When we place a list of reviews in our General Index,
we give ***stars*** to those of special merit:
good plotting in a novel,
nice layout (and intelligent commentary) in an art book,
superior writing in histories,
a special vision in poetry.
Here are ten from
the last six months that earned
our editors' deep affection.
§ § §
Children in Reindeer Woods
Lytton Smith, Translator
(Open Letter)Children in Reindeer Woods is as zany as they come. We learn nothing about Rafael's past: he certainly isn't volunteering any information to Billie (nor the reader). We learn a little about the people who have been knocked off but Billie is obviously not impressed by their bloody end (which she witnessed) nor their mass burial.
What we learn about her parents --- off someplace else --- isn't much help. She is convinced that her father is a puppet (strings and all) and her memories of him and her talky mother --- a doctor by trade --- are scattered. And weird.
She keeps asking Rafael if she is retarded, but what with her lists, her brainy ideas and insights, and her strange interests lead us to believe that she not so much retarded as autistic.
A monologue that she gives to the chickens while she is cleaning their hut is right out of Alice in Wonderland:
Good day, little chickens. I am the spring-man. I suppose I should vacuum, in here. Today's Saturday, and that's when people clean their residences and also the hen houses, though less frequently since animal-kind has fewer requirements. Perhaps because nature is expected to see to cleaning itself. But how are you going to get swept? God's natural brush, storms, never reach in here, do they? Poor you. In your shitty beds. But I still envy you. A little. Not much. A little.
§ § §
The Anatomy of Addiction
Sigmund Freud, William Halstead,
And the Miracle Drug Cocaine
(Pantheon)Anatomy is teeming with facts about Halsted and his spotless operating rooms and his cocaine shots and his rubber gloves and his being forced to pose, with three other notables, for a portrait by John Singer Sargent (Markel calls it "a divine gem of portraiture:")
Initially, Sargent could not make up his mind about the painting's composition. He paced up and down the room, chain-smoking cigarettes, while the doctors, none of them known for their patience, allowed themselves to be positioned and repositioned according to the artist's latest whim.
And the revelations about Freud... Not only do we get twelve years of his enervating cocaine use, along with Emma's poor ruined nose, but there is the characterization of Freud as a "cranky" hysteric (who had been inducted into treating hysterics no less). And there is this blockbuster set right at the very end: "A year after he fled Nazi-dominated Austria for London, a cancer-riddled Freud asked his physician Max Schur for a fatal dose of morphine to end his life."
"Schur, you remember our 'contract' not to leave me in the lurch when the time had come. Now it is nothing but torture and makes no sense."
And Schur, true to his word, administers "a large dose of morphine" not once but three times ... "and Freud went into a coma from which he did not awake."
§ § §
Architect of Elegance
Mark Anthony Wilson
(Gibbs Smith)The trusses, called the "Pratt Truss System" is a familiar pattern we see on old railway bridges, and indeed, there is a touch of the industrial in the arches here. But Maybeck threw in a bonanza of colorful rococo tics to make us forget the mechanical, with sea-green and gold and dots and spikeheads and playful snake-like figures among bolts and daubs and arabesques on the windows, even the initials of his wife thrown in for insiders.
Most of us are familiar with Maybeck's Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco ... the Beaux-Arts world's fair pavilion with its lurid Corinthian columns and Roman entablature and sub-tropical lush plantings, a mish-mash of Greek, Roman, and Renaissance all out of proportion (and pink columns, even). One would have to be a dangerous romantic to find this "architrave and corona of the colonnades" beautiful, but I suppose its very gaudiness will ensure that it has fans through the centuries. Still, I suspect that we are better off across the Bay praying to the strange divine that lives on in Mary Baker Eddy's divine auditorium.
Speaking of divinity: this volume runs 230 pages with more than 300 illustrations, mostly in color. Editor Wilson wanted only to include the still-existing buildings designed by Maybeck, but there are few black-and-white photographs of those structures that have gone in a blaze, one of California seasonal fires that can do urban renewal on whole neighborhoods.
