punctures in the story's pages, and this story is not - repeat, not - to the best of my limited knowledge, about a love struck teenage vampire); the centerpiece of her debut collection, the cult classic, "A Real Doll". David Foster Wallace regarded it so highly he made "A Real Doll" required reading in his creative writing classes.

photo of A.M. Homes by Marion Ettlinger
On the surface, "A Real Doll" is about an adolescent boy who "dates" his little sister's Barbie doll when his sis isn't around and, more importantly, when Ken isn't looking. Homes sums up her story's plot in its iconic opening paragraph: "I'm dating Barbie. Three afternoons a week, while my sister is at dance class, I take Barbie away from Ken. I'm practicing for the future".

In Homes' marvelously demented hands, Barbie talks audibly to the boy and the two become fast friends. They learn one anothers likes and dislikes; how Barbie hates it when Jenny, the boy's sister, chews on her plastic feet, for instance - and it hurts! Were Barbie human, her feet would be horribly deformed from so much girlish chewing!

The boy and Barbie soon share intimate secrets and, just as dating between two human beings often turns romantically intense, resulting in sexual sparks, so does the boy and the piece of plastic become "intimate". Pardon what may sound like a sexist statement at first blush, but the first time I read the following passages from "A Real Doll", I was shocked (and maybe I'm naive) when I considered that this provocative narrative came from the pen and mind of a woman. I don't think any male writer I've ever read has ever written about a teenage boy's lustful fantasy life quite so pruriently, humorously, and well:

"I've never seen anything so big," Barbie said. It was the sentence I dreamed of....She stood at the base of my dick, her bare feet buried in my pubic hair. I was almost as tall as she was....I was on top, trying to get between her legs, almost breaking her in half. But there was nothing there...except a small thin line that was supposed to be her ass crack...I rubbed the thin line...Barbie said, "Don't stop"....

Trust me when I say that Homes omits no explicit details (as I have) in describing their bizarre (and laugh-out-loud funny) erotic encounters. Barbie just can't get enough of the boy because the makers at Mattel inadvertently deprived Barbie all those years ago when they created a Ken doll endowed with only a "bump". Poor Barbie! Imagine your boyfriend only had a bump! What would you do?

So that's the surface of "A Real Doll". Cut open and look inside the plastic, though, just as Jenny, the boys sister, ultimately does, beheading both Barbie and Ken and then switching their respective heads so that Ken becomes a she and Barbie becomes a he, and you're confronted with a multitude of socio-sexual commentary. Namely, our culture's obsession with sexual pathos and, in some cases, "perversion," if I dare call it that; and, more specifically, how our gender roles and sexual identities - our "sexual psychologies," if you will - are formed and informed and maybe re-informed and oftentimes "twisted" - such as in the case of the boy in "A Real Doll". But, is the boys behavior with the doll truly twisted? Is his behavior a sexual aberration? A fetish? Is he "deviant"? Or is he just plain weird? How would the DSM-IV-R, I wonder, classify his sexually plastic proclivities? Will his youthful predilection for Barbie dolls cause him, once he grows up, to rape and murder life size human women named Barbie? Homes never directly addresses these questions, but it's obvious she's implying them - and having a helluva lot of fun in the process. I think she's also asking: What exactly happened to this teenage boy, friendless and so isolated, that he would resort to amorous experimentation on molded plastic rather than experimenting with, say, the flesh and blood comprising the girl next door? I wonder if maybe the Barbie doll, in Homes' mind, symbolizes pornography, and perhaps Homes is covertly inquiring why it is that boys (a.k.a., "men") so often prefer the emotionally- and psychologically-disconnecting and destroying media of pornography over a real face-to-face relationship with a woman?

But that's just conjecture and maybe over-analysis on my part. Sometimes, a Barbie doll is, in fact, just a Barbie doll; a doll meant to, in the spirit of childhood, have its feet regularly chewed and head decapitated and replaced with Ken's by a little girl, and to also be literally used as a sex object by a teenage boy.

Who knows these days?

And sometimes, too, a new writer like A.M. Homes arrives on the literary scene as she did nearly two decades ago with a sublimely subversive book taking point of view and pathos and absurdity to strange but all uncompromisingly true satirical scenarios previously unimagined in contemporary literature.


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 her husband sleeps. She spies on a promiscuous nineteen year-old girl in particular. Exciting! Though she'll soon wish she hadn't spied. What business do the so-called "sane" have spying on the so-called "insane" anyway?

In "The Twins," orphaned, identical twins, grow up loving only one another for the rest of their lives. I'll leave it at that.

A woman promised her father she'd find a good man to marry, in "The Promise". After he dies, in honor of his memory, she gives it a good go, and sleeps with three men in her village. Dissatisfied with all three, she's nevertheless quelled her conscience. She kept her promise to her father. She did her best to find a good man to marry. Not finding any, now she can live happily, as she is, and as her father never knew her to be, with the woman she's loved all along.

Fleur Jaeggy is a stylist's stylist. Her prose is concise. Absent are parentheticals and semi-colons. Digressions don't exist. Not to say her language isn't euphonious. Because it is. She makes her prose sound more like poetry than prose.

Jaeggy's minimalism is more minimal than Hemingway's, Carver's, and Didion's. She's heard the right words and placed them on the page in the precise order she heard them. Stripped down. Bare naked writing. Wordiness be banished, her wonderful writing declares. The irony of her minimalist style is that she packs abundant, maximal substance into each short piece. I can't wait to be eminently disturbed by her diminuitive work again.


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-winning, drug smuggling masterpiece, Dog Soldiers. (I love that book!)  But Bingham, apparently, had a habit he couldn't quite kick.  Like Asher.  But Asher's addictions weren't quite as hardcore as heroin, assuming we consider the combined addiction to opium, cocaine, hashish and vodka gulped straight from a frosty bottle, not as hardcore as junk alone.

Lightning On The Sun, set in 1990s Cambodia, opens with images of bats and ends with bats. Bats hang upside down. Cambodia's a nation turned upside down by the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot. By the 1990s, when we meet Asher, the Khmer Rouge has largely disintegrated in the jungles, but joined forces and thereby maintained political clout with an equally as heinous, if somewhat less genocidal, regime; a regime at war with another somewhat less genocidal regime, in a civil war which will soon erase any ideas of democracy for the nation of Cambodia.

Asher has fled L.A. to Cambodia both to try and kick his drug habit and to escape a woman who's a bad habit in her own right, Julie. Julie's got both the looks and the impressive pedigree: well educated, smart, resourceful, rich lawyer father (she should be going places too, right?), and yet, yet, like Asher, she's an addict, working as a stripper at The Stopless in L.A.

We meet the expatriate Asher at a point in his life when he can no longer stomach the political corruption he witnesses daily swarming about him in Cambodia. Perhaps if his personal life weren't so corrupt he could stomach Cambodia easier. He can stomach less the barang (American) journalists (never mind he's pretty much one of them) he must daily work with, who all drink and dish dirt day after day at the same dreary dives. Disillusioned, nearly broke, Asher hatches a plan for his escape from Cambodia back to L.A. He has just enough money, barely, to purchase just enough pure opium to give him a fresh start in the States. A clean slate. But, on his way to make the deal, Cambodian cops have other ideas, having set up shop right on the damn road - a road become toll road.

"Motherfucker," said Asher.  He tried to take a right. He couldn't. There was a car. Someone was blowing a whistle at him. There was a cop with an evil baton. It was lit red by something sinister within. The cop waved it at Asher. If he kept going they might shoot him, but maybe they wouldn't. Asher considered not stopping. It was a golden rule of the country roads; don't stop unless you have to. The whistle went off again. The whistle. It was a monster. He pulled over.

"The extortion had a semblance of bureaucracy. There were two cops going through people's papers. They had flashlights. One cop was pointing his flashlight into the face of a motorist and explaining to him how it was going to be. Asher had no papers. Asher had nothing to account for himself but three thousand dollars."

After paying the "toll," Asher, needless to say, has drastically less than three thousand dollars. But he must make this deal! He believes it his only chance to get the hell out of Cambodia for good. Enter Asher's landlord, Mr. Hawk, to the late night rescue. Mr. Hawk moonlights as a loan shark. Mr. Hawk's boss, in fact, though Asher will never know this (but Julie will) is the very man in charge of one of the mildly genocidal regimes mentioned earlier. Now, if you're intuiting at this point in the review that this intense, true-to-life, thriller-like, effing fabulous novel does not have a happy ending -- you just might (might, I say) be right!

Mr. Hawk offers Asher a deal he can't refuse: ten percent interest a week! Accepting, Asher must then dupe his recent colleague acquaintance, Reese, who will soon be returning to the States for his sister's wedding, into taking along a package with him -- Asher's "screenplay". Reese, naively, unwittingly, obliges. Meanwhile, Asher has reconnected with his ex, Julie, who will intercept the package once Reese checks into his hotel, but she'll have to screw him every which way and lace his drink first before she can get the package. And wouldn't you know it, unbeknownst to Asher, Julie's got plans of her own for the dope: mix in a little corn starch to increase its volume and, voila, she can sell it (or so she thinks) to the local street dealer for even more dough and skip town with the cash, and without her faux beau, Asher!

God I'd hate to be Asher (or to have been Bingham, for that matter).  Poor duped Asher (thinking he's the duper in this sordid equation) expecting that money to be wired into his account so that he can pay off his impatient and petulant and gun-toting loan shark. Jesus, he's about to get screwed himself, and with no happy ending!  Horrific.  But wait ... Asher's emotional ties with Julie run deep.

"Where's my money, Julie?" Asher pleads on the phone, and soon convinces Julie to fly to Phnom Penh with the cash. And then ... then all bat-shit-out-of-hell breaks loose in this edgy, leering, noiristic narrative. There's even a little person -- a dwarf -- Julie's sleazy Stopless employer involved in this murderous mess. There's deception as well (including fatal self-deception), greed, great train robberies, backstabbings, explosions of the combustible kind and of the lust and casual sex kind, not to mention lies, lies, and more lies, avarice, angst, jealousy, nihilism, kidnappings, and death. Plenty of violent, gorey death. Even glorious irreligiosity put on proud, defiant display in the face of certain death.  Lightning on the Sun is profound, disturbing stuff.  It's some good shit for shore!  But who dies in the novel (and who doesn't) ... I'll never say.

What's amazing to me about Robert Bingham, the writer, is that despite his despicably acting, amoral, narcissistic, self-destructive characters, they are, nonetheless, quite likable. Bingham, from what I've gathered, was quite likable and affable himself.  A compassionate man, one more considerate than his alter-ego anti-hero.  Lovable much like the deeply flawed, vice ridden, real people we all know and love. Bingham was stunningly sympathetic to the pathetic plights his cast of ex-pat characters consistently put themselves into.  Who among us hasn't been stupid and fallen into the deep holes we've dug ourselves and foolishly ensnared ourselves in?

