Book review: Goosestep by Harold Jaffe


By Kit-Bacon Gressitt

 

Goosestep Harold JaffeWhile a tide of new political activists is frothing across the nation, one seasoned revolutionary is quietly practicing his decades-long resistance in Mission Hills. Harold Jaffe, author and SDSU professor, continues his quest to challenge popular perception in his 24th book, Goosestep: Fictions and Docufictions (Journal of Experimental Fiction Books, November 2016).

Jaffe has taught at SDSU for about 30 years, and traveled the world longer. He lives and writes in “what remains of nature” along a Mission Hills canyon.

“There are fewer birds now,” he said. “I think global warming is the prime suspect there. Wilderness being real-estated; land being contaminated; the weather being completely out of sorts; birds, when they migrate here in the winter, find the weather too warm. Without wildness, we’re damned. We must integrate with wild creatures, otherwise this earth is going to be quickly damned.”

It is hope of a more natural state for human creatures that seems to pervade Jaffe’s writing. If he can just jostle the reader enough without causing harm, the world might be a better place. His writing is sometimes subtle, sometimes not; it can leave the reader thinking “Well, of course” and other times deep in a quandary.

Jaffe questions a seeming endless list of contradictions and failures, from “American provincialism” to news as “propagandized entertainment” to “the fake moralizing that goes on in the country.” This might sound heavy, even unpleasant to some, but Jaffe performs his persistent examination with compassion and humor, albeit a bit dark. He asks the reader to see things another way, to look a second time, without socially constructed filters.

The first text in Goosestep, titled “Double,” challenges the reader with conflicting perceptions:

The perils are vast, the receptors are slick, seductively small.
The perils are not vast, the receptors are not slick, seductively small.

I see the homeless huddled against the steel-glass wall of the stock exchange.
You do not see the homeless huddled against the steel-glass wall of the stock exchange.

I see for-profit prisons filled with colored poor.
You do not see for-profit prisons filled with colored poor.

The semi-invisible line defining (relative) civility is effaced.
There is no semi-invisible line defining (relative) civility.

The semi-invisible line that kept undisguised cruelty toward the disadvantaged partially in check is effaced.
There was no semi-invisible line that kept undisguised cruelty toward the disadvantaged partially in check.

Once effaced, an epidemic of police violence is unleashed against black young men and women.
There has been no epidemic of police violence unleashed against black young men and women.

I see first-world jets bomb from above the cloud line.
You do not see first-world jets bomb from above the cloud line.

Collateral damage? The pilot consults his monitor and yawns.
There is no collateral damage. The pilot does not consult his monitor and yawn.

When is terror called righteous assault? When first-world ethnociders say it is.
Terror is not called righteous assault. There are no first-world ethnociders.

Ethnocide morphs into entertainment. I see a non-stop circus engendered by lies and money.
Ethnocide does not morph into entertainment. You do not see a non-stop circus engendered by lies and money.

The world as we know it perishes / humans take selfies.
The world as we know it does not perish / no one takes selfies.

I see the homeless huddled against the steel-glass wall of the stock exchange.
You don’t see the homeless huddled against the steel-glass wall of the stock exchange.

I see for-profit prisons filled with colored poor.
You do not see for-profit prisons filled with colored poor.

The semi-invisible line defining (relative) civility is effaced.
There is no semi-invisible line defining (relative) civility.

Must the reader favor one view over the other— are they even opposites? Must a text be designated fiction or nonfiction?

Goosestep Harold Jaffe

Jaffe in Paris

“No,” Jaffe said, “I think that in effect there’s no difference except in proportion. Look at the so-called news. It’s not news, it’s ideology, it’s propagandized entertainment. I think fiction and nonfiction have always been combined, even before the net. … I’m emphasizing this to call attention to how the culture functions.”

He explained how he did this in a recent piece: “There was a [news] story about an Arab family displaced from Syria: Angry Muslim husband drops two children from a two-story window after wife confesses she wished she was a European woman. I looked into it. They were displaced for two years, living in Calais in extremely difficult circumstances. She was very unhappy. She said something to the effect if she were a European woman she wouldn’t have to live like this. These people were in forced exile, because Syria is being destroyed. It was a combination of frustrations and anger. So I tried to turn it just a little bit so we saw all sides of it, to get a sense of the feeling of anguish that the people had.”

As insightful as critical, Jaffe’s writing reveals a profound empathy—an understanding that inhumanity is coupled to humanity, that pain abounds—and a commitment to art as his response. But art as activism, he said, “is not, generally speaking, an American disposition.” In the U.S. there is an effort “to dissociate art making from activism.”

“But if the world is in pain,” Jaffe said, “how does art address it?”

It might be an unanswerable question collectively, but each artist—musician, painter, photographer, sculptor, dancer, writer—possesses tools and talents to take some action.

“It has to do with the first assumption, that the world is in pain,” Jaffe said, “and if an artist has any kind of feeling about the world, how does he or she address it? If you address it just plainly, you’re likely to drive the reader away. But if you stylize it—you can stylize it—you can shock the reader into some kind of recognition.”

Whether Jaffe draws readers to his work or drives them away, it is probable that his words will linger with them—however long they might exist, which is another conundrum. Consider the last section of “Double”:

The world as we know it perishes / humans take selfies.
The world as we know it does not perish, no one takes selfies.

 …………………………………………………………

Kit-Bacon Gressitt writes commentary and essays on Excuse Me, I’m Writing, is a founding editor of WritersResist.com, and has been published by Missing Slate, Ms. Magazine blog and Trivia: Voices of Feminism, among others. She formerly wrote a weekly column for the North County Times. She also hosts Fallbrook Library’s monthly Writers Read authors series and open mic, and can be reached at kbgressitt@gmail.com.

Photo credit: Katana Blue.

Interview with Re Jane author Patricia Park


By Kit-Bacon Gressitt

 

Re Jane Author Patricia Park

See Patricia Park at Warwick’s Books
Thursday 28 April 2016, 6:30 pm
7812 Girard Avenue, La Jolla, CA 92037

When novelist Patricia Park set out to write Re Jane, she wanted to re-write Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë’s classic. The latter’s Jane was published in Victorian 1847 and set in the Georgian era. Neither time period offered women many options other than marriage. Park’s Jane was first published in 2015, when women had a multitude of options, if not equality.