What's worse are the scandalous developers whose ignorance of California architectural artistry can bring a tear to the eye. Los Angeles's Packard showrooms --- built for Earle C. Anthony --- fell on the sword of redevelopment. May the perpetuators of these evils forever dwell in architectural hell, in, say, an eternity in the third floor of a cheap condominium designed and built by Donald Trump.
§ § §
Call Me When You Land
(The Permanent Press)If you are planning to have a fifteen-year-old son, don't. And if you have any doubts, read this at once. "No man will ever crush you like your son," says Megan, who runs the place where Katie works. No wonder Katie hides her booze (and her boozing) from young C. J. As if she could. Our children, no matter how hard we work to deceive them, know everything. She decides he needs a job to get some spending money. She says, "I see a lot of kids your age working at Star Market."
"I'm not bagging groceries."
Katie's phone rings. "Who calls now?" she asks, pressing the ignore button.
"Probably Mother's Against Drunk Driving," he says.
This refers to her recent brush with the law where she might have gotten run in and a hefty fine if she hadn't charmed Officer Rollins with her lies. Did I mention the dialogue in Call Me When You Land is bewitching? When Katie gets on C. J.'s case for his new earring, she says, "It really looks awful. I'd rather you get a tattoo that no one can see."
"Fine, whatever you want." He removes the stud from his ear. "I'll get a MOM heart tattoo on my shoulder first thing tomorrow."
§ § §
The Centaur in the Garden
Margaret A. Neves, Translator
(Texas Tech University)You should consider getting The Centaur in the Garden, because I am not going to tell you anything more about it ... not the trips to Morocco, the operations, the meeting with a sphinx named Lolah. We buy into it all, because it's a delicious metaphor for all of us, always hiding something from the world ... what would your friends say if they knew you had hooves and a tail? ...
Hiding, always hiding, the two centaurs want nothing but to be loved and respected, treated like everyone else. It works, the fable does, that at the very end there, in the very last chapter, when author Scliar slips a bit ... says that Guedali may have been delusional.
We'll have none of it. Our centaur is too charming just as he is, especially when he is going full bore all four legs powering through the countryside, racing next to his beloved other half, Martita, two centaurs in love.
§ § §
(Norton)Cody is a helluva good writer, so good that the rest of us who have labored long in the writerly grove could get riled. He pulls it all in so easily, weaving in Pound and Eliot and Klee and sex and hospital walls and near-death experiences and cocaine and doctors.
There is, for example, Cody's "pain-management" physician who seems to fall in love with him (everyone seems to fall in love with him; after reading this, I am too).
It would not do to write the name, especially with the strange courtship that follows,
but here we are presented with the intentionally unemphatic entrance of the real Not Her Real Name. Obviously Caroline was not Caroline's real name, but neither was Caroline not the real Not her Real Name, just as Sophie (not her real name) was not the real Not Her Real Name ... Not Her Real Name: or Nothereal, as I'm going to call her for short, for convenience. I deserve a little ease at this point.
This last bit is thrown in there as afterthought and the reader thinks, well, after a series of chemo that didn't take and now going through this harrowing bone-marrow business ... perhaps you do deserve a "little ease."
§ § §The Necessity of
(University of Pittsburgh)This is Hillary with her new boyfriend Alex discovering mom passed out in her L. A. apartment:
They stood over her. The stocking on her left leg had a wide, webby run from ankle to thigh, fully visible given that her mother's legs were sprawled apart. She'd put on weight. The quilt had fallen to the floor. White residue was crusted at the edges of her mouth. "She'd kind of a mess," Hillary said.
Alex leaned over Hillary's mom and picked up her hand, turned it over. Her mother didn't stir. "Her lifeline is long," Alex said. "You're in for a ride."
Shannon Cain is a crackerjack writer. Of the nine stories in The Necessity of Certain Behaviors, we found five that were irresistible which is, I think, all one could ask in such an exacting form. The story of the pot mother and the story of the drunk mother are so good that you should get the book just to read them.
§ § §Cream of Kohlrabi
(Tupelo Press)The title story is one of the best of the lot. Ike Rubin calls the soup "Purée of Vomit Chowder." He's a crabby old bastard, but he has learned to get by, at eighty-nine, "on a combination of memory (fading), guile (holding steady), and patience (decreasing)." Ike learns from his brother-in-law Morris Weiss's law firm that he is eligible to collect money from the Humanitarian Fund for the Victims of the Holocaust, and they have sent Morris to Switzerland to negotiate. Ike thinks,
They send an octogenarian to Switzerland to talk to Nazi collaborators? They send a pussycat like Morris Weiss to deal with wolves and jackal-asses?