How sad it is reading such an awesome first novel from such a young and obviously gifted up-and-coming writer who lived just long enough to give the world a glimpse of the promise he certainly would've more fully realized had heroin not snuffed him out so soon.


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 she's right, then you're obviously, automatically and incontrovertibly, wrong. Right?

And why is she all smiles on the cover when she's all fangs in the book? Because she thinks you're stupid at least ten times over, that's why. So when you see this book at the garage sale for a quarter (an overpriced rip off if there ever was one), be smart and ignore "Dr." Laura and purchase that trusty used toaster instead.


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 purpose whatsoever - every other fucking sentence or so, in Fucking Frankenstein. Mary Shelley, I'm sure, cannot be lying peacefully in her grave over this fucking travesty - over this senseless and embarassing butchery of her macabre masterpiece.

Why would somebody write this shit, let alone go to the exorbitant expense of procuring a legitimate isbn for it and the cost of publishing? As a goof? As some inside joke that nobody gets? Because nobody's laughing, except for the dweebs (and nobody's going to buy Fucking Frankenstein either), because it's not funny, and it's not fresh, and it's not the real Frankenstein! Though it is infantile, if you're big on infantile. Even the bookcover stops eliciting laughs after you've looked at it a dozen times or two.

And note that the word, "Fucking" in the title that prefaces "Frankenstein," is not to be read as an active verb for all you twisted sickos out there who'd probably enjoy attempting doing to Frankenstein what the title suggests. Fucking Frankenstein, again, is not some demented how-to sex manual for monsters. What fucking monster in their right fucking mind would want to bonk Frankenstein anyway? The Creature from the Black Lagoon? The Wolfman maybe?

So what's next in this depraved new world of the mashup? Harry Fucking Potter? Sounds like gay porn to me. How about A Tale of Two Fucking Cities? That sounds catchy! Yeah, I like that. Or maybe Mr. Matt Allen (don't you love how very formal and classy he is with that "Mr." before his name?) could next compose, The Fucking Idiot.

The title, The Fucking Idiot, could serve for Mr. Matt Allen, both as a "cool" (though unconscionable) disparagement of Dostoyevski's famous novel, while also serving as the title to Mr. Matt Allen's future autobiography.

Yeah. Now that sounds fucking good. That makes some much needed fucking sense.


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 months, weren't dead right now, and hadn't died so soon after completing what could be considered the most concentrated (and certainly shortest) tome ever written, or had I not known these horrible facts while reading the book, I could say then, and only then, that I enjoyed it, the book. I greatly enjoyed the poetic, philosophic writing, the sardonic humor despite his heartfelt and unfathomable (for someone not trapped in his godawful situation) psychological suffering and loss, and even the occasional, understandable, bitter barbs of incisive wit he let loose, I liked too (i.e., an insensitive, gruff doctor asks Bauby, "Do you see double?", and Bauby, internally, replies, "Yes, I see two assholes, not one."). But how can I honestly say I enjoyed this story? I suppose I did enjoy it - the storytelling, that is - but I likewise didn't enjoy poor Jean-Dominique Bauby's tragic story. A story that just as easily could be anyone's story at any time, should Fate or God or The Cosmos or Whatever determines to do to you what it determined so abruptly and brutally - fatally - for Bauby.

It's so much easier to read something deliciously depressing like The Road because it's obviously made up stuff no matter how realistic the author breathes whatever bleak and ruined life into the characters and settings and scenarios he's created, but The Diving Bell And The Butterfly is about as in-your-face, depressingly real as it gets. And it's not depressing necessarily because of anything Bauby said (or how he said it) - though I will wholeheartedly say that Bauby said as much about life - and about death and suffering and how to deal with the latter two as optimistically as possible - I believe, in barely 100 pages (and did so only by blinking his left eye! - you just try communicating and writing anything - let alone what borders on the meaning of life - just by blinking your left eye!), as any existentialist, 19th century Russian masterpiece could say even though it pushed or exceeded a thousand pages.

Bauby indelibly tapped into the primal human horror of having complete consciousness, and yet being so ill-equipped to communicate that consciousness - to connect it - to another human being as to take humanity's innate dread of loneliness and abandonment to levels perhaps previously unrealized in fiction or non-fiction. I've a dear daughter "locked-in" her own isolated interior world of autism, and knowing Bauby through his brief book, helps me understand and recognize more clearly that there's probably a lot more going on beneath the surface with my mostly non-verbal, uncommunicative daughter than I ever realized.

The book, quite simply, is beautifully sad. Hopeful, and yet despairing. Inspiring, yes, but not "joyous," as the dumb publishing blurb on the back, falsely claims. Movie tie-in marketing no comprendo's.

I don't recommend The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, but I think everyone should read it.

CymLowell's Book Review Party Wednesday 

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. I almost give up. And it's the cadence of Delillo's language too, not just the words, imbuing the words with deeper meaning. David Foster Wallace once wrote that Delillo's writing "just clicks". Expanding on that premise then, Delillo's like a metronome, hypnotic almost (but definitely not predictable despite the constant "clicking" and rhythm), and in The Body Artist, he's tapped into, and kept exquisite time with, the metaphysical. The Body Artist becomes therefore, as much a work of philosophy as it is a work of fiction.

