Seven Ghastly Books from 2008

Every year at this time, we try to offer a list of great new books that we think are worth your trouble.

At the same time, it is with regret that we offer a selection of real stinkers which you might be well-advised to ignore.


Pat Barker
For some reason --- except for the steamier passages --- this klunky style reminds us of Theodore Dreiser. Dreiser, like Barker, had a fairly important message, one of people tangled in society's viciousness. The American Tragedy and Sister Carrie are gripping stories, but to make it to the end one has to slog through a prose style that went out with John Bunyan (or, in Barker's case, Oui Magazine).

The Booker people apparently thought enough of Barker to give her a prize for The Ghost Road, an earlier WWI novel. Maybe they liked the way she married history --- psychological history, European history, real life characters (Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Dr. W. H. R. Rivers) --- with fiction. Unlike some of us, they didn't seem bothered by the fiction's friction, and all those passages strewn with nipples and purple glistening tumescent knobs.

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Dragon Thunder
My Life with Chögyam Trungpa
Diana J. Mukpo
For fans of Tibetan Buddhism, there is no end of detail here on the Bodhidharma, meditation, Shambhala, tulkus, and abhishekas. But there is also too much drinking; too many scandals; and too much silk. Diana gets her claws into quite a few people on her way to the top of the dharma ladder. Her passion for something called dressage can get tedious unless you are into horses involved in ballet (with horsy tutus).

The most interesting parts of Dragon Thunder appear in the first hundred pages, the details of her first meetings with Rinproche. Once, in the midst of their wedded bliss, Rinproche called her "a punk." She got right back at him: "I said, 'I may be a punk, but I'm not drunk.' With that, he tried to hit me, but he missed."

She won out at the end, though. He was having "severe blood-clotting problems" in the hospital. As he lay dying, "I went down to New York to attend a trade fair because I was opening a children's clothing store in Halifax."

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The Gateway
T. M. McNally
A boy with a charred penis, a felon masturbating in the prison visiting-room, mugging with a heavy chain, sleeping with priests, a woman scarred with the "pox" making love in public in the park, sex and booze and pimps and junkies, and --- as garnish on the roast --- the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963.

This is the stuff of McNally's seven stories, and it is a bitter brew. He knows to make the words do their stuff, but after awhile, we wonder if we want to read of such feckless husbands, burned-out old men crawling out of their cars to have a tiff in the middle of a traffic jam, women required to chose between a husband and a child, a boy severely burned by his father because he thought him "a faggot," men (and women) thinking of endlessly useless circular dangerous lives,

    Susie understood that someday the girl would know a little bit more. She would have a husband, and a family. Someday she might become a nurse, assuming her bus didn't crash, or she wasn't seduced by her pastor. Assuming there were no surprises, which there would be.

We can't figure out the value of stories whose main purpose seems to be to plunge the reader into despair. T. M. McNally's writings are sullen (sometimes engrossingly so), so much so that his best lines may go right past you.

"I was named after a poet raised in St. Louis who once wrote, In my beginning is my end," one character (Thomas Sellers) tells us. He complains about being a real estate agent in the dying city, and like the others here, mounts a round-about narrative that might lead the reader to reach for the old .45 (or maybe the dumpster), at least until we reach the one funny line in the book, there on page 191: "Thomas' father has had a heart attack backing out of his garage, the car keeps going, up onto the neighbor's lawn. Mr. Dubinkerr, father of two girls, reaches in, shuts off the motor, pulls Mr. Sellers from the drivers' seat, gives him mouth-to-mouth but, surprise, he's already a goner. The girls run inside, 'Mommy,' Kaitlin exclaimed, 'Daddy's kissing Mr. Sellers!'"

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Telephone Ringing
In the Labyrinth

Poems 2004 - 2006
Adrienne Rich
A few of these poems were previously published in the Virginia Quarterly Review, The Progressive, The Nation, and The New Review of Literature. To those who know, these four magazines represent nothing more or less than the original American Dead Poets' Society.

When we saw Rich's title Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth, we found ourselves wondering why, each time we picked up the receiver, all we got was a loud buzzing noise. We thought for a moment that she might have been associated with that collection of poetry --- a wonderful collection --- from ten years back, A Cricket in the Telephone (at Sunset). No such luck.

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Ten Poems to Change
Your Life Again & Again

<Roger Housden
(Harmony Books)
Despite all the puff pieces that came along with Ten Poems, the book suffers from two major flaws. One is that the ten selected poems are hardly of the Life-Changing variety. That old wheeze (and bitter racist) Rilke appears as #1,

    Pour yourself like a fountain.
    Flow into the knowledge that what you are seeking
    finishes often at the start, and, with ending, begins.

and thus beginning (inchoately) ends, "Daphne / becoming a laurel, / dares you to become the wind." Such windiness!

Several other poems, notably by Ellen Bass, David Whyte, and Leonard Cohen are not much better.

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Fifty-Eight Days in
The Cajundome Shelter

Ann B. Dobie
Ms. Dobie, Pelican Books tells us, is a professional teacher and writer from the University of Louisiana. But she missed the boat if not the beat on this one. Someone served the medical team at Cajondome --- many of whom were working pro bono --- "with legal papers saying that they would be sued." Who? What? When? Where? Why didn't Dobie interview whoever came up with such nonsense? It had to do with access and stairs; that's all she tells us. Why not give us the full story?

She reports that the Red Cross public information officer denied the charges of bad food and hidden bedding. What did he or she say, and when? Is the Red Cross guilty of more heinous crimes in other disasters? Could Ms. Dobie have done a real investigation of the organization that we always thought was there johnny-on-the-spot for disaster relief, the one we give our hard-earned tax-free dollars?

How about FEMA? Many found fault with them and their militaristic approach to the whole post-Katrina operation ... arresting anyone who broke into any store for food or water, no matter how hungry or thirsty. That was the Law of FEMA. She apparently had no problem with that. Were the FEMA operatives better than we have been led to believe? Worse? Why doesn't she tell us? 18,000 people stuck for fifty-eight days in such a desolate place should provide us with no end of drama, wonder or excitement. The book gives no hint of this. Indeed the narrative is relentlessly ho-hum, to wit, "The great cleaning of the Cajundome has begun, but it will take more than soap, water, and a good mop to get this place back to normal." Well, sure --- but where's the beef? A lot came down in those eight weeks. Why isn't it here in the book?

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The Berlin Stories
Christopher Isherwood
(New Directions)
"I think," said Sally, "it must be marvelous to be a novelist. You're frightfully dreamy and unpractical and unbusinesslike, and people imagine they can fairly swindle you as much as they want --- and then you sit down and write a book about them which fairly shows them what swine they all are, and it's the most terrific success and you make pots of money."

"No," the narrator says, "I suspect the trouble with me is that I'm not quite dreamy enough..."

No, but he was dreamy enough to make pots of money on these besotted stories.

Much is made of Berlin being one of the seminal "gay" novels, but outside of a few scenes in dubious bars and the narrator (and the reader) having to live with a flaky, obnoxious seventeen-year-old prima donna named Otto (revealed many years later to be Isherwood's lover) there is little here of high art.

One episode in "The Landauers" has our narrator standing outside a bar where "Men dressed as women!"

    "You queer, too, hey?" demanded the little American, turning suddenly on me.

    "Yes," I said, "very queer indeed."

And that's it as far as revelations about Christopher and his kind.

Isherwood famously wrote,

    I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.

He may be a camera, but obviously the lens got daubed with much too much Vaseline.

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