"Cream of Kohlrabi" turns sad ... brilliantly sad ... at the very end, the kind of woe that makes one set down the book for awhile to let it sink in. And like all good short stories, this one has moments of telling detail. Ike has trouble remembering what a door-knob is called; he calls "jackasses" "jackal-asses;" after all he has gone through, he tells Rosa Martinez who works at the nursing home that when he looks out the window, "You know what I see, Rosa? I see a haze, mostly. The color of bones, or maybe ashes. Some movement here and there, but mostly haze."
These stories of half-crazed old geezers waiting to die stay with you. They are often not sure of their words, not sure who they are, not even who they were. But, as Ike has it, when he asks lovely Rosa to sit next to him, and she actually does it, he thinks that he must really look bad. "The pretty ones never sit beside you unless you're on death's door."
§ § §
A Winter in Arabia
A Journey through Yemen
It is her ability to sketch out the situation for us, along with her affection and sensitivity to this distant culture --- so far from the Europe in which she grew up --- that makes her such an affecting companion on this new journey of hers. When she finally gets underway, she wonders why she is doing it at all. As we all do, especially when we go through the Badlands, the Travail of Travel, she wonders why we bother at all. But she explains it away by quoting a local prophet, Sayyid Abdulla, the watch-maker: "To leave one's troubles behind one; to earn a living; to acquire learning; to practice good manners; and to meet honorable men."
One of Stark's greatest virtues --- at least to this reader --- is her ability with the language, her keen turn of phrase. This on meeting with a local dignitary: "The Mansab comes out from his carved doorway in a green turban and cloak, green jacket gold-buttoned beneath it, the men of his family behind him; he is so holy, people do not kiss his hand, they bend over and sniff at it audibly, so as to breathe up a whiff of the sanctity as if it were snuff."
She is obviously fearless. I don't know if that word is capable of conveying what she goes through (the purpose of her journey, we gather, is mostly with collecting plant species and searching out ancient inscriptions). She not only comes down with a pernicious sickness, she then passes through civil wars, slave raids, destitution, shootings, and has always to deal with attempted blackmail and constant besiegings by crowds of the curious, "cheerful and determined to get money if they could."
The bodyguard of 'Azzan had turned out behind me, indistinguishable to all outward appearance from the enemies they were supposed to deal with: in these bedouin crowds it was always difficult to tell one's own protectors from one's foes.
§ § §
50th Anniversary Edition
Kyle Gann, Editor
(Wesleyan)John Cage was much taken with silence. And noise, too. According to Gann, he was able to mix the two with no effort. His apartment once had a malfunctioning fire alarm "that beeped all night." No one slept but Cage.
I remained in bed, listened carefully to its pattern, and worked it into my thoughts and dreams; and I slept very well.
He told Gann that a baby crying in a concert hall --- especially during a concert of modern music --- was there to be enjoyed.
For fans of Cage, this book is all she wrote of note. Also, because it is by Cage, much of it makes no sense whatsoever, but then again, there is still a fair distance between Silence and Dada. Dada is a babble; Cage's presentations seem to be a babble with purpose ... so much so that it often irritated his audiences. A recent article by Joan Acocella in The New Yorker tells us that "Sometimes I thought that if I heard Cage or one of his followers banging a stick on a stick or blasting static on a sound system one more time I would run screaming from the theatre..." And earlier on, one of the parts of Cage's Lecture on Nothing was "the repetition, some fourteen times, of a page in which the refrain, If anyone is sleepy let him go to sleep." Cage reports that
Jeanne Reynal, I remember, stood up part way though, screamed, and then said, while I continued speaking, "John, I dearly love you, but I can't bear another minute." She then walked out.
Anyone who has studied the techniques of Milton Erickson knows that a sentence, with the word "relax" or "sleep" repeated enough times will put people in a trance (or to sleep). Or, alternatively, out the door.