What Delillo does with language evokes in me the same response I get when listening to a powerful piece of classical music: Goosebumps gallore, awe, wonder, inspiration and veneration. There's something sublime going on here in his writing that I can't quite name. So I'll just call it Art.

Yes, that's what I'm driving at: in The Body Artist, Delillo has managed to translate the secret languages of the Mysterious or Metaphysical; using the internal monologues and musings of Lauren Hartke as his mouthpiece, and making his philosophical abstractions as palpable as the pages his heady language is printed on.

That Delillo's prose is unplugged in The Body Artist, acoustic, if you will, set on a simple Starbuck's stage - a one act play with few characters - proves that he can stir the soul even when his aims aren't as huge-venued or symphonic as they were in his previous, vast novel, Underworld.

I'd say I enjoyed The Body Artist even more than Underworld, and even more, too, than his award winning, postmodern masterpiece, White Noise.

What is a 'body artist'? To reveal that here might destroy the subtle surprise, and it's a tiny book to begin with, a novella really, full of surprises. Before I read the book I lamely believed 'body artist' meant something regarding...tattoos. What-ever! In fact, I even tagged the book, when I first input it, with: 'tattoos,' since I've got me a tattoo or two and obviously like tattoos. I've since deleted that tag - 'tattoos' - from The Body Artist. I sure hope nobody noticed. Because body art and The Body Artist are definitely not necessarily synonymous.

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 that propels his unblinking nightmarish narrative with absolute authority.

Don't confuse William T. Vollmann's royal family for the refined royal family residing in Buckingham Palace. Vollmann's royal family exists in various fringe netherworlds of San Francisco's Tenderloin District: an abandoned underground parking structure (home to the prostitute Queen who reigns over her Royal Family of prostitute apprentices and host of degenerate dealers, freaks, and johns), seedy bars and sleazier brothels fronted as run down motels reeking their rank semen stench out onto the filthy streets as far removed from the red carpets and gold awnings of a Ritz Carlton as Heaven is from Hell.

Sample sentence from The Royal Family so you know I'm not just full of stinking hyberbole:....

"This is the heart of it, the scared woman who does not want to go alone to the man any longer, because when she does, when she takes off her baggy dress, displaying to him rancid breasts each almost as big as his head, or no breasts, or mammectomized scar tissue taped over with old tennis balls to give her the right curves; when, vending her flesh, she stands or squats waiting, congealing the air firstly with her greasy cheesey stench of unwashed feet confined in week-old socks, secondly with her perfume of leotards and panties also a week old, crusted with semen and urine, brown-greased with the filth of alleys; thirdly with the odor of her dress also worn for a week, emblazoned with beer-spills and cigarette-ash and salted with the smelly sweat of sex, dread, fever, addiction -- when she goes to the man, and is accepted by him, when all these stinking skins of hers have come off (either quickly, to get it over with, or slowly like a big truck pulling into a weigh station because she is tired), when she nakedly presents her soul's ageing soul, exhaling from every pore physical and ectoplasmic her fourth and supreme smell which makes eyes water more than any queen of red onions -- rotten waxy smell from between her breasts, I said, bloody pissy shitty smell from between her legs, sweat-smell and underarm-smell, all blended into her halo, generalized sweetish smell of unwashed flesh; when she hunkers painfully down with her customer on a bed or a floor or in an alley, then she expects her own death."

William T. Vollmann didn't simply research and imagine his Tenderloin Inferno as some novelists might do, sitting in a library or a safe home study in a comfy wing back chair; no, he lived, endured, his research literally on the Tenderloin streets. He hung with prostitutes for days on end, risking arrest (or worse) to accurately learn their slang and idiosyncratic syntax -- the street whore's lingo -- in order to see past the standard hooker stereotypes, to the hearts and humanity of these desperate, hurting, and victimized human beings -- to the genuine godforsaken lives they truly lived. Once invited and allowed to remain in the inner sanctum of their harrowing existences, Vollmann made even the questionable decision to smoke crack with them, to prove his mettle to them in their eyes, because he wanted to be deemed credible and get the whole truth and nothing but the truth out of them, and to not be perceived too as just another shallow invasive reporter with a camera and a deadline looking for higher ratings on the six 'o clock news. In so doing, Vollmann indisputedly got the ugly unsugarcoated story from his studies, and it is a vile story, it is beyond what the words "repulsive" or "repugnant" can denote -- it is beyond "gross" -- so much so his publisher nearly wouldn't publish it. Vollmann, in fact, took less of an advance in order that not one word of the 774 page novel be excised by his editors. That's committment to an artistic cause. The seedy cover photograph of The Royal Family, featured on the 2000/2001 Penguin editions (see image above), displays an unflattering scene of three nude prostitutes, some of the very ones Vollmann lived with and interviewed. The photo, in fact, was taken by Vollmann himself. Vollmann's not your average novelist; he's much more ambitious and willing to take unheard of risks for the sake of his art (or fetish), and The Royal Family's not your typical novelistic fare, not by a long shot, so, like Juliette or American Psycho, enter at your own risk.

