A Baker's Dozen
Hits from the First Half of 2009
In the General Index,
RALPH's editors award
golden stars to any new books
we find to be of especial merit.
Here are thirteen culled from
the more than one hundred reviews
that we have posted so far this year.

All-American Poem
Matthew Dickman
(American Poetry Review)
It is the task of a poet to take things that don't belong together and wrap them up in the same blanket and as you read it you nod your head and know that it is right and good and proper. Dickman can take snow falling in the black Atlantic, transform it into "seeing, for the first time / a naked body."

    Even though you know her name. You have even played a part
    in making her naked, but now she is something
    altogether different.

This isn't show-off stuff, a poetic version of name-dropping. It is, rather, the right stuff: marrying things that should perhaps have been wed all along.

Conquest of the Useless
Reflections from the Making of "Fitzcarraldo"
Werner Herzog
The strange landscape becomes the movie, the movie becomes the journal, and the wild river wildly fits into the lunacy of the whole project. Imagine it: Herzog decides to make a picture about this mountain boat-hauling routine. Meanwhile, Les Blank drops in to make a movie about Herzog making a movie. Did someone come along behind Blank to make a movie about making a movie about making a movie about moving a boat? We are not told here.

    Outside in the darkness four thousand frogs are crying for a savior. The frogs have lowly thoughts and carry on lowly research. I wish a taxi would come and take me somewhere.

"There is a tugging at me like an elephant, and the dogs are tugging at my heart ... Abel Gance talked to me for a long time about his idea for a fifteen-hour film on Columbus, which he wants to pass on to me, now that he has seen Aguirre. He says he is ninety, and it is too much for him. Half seriously, half jokingly, he said that he would like to die here, if that were acceptable."

    We drank red wine to that, straight from the bottle, and he remarked that he did not take anything seriously, he took everything tragically.

Freeman Walker
A Novel
David Allan Cates
Historical fiction? Bildungsroman? Picaresque? How about all three .... and then some. It's a dandy travel book taking us through mid-19th Century America and England. It's a funny coming-of-age for a half-slave, half-freedman. It's crammed with characters from London, America, the battlefields, the graves, the old west: A father who carries the Declaration of Independence around in his pocket, a Jewish thief who always leaves half of the loot behind (in case his victims might need it), the Irish Colonel Cornelius O'Keefe, who led one of the many uprisings against the English. He appears as "Acting Governor" of the "Western Territory," arriving with a band of ghostly Irish soldiers:

    One night he stopped, however, and I could see the reflection of his face grow grim. "I've seen enough fighting," he said, "to last until eternity. And have you noticed how I'm trailed everywhere by the dead."

A Persistent Peace
One Man's Struggle for
A Nonviolent World

John Dear
(Loyola Press)
If there is a march somewhere, he's there. A retreat. A conference on the causes of violence. A war itself (San Salvador, Northern Ireland, Palestine, Guatemala). A convention of arms manufacturers. A prisoner being executed. Dear is there, johnny-on-the-spot: I had always been against the death penalty --- Jesus himself was a victim of it. Executions clearly violated every principle of the gospel, in no way squaring with Jesus' commandment to forgive without keeping score. It conveniently ignored his challenge to let the one who is without sin be the first to throw a stone.

An Odyssey of
Pacific Ocean Debris

Bonnie Henderson
(Oregon State University Press)
There are five other chapters. There's one on Gomi --- the small glass balls that have always been used to buoy Japanese fishing nets; there is another on whale watching, with a digression on the smallest of them, the Minke; there is a chapter on shoes ... how a Nike Havoc floated out of a storm-riven container ship (along with 60,000 others) and ended up on Mile 157; and there is an absolutely riveting account of the sinking, thirty years ago, at Mile 157, of a fishing boat, called the Sanak. I mean riveting: you are there on the sixty-foot black-cod fishing boat as it rams the beach at two in the morning (the captain was asleep), the crew going nuts as the craft begins to founder, and the subsequent near-the-edge rescue by a Coast Guard helicopter.

As a Friend
A Novel
Forrest Gander
(New Directions)
Forrest Gander? Who he? Did he make up that name? But by page seven you can't tear me away from As a Friend. By page twenty I am thinking he must have come from Mars, or Venus. And by page fifty I am thinking there are writers and there are writers and this guy takes the cake. How do they do it? Dylan Thomas said it was all a matter of their "craft and sullen art." It sure as hell is not something they teach you in school. Don't ask me: I tried.

The Last Prince of The Mexican Empire
Catherine Mansell Mayo
(Unbridled Books)
Outside of the food, and the parties, and the dances, and the royal visits, there were a few problems that presented themselves during the short reign of Carlota and Maximilian. Like the fact that they were in an occupied country. And that some, namely the Mexican president, Benito Juárez, along with many of his subjects, didn't want them there.