“I wanted to show what would happen if Jane was in the present day,” Park said as she was preparing for the just-released paperback edition book tour, “if my novel would end with that iconic line, ‘Reader, I married him.’”

It took Park years to figure it out as she crafted a story about contemporary Korean-American orphan Jane Re. Those years, although not as trying as Jane Eyre’s, were challenging. While Park worked, earned an MFA, researched and scribbled, her siblings’ professional careers were taking off. Park, a Korean-American herself, felt the painful comparison. But the successful publication of Re Jane changed that.

Re Jane by Patricia Park

New paperback edition of Re Jane, available 19 April 2016, from Penguin Books

“I feel like I can hold my head up a little bit higher. This novel took me almost ten years. You try to explain to people what you’re doing and you have nothing to show for yourself. It really affects your self-esteem. … [My parents] did not understand what I was doing, but once they held that physical book, they were proud of me, and that was a winning moment for me.”

The book follows Jane’s quest for identity, leading her through the psychic and emotional land mines of a post-sexual revolution era, when intimate affairs are at risk of becoming public fodder and the story’s Women’s Studies lecturer struggles for tenure. Jane’s search begins in Queens, N.Y., where she works in her uncle and aunt’s grocery store with the pragmatic name “FOOD.” She becomes embroiled in a romance and is summoned to South Korea to meet her failing grandfather. There, Jane learns that the land of her ancestors is a series of surprises—as did the author, who traveled to Korea on a Fulbright scholarship.

“I was whiling away taxpayer dollars.” Park laughed. “Actually, I set out to study the concept of the orphan and how the orphan is understood in the context of the Korean society versus the Victorian society. I was doing volunteer work with group homes, often run by churches, where children are left because the parents don’t have the resources to raise them. So I was doing volunteer work with these group homes and at adoption agencies, services for Korean adoptees. I was writing full time and just trying to take in as much of the modern culture as I could. For a lot of hyphenated Americans like myself, we romanticize the motherland, but the reality is, when we get there, our understanding of the culture was frozen in time—whenever our ancestors left.”

Jane Re leaves Korea enlightened about her parentage and returns to an intimate relationship dilemma.

“When Jane meets the Ed Farley character, he’s the first man to take notice of her,” Park explained. “With women or characters like Jane, they’re grateful for what crumbs are thrown their way. At the same time, gratefulness does not translate to love. A lot of times we feel guilty for even staying involved in relationships, and I wanted to play with that essential for someone like Jane, who has her whole future ahead of her.”

Jane’s future is inevitably tied to her past. Determining where she’s from, who she is, where she’s heading—regardless of how others perceive her or what they expect of her—is a common challenge for children of immigrants, fictional and real.

As Park said, “That’s just part of our every day.”

Jane Re’s resolution, like Jane Eyre’s, reflects well the days in which she is living.

 

Review: The Turnip Princess by Franz Xaver von Schönwerth


Reviewed by Kit-Bacon Gressitt

TurnipPrincessIn 2009, folklorists were delighted to learn of the discovery of a cache of 500 unknown Bavarian fairy tales. Unearthed from a municipal archive by German storyteller and fairy tale expert Erika Eichenseer, the tales had been collected in the 1800s by Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, transcribed from his interviews with local Bavarians. By 2010, a portion of the collection, edited by Eichenseer, was published in Germany. This month, Penguin Classics releases The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales in English, the translation by Maria Tatar, Harvard University’s chair of the Program in Folklore and Mythology.

Unlike the more familiar Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen collections, Schönwerth’s renditions of oral Bavarian lore are said to be true to the common folks who shared their stories with him, perhaps over mugs of cider or strong homebrew. These tales are unembellished, unconcerned with literary form and style, “earthy, scatological, and unvarnished,” as Tatar describes them in the book’s introduction. “Schönwerth’s collection of tales may lack some of the charm of other nineteenth-century collections,” she wrote, “but it gives us a crystal-clear window into the storytelling culture of its time.”

Some readers might think the time of fairy tales has long past, that they are an archaic notion or that they belong solely to the naïve realm of childhood, but such readers might reconsider. Fairy tales offer adults a variety of goodies, from that window into the storytelling culture of a particular time and place to a momentary escape into fantasy, lessons in morality, consolation, hope. And this particular collection offers a sometimes fascinating contrast to the Grimm Brother’s versions of similar tales.

Consider the Grimms’ “The Frog King,” the story of a selfish young princess whose golden ball is rescued from her pond’s depths by an ugly talking frog, who is, of course, a bewitched prince, hoping to regain his comely form and riches. The bratty princess refuses to honor her commitment to befriend the frog, throwing him against the wall when he tries to crawl into her bed, but the king forces her to do the honorable thing and spoon with the amphibian. The Grimms reward her snittiness with marriage to the prince, returned to his former self.

In Schönwerth’s version of the story, “Follow Me, Jodel!” good-hearted but not-so-swift Jodel is competing with his smarter, not-so-nice older brother Michael for inheritance of the family farm. Jodel finds success with the help of a “less-than-beautiful” toad, who is, inevitably, a bewitched and moneyed maiden of the lovely sort. Jodel wins the girl and her castle because he treats the toad kindly, going right for the spooning, even though she “gave him the creeps.” Michael ends up with the leftover farm.

While honoring folklore morphology, The Turnip Princess is a series of such female-male role reversals and spins—sometimes gnarly—on the Grimm tales. Tatar attributes these differences to the brothers’ personal preferences, rather than cultural distinctions: “The divide between passive princesses and dragon-slaying heroes may be little more than a figment of the Grimm imagination.”

The Turnip Princess is a rich resource, comprising seventy-two stories in six categories: Tales of Magic and Romance, Enchanted Animals, Otherworldly Creatures, Legends, Tall Tales and Anecdotes, and Tales About Nature. The stories are followed by Tatar’s commentary and a motif index by Nicola Schaffler, making the collection both fun to read and a useful academic text.