Now should you decide to enter, you'll meet one of the most self-destructive, heart-set-on-Hades protagonists this reviewer has ever met, Henry Tyler, perenially broke and on the brink of bankruptcy, private-eye who once loved his alienated brother's (John's) wife (Irene) until she committed suicide. Happy, heart warming stuff. Emotionally ruined by Irene's suicide, Henry, private-eye intuition working counterintuitive, maybe, or on something of a whim of fate, as if being led by the aged hand of Virgil, descends into the fetid, inhumane bowels of the Tenderloin in search of the mysterious Queen. However, unbeknownst to him, his brother John, big-time attorney, is presently handling a case for some seemingly nefarious Vegas enterprise known as Feminine Circus, whose owner, coincidentally, just happens to be searching for the Queen as well, although perhaps "hunting for the Queen" would more aptly describe his ultimate aims in locating her.

Henry passes the first gate of Hell, descending circle by circle, deeper and deeper, degradation by degradation, always on the lookout for his Queen, his imagined goddess and savior. Happily (or unhappily) he finds her, but then, of course, inevitable harsh realities collide, moral chaos and murder ensues, and our anti-hero must be thinking, in the bloody aftermath, living beneath a highway underpass, that sometimes, maybe, it's better just being a scrawny private-eye working divorce cases; much better, in fact, when a person like himself doesn't receive the self-recriminating Hell he longed for.  

Vollmann's long slunk about the outskirts of a polite writer's society, venturing regularly into disturbing domains, shining lights with his words on society's cockroach and rat infestations, upon the disquieting, disturbing ills most of us are happy remaining clueless about, which is probably why so few read him. Reading Vollmann, while I've mentioned some horror flicks above, is really more like watching Das Boot -- a stressful, depressing experience. His fictions (excepting his debut novel, You Bright and Risen Angels) are never escapist fun, and humor in Vollmann's fiction is almost nonexistent. And stylistically, he's of the same ilk as your Powers, Foster Wallaces, and Pynchons -- only he's more prolific than all of these writers combined -- so it's understandable he'd have significant critical acclaim (won the National Book Award for his most recent novel, Europe Central), but the understandable low sales because of his bleak writing topics and challenging style and erudition, despite having had forever a dedicated cult following.

So why read him if he's so consistently stressful and depressing? For the same reason you'd read Night or The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich or The Gulag Archipelago. Vollmann's fictional tomes have as much to tell us about our humanity (or lack thereof) and where we're headed as a culture, as some of the finest histories and biographies ever penned. But that's just more hyperbole from this amateur William T. Vollmann advocate. So, in all honesty, you should probably go read some Judith Krantz or Danielle Steele instead.  

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 neighborhood for prospective future daughter-in-laws whom they can ultimately declare to that particular future daughter-in-law’s mother, should they find a girl good enough: "Yes, yes I do; I'll take your okay daughter to be my magnificent son's wife." Never mind what the fifteen-year-old girl thinks about her fiance, because her opinion in the matter doesn't matter (and of course she knows damn well never to express an opinion regarding anything). Women, in this culture, are to be seen and never heard.

But the women talk amongst themselves, when their husbands are away at work, nevertheless, as women throughout the whole wide world have been prone to do throughout the ages. And here's where Hina Haq (who definitely has a bone to pick with Pakistani culture, but picks the bone clean with humor and clever psychological insight rather than with anger or cynicism) really shines, in deftly detailing how the women, who supposedly have no voice, right?, have so much voice that they - and not the men - are really the ones running the family show. Husbands here in Hina Haq's Pakistan don't want to be bothered about arranged marriages and such, they just want to eat good food and smoke good tobacco and laze about or procreate as much as possible. Nothing wrong with that! Men are men no matter what culture or tribe they belong to (God - and Allah indeed - bless them!); but the women are very different. Different, that is, in how they work behind-the-scenes pulling all the necessary strings to obtain their dearest family objectives.

Khanum's dearest objective, of course, is arranging a marriage for her oldest daughter, Sadika. When her plans ultimately fail, and Sadika shames her family because the future groom-to-be, a Pakistani living in America, used to American women making overt affectionate advances (advances that in Pakistan would be punishable offenses by law) chooses Sadika's younger sister, Zafary, more in tune with what Americanized-Pakistani men really want - flirtation & titillation - over the more culturally appropriate, won't-even-hold-his-hand, or play footsie's with him, Sadika. So Sadika is punished, basically, for being a good Pakistani girl! As if she had any clue what he - though he turned out to be a worthless cretin anyway - really expected from her in courtship. She just did as she was taught: act submissive and shy around potential suitors, and don't make much eye contact either. So of course the loser chose Sadika's more gregarious sister. Sadika's mother, nevertheless, ships her off to America as punishment for failing and irreversibly shaming the family, to live with her aunt's family in what amounts to "life" as a minimum-wage housekeeper working morning, noon, and night; and to "live," I might add, with the same family that houses the happy (though soon-to-be, very unhappy) newlyweds, Zafary (Sadika's sister) and the worthless groom who rejected Sadika.

But then, then, as Sadika outshines her cousins at college; cousins who, to their dismay, soon realize how erroneously they viewed her as being not very bright, she develops enough self-confidence and assertiveness to protest her atrociously underpaid housemaid-enslavement directly to her aunt's, the proud, Ashfaaq Beebe's, face. And then all beautiful, liberating heaven breaks loose for brave, heroic, and finally vindicated, Sadika.