The French soldiers weren't so enchanted either: they don't think too much of spilling their blood over a wasteland 5,000 miles from home. There sits the emperor "on his cactus throne," says the tough old French General Françoise-Achile Bazaine. "For the glory of France" soldiers are dying of "typhoid, cholera, gangrene, syphilis, meningitis, yellow fever." They have been "shot, stabbed, burned alive and castrated, disemboweled."

Big Trips
More Good Gay Travel Writing
Raphael Kadushin
(Terrace Books)
You will never look at Florida the same way again. I grew up in Florida, too many years ago. Fresh water everywhere, popping up out of the ground everywhere to make rivers, streams, lakes, swamps, everything overladen by great green Spanish-moss hanging trees, the limbs like the limbs of the old, craggy, bent, knobbed. But here the writer takes us into the new Florida, crosses into Fort Myers over the Caloosahatchee River (those names! Loxahatchee, Choctawhatchee, Little Econlockhatchee, Ocklawaha!)

    But there is the grid that men have laid upon the infinitely subtle, delicate ecosystem of this unique state: a grid of highways, strip malls, and housing developments that has taken something that used to be as exotic as Africa and turned it into another corporate, standardized replica of what Henry Miller called "the Air Conditioned Nightmare.

Birdsong by the Seasons
A Year of Listening to Birds
Donald Kroodsma
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Here he is again, his enthusiasms about bird warbles intact, in fact, if possible, a little more enthusiastic if such is possible, complete in 350 pages, with twenty-four of them ... including the belted kingfisher, the blackburnian warbler, the limpkin of Corkscrew swamp, the downy --- not to say hairy or pileated --- woodpecker, the blue-gray gnatcatcher, the fructifying frigging fruitcrow. Kroodsma has arrogated to himself two birds for each month. He wanted to do four, a total of fifty-two --- but he wasn't sure he could do them all justice, so he stuck with just twenty-four there where he lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with side-trips to the Everglades, the Platte River, Grundy, Virginia, and --- will he ever stop? --- a special pilgrimage to Nicaragua and Costa Rica to get up at some awful hour, usually four or so when all sane folk are abed, to take his pile of equipment out onto the beach at Charco Verde, not to greet the sun and lord knows not like most sane visiting gringos to sip tripe soup for the "crudo" (hangover), but rather to stalk the great kiskadee flycatcher.

Nights in the Pink Motel
An American Strategist's
Pursuit of Peace in Iraq

Robert Earle
(Naval Institute Press)
No matter who he is, he's a wizard with words ... and completely believable. He tells us on page two that his psychiatrist is "not pleased" with his decision to go to Iraq. And when he is shipped home (the first of three returns) with a dangerous blood-clot in his leg, his nurse --- a modern-day Army Nurse Ratched --- chastises him for taking just too many tranquilizers without her specific permission. His trips to the Middle East consistently make him sick, damn near kill him, certainly plunge him into despair. And I'm thinking that if I had to live with, deal with, answer to those who made up American policy in Iraq over the last few years, I'd feel pretty ill meself.

Crow Planet
Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness
Lyanda Lynn Haupt
(Little, Brown)
Crows are one of the few creatures of nature that are growing in numbers. They have an innate ability to live and prosper alongside humans --- as do seagulls, pigeons, rats and roaches. Haupt thus offers the thought that if you find an injured crow, the best thing you might do for the ecology of the planet is to let it die.

Astonishing thought from a respected conservationist, but the facts are that "Crows living in the urban landscape reap the benefits of easy food and shelter, and their populations are barely checked by cars, cats, and other urban and suburban hazards."

The Romantic Dogs
1980 - 1998
Roberto Bolaño
Laura Healy, Translator
(New Directions)
Latin America is the insane asylum of Europe. Maybe, originally, it was thought that Latin America would be Europe's hospital, or Europe's grain bin. But now it's the insane asylum. A savage, impoverished, violent insane asylum, where, despite its chaos and corruption, if you open your eyes wide, you can see the shadow of the Louvre.

Candida Lawrence
(Unbridled Books)
Sixty years ago I read a story about the ultimate punishment. It told of people who are forced to live on and on (and on). They are in a hospital/prison where people --- 110, 125, 150 years old --- simply want to get out, be gone. But those who run the system bring in the best medical care, state-of-the-art to patch up the old folks after the usual multiple attempted suicides. It's the law of the land. You have to keep on going. No abandoning ship until you have served your time.

The ultimate twist in Vanishing lies in the very last essay, about sister Anne's own dementia and death. (She's the one who earlier on found Molly "deeply asleep.") At Anne's memorial service, people said, "Oh, you must miss her so much," and I said: "I do, I do..."

    I remember her phone number and sometimes I call her and her answering machine says: "Hello, this is Anne. Please leave your name and number. I'll call you back as soon as I can."

Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH