Rock Gardening
In the Ukraine

Ten Years of RALPH:
The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy, and the Humanities

By Laurence G. A. Huxley
It's a joy to know that there is a place in the world of letters --- outside of the New York Canned Literary Soup Kitchen --- where books can be judged on their merit, not on the number of lunches the authors have had with the publicist or the reviewers.

It's called RALPH, and it has been around since 1994. I value its presents, as well as its presence.

Some of the reviews are snide, some puerile, some hectoring. At the same time, there are some that are so gorgeous they quite take the breath away. These are people who have a love or distaste for a book that runs so deep that their reviews can shake the reader and, possibly, the writer as well. At times it becomes the Art of Criticism at its most elegant.

I think my favorite literary aperçu appeared in the ever-popular "Letters" section of RALPH. It's an out-of-the-blue give-and-take above between reader and editor that best shows the guileless, eccentric wonder of the magazine:

    Dear Ms. Lark:

    Are you the originator of the RALPH site?

    It has many originators.

    It's a wonderful site. I'm intrigued by your name...

    Me too. Larks are too.

    Are you having books published as well?

    Our books are listed at

    Are all of the pieces at the site professionally authored?

    All of us are professionally gifted amateurs. We are renaissance men, renaissance women.

    Thank you for your time.

    Thank you for yours.

--- Alexandra Lind

By Lolita Lark, Editor
An on-line magazine is a strange beast. One can, within 24 hours, know which stories or essays or poems are being picked up and, presumably, read.

In the old days, when we did cold-type, we'd send the copy and layout to the printers and after a few weeks it would be printed and shipped back and we'd proof it and send it back and they would sent it back and we'd separate and address and collate and mail it out and we'd learn over the next few months whether people actually read any of it. There would be occasional calls or letters or some discussion with friends or, at times, public notices. It was all very leisurely.

Nowadays we set the magazine in HTML, stick it up on the web ... and within 24 hours we can start counting the number of hits any one page is generating (in addition to all the hits directed at those issues from months and years past, those long-forgotten pieces (who wrote this?) that are still hovering about there in hyperspace).

Thus, in the spring of 1997 we knew that the somewhat off-the-wall review we did of Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia was quickly garnering attention from those who chanced upon it, or who have been referred to it by anorexia/bulemia support groups on-line because the number of hits went through the ceiling, as did the number of testy e-mails (which still turn up from time to time).

Too, a review of a book about Dr. Laura which appeared simultaneously at RALPH and at continues to this day to generate a fair amount of attention as well as e-mail from those who are miffed that we merely treated her as a silly old lady who didn't know beans about psychology.

Then there's the article about Fatty Arbuckle that we put up more than a dozen years ago (taking it from our now late lamented parent magazine The Fessenden Review) which, evidently, struck a chord with film nuts. It regularly gets as many hits but none of the testy responses as Wasted, being a benign view of a tragic man.

Nude Sculpture from the our Winter 2000-2001 issue is often pulled up by readers, but we suspect it may have something to do with the title. We hasten to add that anyone looking for a bevy of sexpot images at RALPH will be let down considerably by the cold (and gorgeous) marble reproductions that are part of the review.

One RALPH page labelled "Deep Throat" once got a large number of daily visits. Alas, it is not another romance of the porn queen Linda Lovelace who (as our reviewer had it) "was famous for her ability to accomplish penetrating acts of laryngectomy to satisfy her needy clients." Rather, it's a discussion of a rather ho-hum book, In Search of Deep Throat by Leonard Garment --- his attempt to divine the identity of the inside informer in the Nixon White house during the Watergate Scandal. Nothing more, nothing less ... and now, dark stone in the dark pond, gone.

Another oft-visited page listed as "The Seduction of Don Juan" and it is just that: an excerpt from Lord Byron's luscious Don Juan where our young hero learns, first hand, from an older dowager, what his calling in life is to be. We suspect that people online looking for the equivalent of Debbie Does Dallas might be buffaloed by such lines as,

    There's no doubt she only meant to clasp
    His fingers with a pure Platonic squeeze:
       She would have shrunk as from a toad, or asp,
    Had she imagined such a thing could rouse
    A feeling dangerous to a prudent spouse...

and ending with the famous couplet,

    A little still she strove, and much repented,
    And whispering "I will ne'er consent" --- consented.

§     §     §

Somewhat more honorable pages called up regularly by our readers include, for example, the beguiling and woeful tale by one L. Milam of his memories of youth and the brutalization of his cousin Hans, at

It not only appeared in a very early RALPH, but also in The Fessenden Review and The Sun and had the distinction of forcing one of our typesetters to the verge of tears as she was preparing it. "But he didn't do anything wrong," she wailed --- an eerie echo of the events of that sad summer of 1939.

We've also found that tyrants are popular. The gripping novel, The Autobiography of Josef Stalin

is visited regularly, as is a dry and ironical poem about Hitler by J. W. Torg:

    When Der Fuehrer returned to earth for the next previous go-round
    (In South America, shortly after his departure from the bunker
    In the spring of 1945)
    He came back as a nematode...

Some repeat visits are pleasant surprises, giving us some hope for the intellectual meanderings of the internet. They include, at

H. L. Mencken's choice description of those who favor the plastic arts. He begins,

    The author is, by trade, an art critic, and his chief interest lies in the moderns who have followed Cézanne. In consequence most of his writings are full of the vague and indignant rhetoric that the contemplation of green complexions and hexagonal heads seems to draw from even the best critical minds.

Then there is a tart review by C. K. Rywalt of The Making of McPaper, The Inside Story of USA Today that commences, "Whenever they trundle out the lachrymal discharges of the leading heavy, it's probably time to man the bilges, especially when we know that he is not necessarily riding away into the sunset after a job well done, but more likely tucking his $100,000,000 in options in the trunk of his Lamborghini and driving off into the Poconos."

Sometimes we are, we hasten to confess, disappointed by the dwindling hits that some of our most favored reviews garner. We were alone, we suspect, among American literari when we found ourselves bored to tears by the overly-praised Waiting by Ha Chin. Our reviewer reported, "It got lodged between front and back seat of my car."

    During the course of a week --- a week in which I seemed to spend too much time waiting in freeway pile-ups and waiting at railroad crossings and waiting at the laundry --- there was Waiting. I was thus saddled for what seemed a month of stalled cars and carbon monoxide not with, unfortunately, King Kong --- but doctor Lin Kong, the star of Waiting, and his honey of eighteen years, nurse Manna Wu. Kong can woo Wu but no marry because of a previously arranged marriage with a home-bound, ugly, foot-bound (only in China!) lady named Shuyu.

Even more galling was the deafening silence accorded to our snippy review of Bordertown: "Barry Gifford, according to the poop piece that came along with Bordertown, had gotten raves from the likes of the New York Times Book Review ('existential gusto'), the Washington Post, ('the hot dark of the innards') --- and has been further praised by the likes of Armistead Maupin, Alan Cheuse (NPR) and Digby Diehl (Playboy). He has also garnered awards from PEN, the ALA, the Premio Brancati of Italy, and the National Endowment for the Arts. But bless me, if what we have here is any example of his talents, we would urge Jesse Helms to get on it at once --- to thrash him on the floor of the Senate for pure artistic smarm, and take away any past, present, or future grants pending from the NEA. For Gifford is an opportunistic writer, with a passionate commitment to putrescence, and, despite some throw-away rants about American corporations, he sports a not-too-subtle distaste for Mexicans."

Most of all, from the many e-mails that stream in to enliven our Letters section, we know that RALPH and its hard-copy version, "The Folio" --- are winning hearts (or attacks of bile) out there.

    I'm afraid I have no interest in your publication and recycle it when it arrives. Please remove me from your mailing list.

--- Thank you.
A. S.
Ohio State University Press


    Dear Lolita,

    I read a review of my book, The Zen of Oz, in your recent publication of RALPH. Your reviewer panned the book, claiming that the book does not succeed as satire or humor. That is because the book is not meant to be a satire. I thought you should know.

--- Best,
Joey Green


    Dear Ralph:

    Thank you for sending me the Lolita Lark review with its very straight shots. There may have been a note that was supposed to be with it but it apparently wasn't enclosed so I'm not quite sure who to thank. But it's heartening to know, to be reminded, of readers paying that kind of attention, caring, and saying so. A couple of years ago when I read in San Diego there seemed to be many there who read poetry as something alive and vital to them, and it was heartening to be there. Thank you again.

--- Sincerely,
W. S. Merwin
Haiku, Hawai'i



    Wars are being declared, the countryside is being destroyed, poverty is stalking young and old alike --- and you write a review of a book on Pet Cemeteries. Can anything be so trivial?

Sometimes the reviews reach the personal, bring up memories. This, in response to our review of a Lindbergh book,

    Dear Lolita,

    I had a drink with Lindbergh once in a bedroom of the Waldorf.

    We talked for an hour or so.

    He was a good conversationalist, with an interest in things he was able to share.

    I liked him a lot. He was in his sixties and he was still handsome.

    So cut Lindy a little slack, will you?


There was this exceedingly peeved review of our review of a book by a popular travel writer:

    Dear Ms Lark,

    What kind of idiots do you have writing book reviews? In her report on my book Dancing Alone in Mexico, Ms L.A. Bloom admits she's slipping into senility. I think she's already there. I assume, L. A. is a woman as are most writers who use only initials. Or perhaps she can't spell her name. She certainly can't spell Frida Kahlo's which is spelled incorrectly as "Frieda" throughout.

    Say what she wants about my "tedious," "fact-choked," "wooden," "rigid" writing, but it's totally unfair to point out errors that are hers and not mine. I was just in Mazatlán. The ferry boats are still crossing the Sea of Cortez. No matter how unconventional, Frida and Diego's relationship was indeed "a love story. " They were even married twice, if that doesn't say something. When she was cremated, the devastated Diego ate a handful of her ashes and vowed that when he died their ashes would be combined and buried in the same urn. As for what Edward G. Robinson paid for Frida's paintings and where his wife was entertained, all that comes from preparation and research, a little of which might benefit your critic.

    Maybe her work was turned down by "Travel and Leisure," but whatever problem L.A. Bloom has with professional travel writers who write for "a bourgeoisie clientele with fat credit cards," I haven't the foggiest idea why she decided to heap it all on me. I wish I had a fat credit card. Then I'd go to Mexico which I love. She obviously doesn't.

--- Sincerely,
Ron Butler

And, finally, one of our all-time favorites:

    To Whom it May Concern:

    I am writing to respond, albeit belatedly, to Lolita Lark's contemptuous review of Jorie Graham's latest book, Swarm.

    After reading Lark's puerile, off-the-cuff responses to other (better?) reviewers' opinions of the book (which she calls, unaccountably, a "booklet") it became clear to me that the reviewer was far more interested in her own cleverness and ability to dash off a few zingers than in forming a thoughtful, careful, and mature opinion of the poetry.

    If she had taken the time to do this --- and to consider the book on its own terms, rather than those of Graham's previous reviewers --- I suspect she may have found that this book was worth her consideration, and then some.

    As it is, Lark engages in the worst form of literary sycophancy: paying more attention to what's said about a work than to what the work itself says.

    Jorie Graham is one of the most interesting --- and innovative --- poets writing today, and while those who are unprepared to find value beyond the familiar and canonical might encounter her with the same fear and loathing that Lark does, those of us who are truly invested in the growth and vitality of poetry encounter her with gratitude and respect.

    And finally, I recommend acquiring the good sense not to judge a writer's --- or anyone's --- pedagogical skill while still possessed of an abysmal lack of information about it. Graham is an even better professor of poetry than she is a poet. But perhaps I'm one of those new American writers for whom Lark has, quite unnecessarily, invoked divine aid.

--- Sharon Cournoyer
Department of English and American
Literature and Language
Harvard University

§     §     §

Finally, I want to tell you why we're calling this book Rock Gardening in the Ukraine. It has to do with delusions.

Several years ago, when I was doing what we used to call "layout," I was assigned to make up a catalogue of books for a small publisher. I stuck in a totally spurious title, Rock Gardening in the Ukraine. My boss didn't get it, the book company didn't see it, it got in the catalogue, there were not a few enquiries, and after some orders drifted in ("Rock Gardening in the WHAT?"), I was forced to confess that it was nothing but a dream of mine.

Now, with the coming of this book, it no longer is an illusion. Any more or less than the rest of us.

§     §     §

ISBN: 0-917320-28-X
Price --- $25
[No postage if ordered before publication date]

Books Beyond All Reason
Box 16719
San Diego CA 92176

Go Up

Order the book