And for those not convinced that dusty fairy tales have anything to offer a modern audience, consider one of the last stories, “Sir Wind and His Wife.” The two were present at the creation of the world, but they were overweight, a contemporary topic most readers will find familiar.

………………………………….

Read “King Goldenlocks,” from The Turnip Princess, here.

For more information about Schönwerth and his work, visit the Franz Xaver von Schönwerth Society (the site is in German).

Book Review: Just Enough Clothes by Harry Griswold



Reviewed by Penny Perry

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Harry Griswold will read at Writers Read at Fallbrook Library on Tuesday 10 February, 6 to 7:30 p.m.

With his newest collection, Just Enough Clothes (Garden Oak Press, 2014), Harry Griswold establishes himself as a modern-day Edward Arlington Robinson—a storyteller with a clear-eyed focus on the shrinking, white, middleclass world. Intelligent and careful, Griswold lets us into the space of a cultured man who has time to think and reflect on the world he inhabits, the life he’s lived, and the unluckier people who share the planet.

In “My Country Tis of Me,” he writes:

I’ve never had doors

held any way but open for me,
never been pulled over by the cops
for something my skin did

Griswold brings the reader with him on his walks along safe San Diego sidewalks in “Crowbar on My Walk Today,” which begins:

A crowbar creaking someone’s head open
is the faint sound I think I hear in the blank
blue above me, a San Diego December day

in the shorter sunshine period we’ve agreed
to call winter. Maybe I hear my own buried
fears breaking out.

HarryGriswoldIn his suburban home and mountain second home, the poet worries about the wars our leaders have pulled us into, the unpredictable earthquakes from Mother Earth. The reader feels a little safer because Griswold is awake and noticing. There is a coziness and intimacy to these poems, as if Griswold is telling us, “Yes I see the injustices out there, but you’re safe with me here, “Without Conflict or Hostility:”

I’m closed in, big boards sealed at the seams with epoxy

The book’s title, Just Enough Clothes, serves as an ars poetica. Griswold keeps a tender distance—just enough clothes—from his subjects. He is a poet who pays attention to what he reveals and what he leaves out. He resists the confessional, but can’t stay entirely away from personal revelations. In “Killer Workshop,” he struggles with a poet-teacher who accuses poets of hiding behind their words. He says of himself and his fellow students:

So we carried less and less
stuff for self-protection. He stood
up front pretending to be our friend,
staring right through us. Now,
he’d intone, write a poem,
make it a killer.

Griswold’s poems can take startling turns, as in “Copper Clues.”

Copper mixed with tin makes
brass lamps, and on its own
passes current well.
Voltage, we know is changed
by its conductor. As are
symphony orchestras.

Then the poem shifts.

Bernstein once allowed
Herbert Von Karajan to conduct
his New York Philharmonic,
despite suspicions left over
that Karajan had cozied up
during the war

Griswold’s poems have the richness of short stories, similar to Edward Arlington Robinson, Claudia Emerson and Jericho Brown. In “Rubbings,” Griswold reveals a man’s character in a few short lines.

Mister Schell

He may have designed the space
with his coffin in mind, adjacent
to where chairs would be arranged for viewing,
a small window above his head
to give extra life.

Like Billy Collins, with whom Griswold studied, and the white male middle-class writers of the mid-twentieth century—John Updike, John Cheever, Richard Yates—Griswold explores dark undercurrents in a comfortable life, surveying those who cohabit his world with empathy and love. Novelist Duff Brenna called this collection a page-turner. Every page has a new revelation: a personal vignette tucked into a meditation, an unexpected portrait of a woman living in a mice-infested home, a recounting of an endearing meeting with poet Mathew Dickman.

In “Googling Mathew Dickman,” after sipping wine with the younger poet, Griswold concludes:

The world is in a handoff,
from cupped hands to new cupped hands.
I was worried but now I’m not.

Reading Just Enough Clothes feels like an intense conversation with a close friend. There are moments of humor, shrewd comments about history, exuberant explorations of our current events and moving personal stories. In some of the most touching poems in the collection, Griswold writes about his romance with his wife, Stephanie, especially in “Aspirations and Not.”

My one wish is that you’ll let me rise, up ahead,
like the distant water that comes into view
as you approach that gentle town far from here
where I once hoped we could live.

This fine collection concludes with an awakening in “OK I Got it Now.”

Seven billion little gods
live around here, each assigned
to a human alive in his own universe.

Our parallel domains don’t meet
so I see us like grass in the breeze,
seven billion blades swaying close

but not touching.

 …………………………………………..

PennyPerryKateHardingMug
Penny Perry is a six-time Pushcart Prize nominee in poetry and fiction. Her work has appeared in California Quarterly, Lilith, Redbook, Earth’s Daughter, the Paterson Literary Review and the San Diego Poetry Annual.

Her first collection of poems, Santa Monica Disposal & Salvage (Garden Oak Press, 2012) earned praise from Marge Piercy, Steve Kowit, Diane Wakoski and Maria Mazziotti Gillan.

Interview: Patricia Bracewell, Emma of Normandy Trilogy


Interviewed by Kit-Bacon Gressitt

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Patricia Bracewell will read at Mysterious Galaxy Books, in San Diego, on Wednesday, February 11 at 7:30 p.m. Mysterious Galaxy is located at 5943 Balboa Ave, San Diego

Patricia Bracewell’s Emma of Normandy Trilogy serves as a graphic reminder of two truths: women make history and women’s history has been woefully under-recorded. Were it not for one of Bracewell’s primary sources, the Encomium Emmae Reginae (In Praise of Queen Emma), fans of historical fiction might not have the joy of reading her trilogy or of learning about Emma, the medieval queen of, at various times, England, Denmark and Norway.

The first book in the trilogy, Shadow on the Crown, introduced Emma as she made a perilous journey from the home of her father, Richard I, Duke of Normandy, to an arranged marriage with England’s King Æthelred in 1002. A haunted husband and treacherous court set the stage for Emma’s struggles, which continue in book two, The Price of Blood (Viking, February 5, 2015). Although fictional accounts of necessity, given the scarcity of documentation of Emma’s life, Bracewell’s books have made good use of the record Emma intentionally left behind.

Author photo Pat BracewellIn a recent email interview, Bracewell explained the medieval manuscript.

The Encomium Emmae Reginae is a document written in Latin by a Flemish monk at the behest of Queen Emma in about the year 1041, so about 35 years after the time frame of my trilogy. It describes, somewhat selectively, events that occurred in Britain from the year 1012 to the year 1041. Emma commissioned this ‘history’ at a time when the English court was split into factions of Normans, Anglo-Saxons, Norse and Flemish. It was a court filled with mistrust and recrimination. I believe that Emma’s goal in commissioning this work was to attempt to ease the tensions in the court by portraying the events of the previous 35 years as she remembered them, thus explaining some of her own actions. … Did she succeed? I think she did. I don’t think there’s any question that the production of the Encomium was political spin doctoring on Emma’s part. What I find significant about it is that it shows that an 11th century woman had the political savvy to use the written word to manipulate current events. My study of the Encomium—and as much of the scholarship about it as I could get my hands on—was useful because I had to create a young Emma who would become that politically astute, mature woman—not in my books because they don’t go that far, but historically. In The Price of Blood, Emma uses the written word—letters—to manipulate events in her favor.

Bracewell’s research and her talent have produced a richly detailed account of a turbulent time and a vividly human rendering of Queen Emma, a bright, well-educated woman determined to survive devastating events and Machiavellian enemies. A real woman who helped make history and was invested in recording it. An insightful woman who had to make use of the power that surrounded her to protect her children and her country. According to Bracewell, today is not so different.

In The Price of Blood, Queen Emma says, “If the measure of power is how close one stands beside the king, then at this moment in time I am, indeed, powerless. But if power is measured by lands, by wealth and by ties to men of influence, then I count myself powerful indeed.” Of course, I put those words into Emma’s mouth, but I think they are as true for her time as they are for today. Power is in the hands of those with wealth and privilege—and even in modern democracies that means men. I don’t mean to be cynical; I’m just stating a fact. There is no gender parity when it comes to power. On the other hand, it’s certainly true that there are far more opportunities for women today to rise to recognized positions of power than there were for women in Emma’s time. And today, women can promote themselves as capable in their own right, not as the mother or wife or daughter of some powerful man as in Emma’s case. Nevertheless, even today the road to influence is all about alliances, networks, connections, usually to influential men. That hasn’t changed in a thousand years.

Emma’s quest for power, for control of her life and the lives of her offspring, is timeless, albeit set in the Middle Ages. Her story as told by Bracewell, deeply researched and compellingly written, makes the Emma of Normandy Trilogy a wonderful addition to the canon of historical fiction. Read an excerpt from chapter 1 of The Price of Blood, below.

……….

Chapter One

March 1006
Near Calne, Wiltshire

Queen Emma checked her white mare as it crested a hill above the vast royal estate where the king had settled for the Lenten season. Behind her a company of thirty men, women, and children, all of them heavily cloaked against a biting wind, rested their mounts after the long climb. In front of her, in the middle distance below the hill, the slate roof and high, gilded gables of the king’s great hall dwarfed the buildings and palisade that encircled it. The hall marked their journey’s end, and Emma looked on it with relief, for it was late in the day and her people were weary As she studied the road ahead, a single shaft of sunlight broke through the clouds massed in folds across the sky to slant a golden light upon the fields below. The furrowed land shimmered under a thin film of green—new shoots that promised a good harvest in the months to come, if only God would be merciful.

But God, Emma thought, seemed to have turned His face against England. For two years now, promising springs had been followed by rain-plagued summers so that food and fodder were scarce. This past winter, Famine and Death had stalked the land, and if the coming sea- son’s yield was not bountiful, yet more of the poorest in the realm would die.

She had done what she could, distributing alms to those she could reach and adding her voice to the faithful ’s desperate pleas for God ’s mercy. Now, as the golden light lingered on the green vale below, she prayed that her latest assault on heaven—the pilgrimage she had made to the resting places of England ’s most beloved saints—might at last have secured God’s blessings on Æthelred’s realm.

She glanced around, looking past the horse litter that bore her son and his wet nurse to find her three young stepdaughters. Wulf hilde, just eight winters old, was asleep in the arms of the servant who rode with her. Ælfa sat upon her mount slumped within the folds of her mantle. Edyth, the eldest at twelve, stared dully toward the manor hall, her face drawn and pale beneath her fur-lined hood.

Emma chided herself for pushing them so hard, for they had been on the road since daybreak. She turned in her saddle to lead the group forward, but as she did so the wind made a sudden shift to strike her full in the face. Her mount sidled nervously, and as she struggled to control the mare another fierce gust pushed at her like a massive hand that would urge her away.

She felt a curious sense of unease, a pricking at the back of her neck, and she squinted against the wind, searching for the source of her dis- quiet. On the mast atop the manor’s bell tower, the dragon banner of Wessex heralded the king’s presence within. He would be there to wel- come her—although not with anything resembling love or even affec- tion, for he had none of either to give. Æthelred was more king than man—as ruthless and cold as a bird of prey. Sometimes she wondered if he had ever loved anyone—even himself.

She did not relish the coming reunion with her lord, but that alone did not explain her sudden sense of foreboding.

As she hesitated, her son began to wail, his piercing cry an urgent demand that she could not ignore. She shook off her disquiet, for surely it must be her own weariness that assailed her. She nodded to her armed hearth troops to take the lead, and then followed them down the hill.

When she rode through the manor gates she saw a knot of retainers making for the kitchens behind the great hall, one of them carrying the standard of the ætheling Edmund. She puzzled over his presence here while a groom helped her dismount. Edmund had accompanied his el- der brothers Athelstan and Ecbert to London in February, charged with the task of repairing the city’s fortifications and the great bridge that straddled the Thames. All three of them were to remain there until they joined the court at Cookham for the Easter feast. What, then, was Edmund doing here today?

The anxiety that had vexed her on the hill returned, but she had duties to perform before she could satisfy her curiosity. She led her stepdaughters and attendants into her quarters, where she found a fire blazing in the central hearth, the lime-washed walls hung with embroi- dered linens, and her great, curtained bed standing ready at the far end of the room. Three servants were setting up beds for the king’s daugh- ters, and a fourth stepped forward to take Emma’s hooded mantle and muddy boots.

She slipped out of the cloak, then looked about the chamber for the women of her household who had been sent ahead and had, she guessed, supervised all these preparations.

“Where are Margot and Wymarc?” she asked, still unnerved by that moment of unease on the heights above the manor.

Before anyone could respond, Wymarc entered the chamber with a quick step, and Emma, relieved, drew her into an embrace. They had been parted for only a week, yet it seemed far longer. Wymarc was a bright, comforting presence in her household—and had been since the day they left Normandy together for England. Four years ago that was— four years since Emma stood at the door of Canterbury Cathedral as the peace-weaving bride of the English king, with Wymarc looking on from only a half step away.

From THE PRICE OF BLOOD: A Novel by Patricia Bracewell. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Patricia Bracewell, 2015.

Patricia Bracewell photo credit: Christine Krieg

 

BOOK REVIEW: Full Measure by T. Jefferson Parker


Reviewed by Kit-Bacon Gressitt

Join Parker at Writers Read at the Fallbrook Library, 124 S. Mission Road, on Tues, Sep 23, at 6 p.m., for an early launch of Full Measure. Parker will also be visiting the Encinitas Library at 12:15 p.m. on Sun, Oct 18.

Join Parker at Writers Read at Fallbrook Library, 124 S. Mission Road, on Tues, Sep 23, at 6 p.m., for an early launch of Full Measure.

T. Jefferson Parker, a New York Times bestselling author lauded for his vivid crime thrillers, has written what he calls his first literary novel, Full Measure (St. Martin’s Press, October 7, 2014). The novel is ostensibly the story of Patrick Norris, a young Marine returned from war in Afghanistan to face the struggle of transitioning to civilian life in his hometown, bucolic Fallbrook, Calif. Norris’ ranching parents and much of the community have just suffered devastating losses to a wildfire. Norris’ older bother Ted, a troubled ne’er-do-well, is entangled in a personal battle to gain recognition for doing something right in an unaccepting world. And the town is disturbed by the ramifications of the hit-and-run death of a 10-year-old Latino.

In keeping with Parker’s writing tradition, Full Measure is rich with mysteries: Will Patrick survive the emotional repercussions of war to find peace and love? Who started the wildfire? Will Patrick’s parents be able to salvage their burned avocado ranch? Who hit and killed the jaywalking child on Mission Road? What is the “big important thing” Ted is determined to accomplish?

But in contrast to Parker’s other books, Full Measure’s antagonists are not craven drug lords or sadistic henchmen fighting gory battles along the U.S.-Mexico border. They are the flaws, the contradictions, the hurdles that the characters confront internally. Even the return to Fallbrook of a racist activist is a relatively benign act, given meaning only when Ted engages him in his secret plan. These internal conflicts lend Full Measure abundant tension; the characters are true; the drama, compelling; the climax, shocking and poignant. But none of this is what the book is really about.

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NYT bestselling author T. Jefferson Parker

At its heart, Full Measure is about the quest for identity, for self, the desire to be an integral part of something in the place one calls home. Patrick knew who he was and with whom he belonged while he was in Afghanistan, but without the focus of war and the camaraderie of warriors, he flounders from PTSD flashback to flashback, from memory to memory of killed brethren, from his desired future to his father’s expectations. Patrick finds himself lost in what had been the familiar territory of his childhood.

Similarly, his father is desperate to keep his ranch—his identity—alive, to maintain a legacy to be handed off to the next generation and the next.

And then there’s Ted. It is Ted who, despite his psychosis, comes closest to articulating the book’s heartbeat: “I felt damned my whole life. But now my big important thing is half accomplished. I’m almost done. I’ll be remembered for it. And it will make the world better.”

In the course of telling this family’s stories, Parker defines their world, the place they call home, with intimate kindness. Fallbrook is represented in the novel, for the most part, as it is today: a town where eccentrics stand out, unable to blend into an urban throng, where small businesses come and go with the seasons, where social connections are incestuous, where memories of the town’s evacuation during the 2007 wildfires remain fresh. The author peppers the text with mentions of well-known Fallbrook locations, in which the book’s action takes place, and local folks who keep the town on its toes. There’s Las Brisas and Rosa’s and Robertito’s, in perpetual competition for the best tacos. Joe’s Hardware and Happy Jug Liquor and “Vince Ross Village Square.” Café des Artistes and charming host Michael. Los Jilgueros Preserve and Café Primo and the Econo Suites. A local reporter from the “Village View.” That awful intersection on Mission that really needs a traffic light (and final got one after the novel’s completion). Even the Fallbrook Democratic Club receives a nod.

Parker has rendered this ranching and bedroom community with artful craft, incorporating its socio-economic disparity, its survival of the 30-year residency of an internationally notorious racist, and its proximity to Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. Parker’s Fallbrook is, in his novel and in fact, a community to which wounded warriors struggle to return and thrive, amid diverse people who unite in the face of adversity, whether natural or manmade.

Full Measure is fiction with a true heart, one that beats of the search for self in a town that will be familiar to people across the nation. And there’s one more thing: Full Measure is surely a love letter—from Parker to Fallbrook and those who come home to it.

The public is invited to join T. Jefferson Parker at Writers Read at Fallbrook Library, 124 S. Mission Road, on Tuesday, September 23, at 6 p.m., for an early launch of Full Measure. The novel will be available for sale ($28.07, including tax) and signing. Parker will also be visiting Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore in San Diego on Thursday, October 9 at 7p.m., and the Encinitas Library at 12:15 p.m. on Sunday, October 18.

Click here to read more about T. Jefferson Parker and Full Measure.

BOOK REVIEW: “In Doubt” by Drusilla Campbell


Review by Kit-Bacon Gressitt

Update: Dru died Friday 24 October 2014. Read her final blog post here.

In my experience, writing doesn’t get easier the more you do it. But there is a growth of confidence, not much, but a nugget, like a pearl, like a tumour. … So I’ve got cancer. I’m writing.  – author Jenny Diski, London Review of Books

InDoubtCover

This was supposed to be a book review. A simple critique of a new novel—In Doubt (Grand Central Publishing, August 26, 2014)—by a nice local author—Drusilla Campbell of San Diego—who writes about painful things with insight and a tender heart—In Doubt, child abuse; When She Came Home, combat-related PTSD; The Good Sister, mental illness.

But how do you stick to a book review when the author’s life has reached an unexpected climax, when she’s busy barfing instead of signing books? Writing about a writer whose sudden stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis swamped her August book launch is … awkward … sorrowful.

So you futz for hours, crafting questions that you hope dance along the edge of intrusive without tripping into it, that artfully blend the literary with the fatal. You email them to Drusilla and then wallow in doubt that the questions are challenging enough, kind enough, interesting enough.

She responds with utmost generosity: “You’ve written six very interesting and challenging questions for which I’m grateful,” however, “I start a new round of chemo today but when I bob up from that (about a week) I’ll get to work on these.”

You worry that you should’ve kept the questions light and fun and easy, but you were too invested in your own writing. And then you don’t hear from her for eight days, and nine and ten, and you know you’re a real shit.

But she writes again, says she’s finishing up her answers, she’ll send them the next day. And she does. And she’s written good things, as good as her books, as good as In Doubt and its characters: the troubled boy and his disturbed mentor; the rape survivor who wants to reach through the boy’s armor, to defend him against his crimes, to help him find himself—and maybe recover herself in the process; the PI on an aching search for his lost daughter; the victim unable to forgive. So many lose ends, so much unresolved, so like life.

DrusillaCampbellLike the author’s life. But, having interviewed her before, you can hear Drusilla chuckle as she writes, “My life is no longer my own with treatments and appointments and all of it swimming around in my chemo-fogged brain.”

A chuckle, followed by something serious, because that’s her pattern. Because she’s been given six months to a year to live. Just because.

“Initially I was completely flattened by the diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer, convinced that I would never be able to muster either the determination or the optimism it takes to finish a book. It takes optimism and self-confidence, both of which are in short supply when you have been told you’re going to die. I grieved for the books I would never write.

“However, with the help of my husband, Art Campbell (a gentle, but determined, goader), I’ve come around to thinking it might be possible. A couple of days ago, I took down a book I started writing in May. It’s very different from anything I’ve done before, but it may be that that is just what I need at this time in my life. So I’ve begun slow work on How It Began, despite the possibility that I will never be able to finish it.”

Then Drusilla returns to the writer she’s been for three decades—not the writer bowled over by cancer, not the writer so weak and fuzzy she has to dictate her words to her dear husband, but the writer for whom the most important things are the people she loves and the work she loves. Just the writer.

“I have to ask myself if writing a book like In Doubt means anything in the big picture of my life. Thousands of books are published every year and quickly forgotten. Do mine make any difference? I’ve decided that they do. Each of my books has a single major goal: to increase my own understanding and hopefully the readers’ of what it means to be human. Self-contradictory, deceitful, full of hope and misguided ambitions and petty and perverted, and at the same time about hope and love and courage. I want to climb inside my characters’ psyches and reveal them in ways that will help you see them differently.

“Gradually, I’ve begun to feel that the best way for me to live is to write, maybe it’s the only way to live my last months fully.”

And maybe those cancer cells will go on a zero-population-growth kick, maybe they won’t. Maybe there’ll be a miracle, maybe there won’t. It doesn’t matter.

Because Drusilla Campbell’s got cancer. She’s writing.

Love,
K-B

Book Review: No Safe House by Linwood Barclay


Reviewed by Dan McClenaghan

In No Safe House (NAL Hardcover, August 5, 2014), from the internationally bestselling author Linwood Barclay, teenaged Grace Archer has hooked up with the wrong boy. She follows him into an uncertain situation, and things go from bad to horrible, pulling her family into a world of big money crime and vicious, coldhearted murder.

Barclay, an American raised in Canada, is one of today’s finest thriller writers. In his latest, he has created a layered story with two sets of antagonists, one group only half bad, working the wrong side of the law with a bit of a soft side, a bit of haplessness, like a gang Donald Westlake might have conjured. And another pair, who are deep-down malevolent, vile, like something John D. McDonald might have dreamed up in his early, pre-Travis McGee novels.

No_Safe_House cvrWhat No Safe House’s bad guys want is money—and more—and Grace’s stumble into their mix adds a new dimension to the power struggle between these forces of evil. Grace’s misstep also draws in her parents, Terry and Cynthia. They struggle to extricate her from the deadly mire, with the help of a complex criminal who saved their lives seven years earlier, a story told in Barclay’s bestselling No Time For Goodbye (Bantam, September 27, 2007). No Time For Goodbye was Barclay’s first truly successful novel after a stint as a newspaperman and a writer of humorous detective fiction.

Barclay gracefully gives enough backstory for the reader to make sense of what’s going down in No Safe House, without giving enough away to ruin any subsequent reading of its precursor.

Despite the labyrinthine nature of the tale—a story told from multiple points of view, with brief episodes that at first seem without context—Barclay is here, and in his previous thrillers, a top-notch writer of the “page turner.” His use of dialogue to advance the story is as deft as Elmore Leonard’s, and every scene draws you deeper into the world of the Archers—average Joes and Janes, who’ve stepped onto a slick and slimy slope, and slide in, deeply over their heads, to a murky world of ruthlessness, avarice and evil.

Enjoy the thrill of No Safe House. Then consider going back for more, with No Time For Goodbye.

Interview: Author Deborah Harkness, All Souls Trilogy


Interviewed by Kit-Bacon Gressitt

 

Deborah Harness will be reading from and discussing her final book in the All Souls Trilogy, “The Book of Life,” at Warwick’s in La Jolla on Friday, July 25, at 7:30 p.m. Reserved seating requires advance purchase of “The Book of Life” from Warwick’s, which can be reached at 858-454-0347.

Deborah Harness will be reading from and discussing her final book in the All Souls Trilogy, The Book of Life, at Warwick’s in La Jolla on Friday, July 25, at 7:30 p.m. Reserved seating requires advance purchase of the book from Warwick’s, which can be reached at 858-454-0347.

On July 15, the New York Times bestselling All Souls Trilogy concludes with the release of the final novel in the fantasy series by historian and scholar Deborah Harkness: The Book of Life (Viking, July 15, 2014). The Book of Life offers a conclusion likely to be as auspicious as the series’ 2011 birth with A Discovery of Witches, which received such early and eager praise, it launched directly onto the bestseller list.

A Discovery of Witches introduced the trilogy’s reluctant protagonist, contemporary witch and scholar Diana Bishop, and her forbidden “cross-species” love interest, vampire and geneticist Matthew Clairmont. While circumstances compelled Diana to acknowledge and embrace her inherent nature, she and Matthew pursued an exploration of the prejudices, prohibitions, and threats within their world, while in the company of a cast of vivid characters, including some gays and lesbians, all nicely mirroring themes of current polemics.

Shadow of Night swiftly followed A Discovery of Witches in 2012 and garnered comparable praise. Harkness’ adept writing—rich in historical detail, supernatural mythology, romance and humor—and her diverse and complex characters created a celebrated trilogy for adult fantasy devotees, a trilogy with a bold social conscience.

Now, after devouring The Book of Life, Harkness fans will mourn the series’ end. But the conclusion calls for a bit of retrospection, a look at the context of the trilogy’s launch and the implicit lessons Harkness has intended to convey. She shared her thoughts in a recent telephone interview.

“Part of what I was interested in doing when I started writing this trilogy was to see … can I make the past seem relevant and fun and sexy, but also get it true and right, and not distort it?”

Harkness was worried about honoring her characters, just as she worried that her students at University of Southern California might not see, for example, the human behind Henry VIII’s dastardly behavior.

“History should not be about judgment; it should be about understanding. And that really does feed my work as a teacher and as a writer. How can we use history not to judge but to understand?

“When I started writing these books in 2008, it was Prop. 8 [California’s anti-same-sex marriage ballot measure, which was eventually ruled unconstitutional] and the year before the [200th] Darwin anniversary. There was this sort of bizarre confluence of circumstances, like, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to inflict restrictions on one part of the population?’ We have a culture that says one thing and does another.”

Harkness says the relationships in her books are intentional metaphors for today’s prejudices—and enlightenments—and she uses readers’ fascination with witches and vampires deliberately.

“We can employ them to talk about and think about today’s issues. It’s about empathy. That is the number one thing I try to teach students, and it is the number one thing in the world.”

From Harkness’ heart to her characters’. In the author’s inscription of The Book of Life, she cheekily appropriates a quotation often misattributed to Charles Darwin, and ascribes it to her character Philippe de Clermont, the vampire patriarch: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

Diana reiterates the message as she describes the love she shares with Matthew: “It grew because our bond was strong enough to withstand the hatred and fear of others. And it would endure because we had discovered, like the witches so many centuries ago, that a willingness to change was the secret of survival.”

And isn’t art—be it literary, visual or performance—an invitation to change?

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Click here for a guide to the characters in the All Souls Trilogy.

Also published by San Diego Gay & Lesbian News.

 

Book Review: Scouting for the Reaper by Jacob M. Appel


Reviewed by Kit-Bacon Gressitt

ScoutingForTheReaperThe title Scouting for the Reaper (a Black Lawrence Press Hudson Prize winner, published February 2014) might serve as a reader advisory for Jacob M. Appel’s short story collection: Beware the grim, the self-absorbed and self-destructive, the ugly underbelly of the unlovable. Warning delivered, all remaining readers of the stalwart variety may follow the ominous finger pointing into the dark world in which Appel’s characters dwell, most, in the vicinity of the fictional Rhode Island town of Creve Coeur.

That’s French for “broken heart,” and this might suggest the book’s dominant theme, particularly given the incidence of unrequited and unfulfilling loves in the collection, but it is not so. The stories are more about hate, hate of self, husbands, wives, parents; hate of circumstances, past errors, bleak futures. All of Appel’s characters, except the lucky ones he kills off, seem caught in a maelstrom of obsessions and situations and character flaws that leave them incapable of fending off those futures (and this, from an author who does double duty as a physician, although his specialty in psychiatry might explain it all).

Appel’s males range from a privileged, prideful bully to a bland shopkeeper to a gravestone huckster to a chubby and insecurely lustful adolescent to a hunched yet kindly, feet-shuffling (really!) African-American yard worker to a larcenous CPA to a disenchanted truck driver to a hapless rabbi, all made impotent by their desires or aversions or denial thereof.

His females fulfill three types. They are “big-boned” (three of them), “too chunky” for a short skirt, “square-jawed” and “not-so-pretty,” therapy-addicted and bathrobe-wearing hysterics or they’re “very pretty,” “alluring,” “angelic” even, but unattainable and, worse, “indifferent” or they’re well into their death spirals, emotional and/or literal.

Husbands who lust after old flames, brush their wives’ bangs aside and kiss their foreheads, attempting to sneak in apologies for their unspoken infidelities. Resentful wives linger in their “threadbare” bathrobes, playing at Lady Macbeth. They all deserve their perfectly rendered co-dependent miseries, which are for the most part believable. But it’s disappointing that some of Appel’s characterizations step into the realm of racist and sexist stereotypes.

Bias aside, Appel does have a gift for delivering deliciously sardonic humor on the page, often making his characters’ miseries wildly funny, albeit in a mean sort of way. The final story in the collection, “The Vermin Episode,” is an exceptionally clever sequel to Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, with an hilarious focus on disposal of the rotting buggy carcass. The story’s conclusion makes clear that even the forbearing wife of the rabbi tasked with said disposal is not immune to such an extraordinary abomination, suggesting, as do the other story’s conclusions, a steeply downward trend toward an even darker resolution.