She soon meets a rich (though humble and gentle) American college boy, from a proud American family, much too proud to approve of an exotic, shy, timid girl like Sadika from God-knows-what Pakistani village. Sadika's definitely not the girl this mother dreamed of for her son. But they - Michael and Sadika - against the objections of almost everybody, fall madly in love. But will their meddling and disapproving family's let them live happily-ever-after?

Do yourself a favor and buy this underappreciated Pakistani-expat American debut, to find out.

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-rebellion) and possible bright future ahead. This is inspirational, though unsentimental, storytelling.

Holborn’s style is crack-of-a-bat crisp. Like Annie Proulx or Flannery O'Connor before her, there’s economy and stinginess over wasted words — there simply aren’t any — each word's sardine’d in dense sentence tins, imbued more often than not with embedded symbols and metaphors that when happened upon, speaking for myself, evoke “whoa!” moments.

Take a good long gander at one such striking example in "If The World Was Flat"Judith Fellman (one could comment forever on Holborn’s Dickensian name creations — Penny Dreadful? Merlyn Shipperbottom? Rosa Quarrell? Cricket? Jeffrey Wonder?  at how these eccentric surname’s serve themselves as foreshadowing symbols, but time and space won’t allow), reminiscing about her deceased mother, depicts her as possessing “a doe-like grace”. Keep that doe in mind and return three pages earlier in the story when Judith, then thirteen, on a backpacking, father-mandated, coming-of-age ritual trip along the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington’s North Cascades, a trip she’d just as soon have opted out from, and her well meaning though subtly demeaning father spy “a doe peeking out from behind an alder”. Understand also that Judith’s mother, long before succumbing to "tan-induced melanoma" had abandoned by the time of this backpacking adventure, her idealistic, over-intellectualizing professor husband chronically disgusted by her lowbrow daily soap opera viewing habit, not for another man mind you (or woman) but for some simple peace of mind! Who wouldn’t want to leave a demanding, elitist academician like that? Anyway, Judith’s father -- guess what he does for the doe (this is some visually stunning symbolism): “Breaking his own rule about not feeding wild animals he gathered a handful of tender bitterbrush and held it out …. She [the doe] tested the bitterbrush with her teeth and then, disappointed, backed away to hide herself….” A touching, melancholic metaphor that seamlessly shows without contrivance and without hammering you over the head with it why the “tender, but bitter” offerings of an unintentionally but nevertheless insensitive husband to his wife, helped fell the Fellman marriage.

There’s much more in Fierce to set beneath the microscope (and I heartily recommend the interested reader — and how could you not be interested? — do so asap, and patiently pan for gold among these compelling currents as hermaphroditic Dulcey did in "The Fierce with the Fierce". But let’s step back briefly for the larger panoramic perspective, perhaps a vista as wide-ranging and sublime as the one Judith Fellman witnessed at an icy rest stop along Top of the World Highway in the remote Yukon interior, after she’s triumphantly conquered, staring out among the nameless snow ridden mountains, what had been until then, lifelong, incarcerating fears.

Fierce, I think, when I consider the unfortunate lives depicted; or, might they just be fortunate lives that've yet ascertained how fortunate they truly are, like Andy and Alice's lives, lives finally permitting themselves as parents to "pull their own strings" through the difficult daily dramas of raising a child born with special needs (Angelman's syndrome) in "We Danced Without Strings". Or, for that matter, what about the unfortunate-appearing lives, lives which when you glance at them look like sure shit, represented in this regard by the teenage girl, Gwen, afflicted with a cleft palate (albeit by now surgically repaired) who somehow sees herself so blessed she reaches out with a forgiving heart toward her childhood tormentor and nemesis who's about to do something suicidally stupid because her loser fiance dumped her for a stripper working at Dolls 'N More in "Like Utah's Bingham Canyon Mine"? And be sure to google Utah's Bingham Canyon Mine while you're at it, if, like me, you'd never heard of it before, for it's a magnificent, jaw-dropping image perfectly matching the emotional black hole created by the vast void of physical deformity.

So, Fierce, getting back to what I think, is ultimately about character, meaning both an artistic rendering of the traits of true character and also the imperfect, damaged and often mercilessly exploited lives which occasionally, inspirationally, after much heartache, bitterness, stubborn resistance, and graceful nudges from the voice of a spectacularly non-condemning God (read Seaweed), inevitably demonstrate the depths of suppressed character perhaps lying dormant all along.

Hannah Holborn knows a thing or two about true character, seems like to me, and how to effectively set characters down in impossible but eventually promising scenarios on the page, having (if I may paraphrase her publisher’s blurb) worked extensively teaching life skills to aboriginal women, inner-city youth, the mentally ill, and probably many other down-and-out outcasts and “freaks” -- and, I suspect, she's gleaned much character from a lot of her own unfortunate, similarly Fierce- types of personal experiences. Holborn, too, is downright earthy in her writing, did I mention that?, regaling the amused reader in the first paragraph of her novella, River Rising with unexpected, out-of-left-field riffs about sex toys — yessss, sex toys! — but always overarching the earthy, wisecracking musings of Holborn's streetwise sensibility, shines sheer elegance upon each page.

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 ways. Taken alone, Danielewski's images could make great abstract poems; but taken together, one right after the other, Only Revolutions becomes solipsistic in the extreme, like a Jackson Pollack painting: Art to some, incomprehensible to most.

I wasn't around back when Finnegans Wake came out, but I've got to imagine that readers of Joyce who'd waited nearly twenty years for the follow up to Ulysses, must have experienced a similar disappointment, but worse, when they realized after a few pages into FW that not only was it not anything like Ulysses (and Ulysses is already hard enough to read as it is) but that the text and narrative was next-to-completely meaningless...a joke?, some must have asked!

I think it's fair to criticize me for comparing Only Revolutions to House of Leaves, rather than judging OR on its own unique terms, and coming to the text of OR with an open mind. I tried to. Believe me, I tried and tried. I read the first (or was it the last--or both? since the book can be read both forwards and backwards or upside-down and right-side up) fifty or so pages of OR again and again, trying to decode or decipher the prose-poetry and what the never ending list of names and dates (in a vertical column next to the non-narrative narrative) corresponded to in the text, but ultimately had to conclude that it was just gibberish, a pseudo-literary bowel movement a la Finnegans Wake, only, in Danielewski's defense, OR is a bit more readable than Finnegans Wake, but not by much.

Can Mark Danielewski maybe get away from being gimmicky and showing off how "creative" he can be and get back to writing fiction that doesn't sacrifice story for innovation; comprehensibility for a crafting that's not just hyper-creative? Is that too much to ask from such an obviously gifted, way way off-the-beaten-path writer?

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 smoke cloud-illustration being rudely ejected from Walter's behind, and then wafting away like some chemical weapon of gass destruction straight into the olfactory centers of Walter's nose-plugging human companions. Thank goodness this book is not a scratch 'n sniff!

When Billy and Betty's father threatens to send Walter back to the pound where, I believe, he rightfully belongs, they boo-hoo something awful as kids are prone to do, not caring, apparently, that their dear dog has turned their parent's home into a veritable fart factory!

I hinted at this book's ending in the beginning so I won't spoil it here. Suffice to say, I personally prefer The Cat in the Hat to Walter the Farting Dog. A) Because The Cat in the Hat is about a cat and not about a dog; and, B) because The Cat in the Hat does not pass gas.

Books about cats are just plain classier than books about dogs, anyway, because cats are classier than dogs period, particularly classier than problematically flatulent dogs like Walter. And were a cat ever to fart, which I don't think they do, but if they did, I'm just saying, they'd know to saunter off somewhere and do their business politely, in private, like a woman.

All in all, some kids might like this book (I don't know why) - maybe if you made inappropriate fart noises with your lips or armpits while you're reading it to them, they might like it - but I think, whatever it's worth, that Walter the Farting Dog stinks.

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 wacky and, ergo, interesting, in my opinion, self-styled weirdo-gruesome-satanists so infamous throughout the 1980s.

Perhaps in 1988, the book was mildly compelling, so-so shocking (it gets a C- on my personal Shock Value Scale) but even then it reeked of the type of conspiratorial, spurious reportage spewed like untreated sewage by the National Enquirer. Today it's completely trivial, except as a novelty item or collectible for occultists. I review it only because Hallowe'en draws nigh. [Insert sound effect of mad, increasing in volume, Vincent Price type cackling].

And sorry, grainy black-and-white photos of the Black Mass just weren't very evocative to my lurid imagination wanting a good fright (simply wasn't scary! - not just the lame photos but the whole dang book - which was a huge bummer since my friends and I were hoping to get creeped out by it). Even Anton LaVey's (what feels like), eminently evil, omnipresent, iconic portraiture throughout the pages of this pulp, just didn't do anything for me either after awhile, as perhaps his features and me-me-me, faux, plagiarized philosophy might have done for me had I been around gettin' my groovy satanic groove on back in those Easy Rider days.

Back in the days when Charles Manson, mentioned as a satanic sidekick in the book ("sur-prize sur-prize sur-prize!" as Gomer Pyle might say), and an occult dabbler, abruptly extinguished the idea that the hippie-era, which spawned these satanic shysters, led by the former, alleged lion tamer himself, the evil incarnate carny, Anton LaVey, would go on free loving and tuning-in and turning-on and dropping-out (or wait, that's Timothy Leary's psychedelic spiel, not LaVeys, though LaVey's worldview, in essence, was similar) and casting their silly satanic spells forever. Didn't happen. And let's just pretend this "review" or opinion piece didn't happen either, and that I didn't read this stupid book a long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away . . .

'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.

1st printing, 1975

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 development; creepy foreshadowing; nuanced, perverted symbolism of a both deliciously libidinal and religious flavor; and physically palpable suspense ever increasing, pulsating like doubly-punctured carotid arteries, raising high the blood pressure to a breathless denouement....

Suspense so intense I flipped on all the lights at night when I recklessly read it, 'Salem's Lot, alone and vulnerable to imagined, (but-it-felt-so-real!)-vampire attacks inside an isolated suburban tract on a full moon'd cul-de-sac; the skeletal-like houses under construction each side of my house, grotesque and baroque in their exposed incompletion, homes more shadows than substance, adding to the awful ambiance of dread and the undead emanating like an evil breeze from outside my foolishly left open windows.

Or written, I should say, a la Stoker, a la Lovecraft, to which 'Salem's Lot paid its rightful (and frightful) homage.

The made-for-TV-movie of 'Salem's Lot (released in 1979), starring David Soul of Starsky and Hutch and Here Come the Brides fame, singer of the 1976 #1 Billboard hit, Don't Give Up on Us Baby (O the horror!), stunk it up like cloves of garlic -- just like that schmaltzy pop song of Soul's -- but not the book by Stephen King. Never the book by Stephen King. So read the book, 'Salem's Lot, by Stephen King ... if you dare. 

Ah hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!!!....

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, if the "genius," Joyce, can make fart jokes in Ulysses left and right, not to mention making graphic reference to some (at the time) unprecedented masturbatory behavior from its protagonist, why can't anybody else do the same in describing his flatulent, onanist, nauseating tome?

Worse, reading Ulysses leaves one feeling like they've been had, scammed, rused, abused, conned, pawned, Ponzi'd, cheated, excreted, duped, nuked, swindled, swizzled, diddled, fiddled, belittled, hustled, bustled, hoaxed, stiffed, tricked, taken to the cleaners, taken for a ride, ripped off royally of everything you've worked hard for your whole damn life. Just like Madoff!  How you like that endless list, Joyce, you MOTHERF%$#!R?

Less painful indeed, having your wisdom teeth extracted with pliers by an orangutan without novocaine, than trying to read Ulysses first page to last.

I hated it.

CYMLowell's Wednesday Review's Contest

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 awesome sovereignty and singular sanctity of Joyce. James Joyce. Like he were double-O seven (007). It was sickening, the professorial suck-ups spewing Joyce is God, Joyce is God, every other utterance, so of course I skipped their classes-turned-sermons, like any normal Stephen King addict at the time would've done.

But had I known then (assuming I'd bothered to read my assigned books in college) how eerily similar my world perspective mirrored that of Stephen Dedalus during that time in my life, many full moons ago (meaning, again, had I not Cliff-Noted the The Portrait and bs'd the class papers on it), I'm sure I'd of been pleasantly surprised, if not shocked - as in shocked that I could relate to this Irish guy, James Joyce, and his autobiographically fictionalized self, Stephen Dedalus, the way that I could relate then to a light-weight Oscar Wilde wannabe, Stephen Morrisey - at how marvelously meaningful and relevant Joyce's first novel could be to a rebellious, church-boy-turned-irreligious-blasphemer like myself.

And my God! - Stephen Dedalus, in his teens, was socially awkward and inept in the extreme with the lovely young ladies, wasn't he? (also just like me!) Because girls and yours truly didn't mix much in high school/college. Girls? What were they? Unless they were making the first move -- ah rare and so blessed an occasion I remember each instance vividly, such a deep impression they set - forget it! Darn right I could've related to The Portrait had I given Joyce a chance back then. But no, I rejected Joyce before I really even knew Joyce just because he was so highly regarded by my intellectual superiors.

Of course, Stephen Dedalus was not just a kook like me by any stretch of the imagination. He acted kookily at times, which made him so human and relatable, but he had too much hero in him to be considered a pure, classic kind of kook. When he marches up the stairs at his boarding school to the administrative offices and reports the unjust physical trauma he's received at the harsh hands of that twit substitute teacher...you know how much guts that took for a little kid to do that? so easily intimidated by 'always-right' adults?...we can't help but cheer for him like an esteemed underdog beating the odds and winning an Olympic race against a pompous competitor predicted to win; and, if you're like me, out pop those goosebumps gallore just considering the courage of young Dedalus demonstrated by his confrontational feat! It marked the first time he'd ever confronted authority; and it was an hugely heroic milestone in his young life, and gave him the idea and the fortitude, I believe, to ultimately think outside the realm of parental/authority-expectations; outside of that Mom-and-Dad mold that well meaning parents so often try and furiously fit their children's futures inside; and that event also planted some identity seeds as he'd later painfully contemplate who it was he truly wanted to be, and how, having abandoned his childhood faith - rejected God (oh man, can so many of us relate to brave Stephen Dedalus!) - he planned on getting there to his life-dream's destinations. And I think it was important to Joyce, in his ambition of erasing himself completely from the text, that his reader's deeply relate to Dedalus, as if Dedalus, and not Joyce, were the author of The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Dedalus, too, I think, has to be considered one of the most fascinating cats in world literature, doesn't he? His life depicted in The Portrait's like a lifelong (or, maybe, more accurately, childhood-to-the-brink-of-adulthood), longitudinal character study/experiment run by a master psychologist - Joyce. A character study covering not the mundane minutia of Joyce's subsequent descents into largely unreadable nor enjoyable, experimental 'novels,' but covering the key scenes, the most significant moments of Dedalus' development: the critical junctures in his boyhood, 'tween years, and adolescence, when he had to form decisions and forge his life's direction, and do so even though he lived with constant doubt. Sound familiar? It's called growing up, isn't it? But growing up is an incredibly complex, tricky process, and Joyce somehow in The Portrait fashions into visible, seamless shape, the abstract intellectual architecture under construction inside young Dedalus (just as its inside each of us) that makes the growing up process read so real and relatable and credible and makes Joyce's aims of authorial-erasure all the more amazing. Did Joyce really write this book, or did Stephen Dedalus?

The Portrait is the ultimate coming-of-age novel in my opinion (or, the ultimate bildungsroman, for the smarmy smartypants). It's both so psychologically and experientially astute at every level of childhood and adolescent development, that I think it should be taught as part of the curriculum of Childhood Development and Adolescent Psychology courses in universities. I'm not kidding.

I liken each developmental crossroads and decision Stephen comes to as being like a novelistic rendering of Robert Frost's 'The Road Not Taken.' Stephen Dedalus took the road less traveled - indeed he did - and for Joyce, and for us, Joyce's audience, it has definitely made all the difference.