Which brings me back to Appel’s title, Scouting for the Reaper. Maybe it’s not a warning, maybe there’s nothing subtle about it, maybe he’s just telling us what he’s doing—exploring death, searching for its meaning, trying to understand the choices that precede it. Whatever his intent, though, death might be a welcome alternative to the mediocre-to-miserable lives his characters lead. Or are about to.

 

Book review: Flyover Lives by Diane Johnson


Reviewed by Kit-Bacon Gressitt

 

FlyoverLivesCoverHave an awful life and live to write about, and you’re on the path to a contemporary memoir. Such memoirs abound on bookstore shelves, with tales of traumatic abuse, shame and suicide, rape, devastating depression, addiction—life’s real horror stories. The best, however, are not only harrowing but beautifully written, Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. But a life’s story need not be heartrending to be interesting, to be memoir-worthy, and bestselling novelist Diane Johnson’s new Flyover Lives is one of those memoirs that proves it.

Flyover Lives is named for the “flyover states,” the seemingly undramatic U.S. Midwest that Johnson’s ancestors helped settle, states that today are not destinations, but distant landscapes we disregard at 30,000 feet. Johnson’s book, though, is a detour that allows us to land and visit with her and generations past, read from their journals, learn of their pioneering successes and failures, their loves and losses. Even her childhood home of then small town Moline, Illinois becomes a character who warrants a front porch visit, a little fat chewing, simply because people were born and grew up and died there. They went to the movies in Moline, in 1945, and saw newsreel war images that stayed with them, making them grateful that they didn’t know what real suffering is. They were embarrassed by their father’s quirky underwear there, and learned to love their aunts and uncles. They left there to go to college, find themselves, marry and divorce, and move halfway across the country, then partway around the world, and learn that they can’t ever really leave.

Examined thoughtfully, these lives are interesting, Johnson’s and her family’s, and she reveals them with a respectful and often humorous narrative that makes them seem familiar. In particular, if you are Caucasian, middle class and born between the two world wars through the baby boomer years, you will recognize the more recent of these flyover lives in their details: Saturday double features, the dress-up box, learning to use Tampons—not the pads mothers recommended, college as a stepping stone to marriage, the ability to transcend the 1950s and become a different kind of woman.

Throughout the details, the family history, Johnson’s anecdotes of working with famous directors as a screen writer, and her self-revelations, the book reads like an intimate conversation, no plot, but lots of character. It has a quiet sense of time passed, time passing, the melancholy of days gone by, of people inadequately known and no longer available. No, Flyover Lives has none of the titillating trauma of many memoirs. What it has is a subtle poignancy, a gentle narrative of insightful, tender storytelling by a writer who seems to honor her family’s past as much as her present, the quirkiness and mundanity, the misadventures and achievements, with a sense that the people now gone had stories that went with them, stories we would have liked to hear.

Flyover Lives: a Memoir

Published by Viking January 2014

Other books by Diane Johnson include:

Lulu in Marrakech

Into a Paris Quartier

L’Affaire

Le Mariage

Le Divorce

Persian Nights

Also published by San Diego Gay & Lesbian News

BOOK REVIEW: Bay of Angels by Diane Wakoski


Reviewed by Penny Perry

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Before Betty Friedan, before the pill, Diane Wakoski wrote about what other girls only whispered to their best friends: sex, rebellion, unwed mothers, freedom, equality.

In her 24th and newest book, Bay of Angels ($20, 134 p., Anhinga Press, Oct. 15, 2013), she reflects on the woman she once was. From her poem “La Baie des Anges”:

So many lovers for this girl
with long black stockings and Alice in Wonderland hair
… I thought of myself then/as a knight questing for love
… I might see the Grail,
hovering
shimmering
over each man
tattooed or leathered or
wearing motorcycle boots.

DianeWakoskiA heroine to women, she grew up in Whittier, California, in what she once described as “a shack next to an orange grove.” It is the birthplace of her idiosyncratic personal myths, woven from weedy chaparral. From there, she moved to the blooming plum trees and green hills of Berkeley.

Within the third section of Bay of Angels, entitled “The Lady of Light Meets the Shadow Boy,” the poem “Marilyn Gives Me a White Fleshed Peach” captures how, in the land New Yorkers view as a cultural desert, Wakoski remains proof that poetry lives in our groves, our irises and poppies, our oceans and hills:

My sister always offers me fruit of the season
–  this May it was white peaches
whose skin peeled away and left me
with scented flesh that tasted like moonlight,
cool, singular, almost transparent,
a goddess food.

In an age when young women were supposed to be demure and undemanding, Wakoski kept saying, “I want, I want,” always in a conversational style that has, in her newest books, perfected the colloquial tone William Carlos Williams brought to poetry. Each new poem in Bay of Angels is an intimate, secret-shedding letter—and each takes place in a self-contained universe. The result creates a tapestry that rivals the richness of a novel. From the poem “Wanting to Wear His Tweed Jacket”:

                          … I
wanted him in every
landscape. But he led me,
he led me to the oceans of wheat, the
battlefields of wheat, the plains where
no Sappho ever lived or sung.

Always grounded in a certain place and time, these poems take flight. The first section, “Celluloid Dreams,” is named after some of her favorite movies, including, Jacques Demy’s La Baie des Anges and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Like those films, her images dazzle. From her poem “Mulholland Drive”:

A sailor’s daughter without a silver compass,
charting a course,
navigating the movie screen,
I have looked for mariners all my life,
trying to find my father.

Early in her career, Wakoski gave herself permission to be the “mythic Diane, rewriting her life in poetry, sometimes surreal and abstract, other times being the everyday woman in a supermarket.” In “‘The Spiral Staircase:’ Oranges vs. Apples,” she spies her younger self:

          … just the child
shaped like a shawl,
thick ankles and wrists,
old-woman child,
a little witch child

In the same poem, she describes her childhood home:

the house where the piano sat
upright like an old maid
at a dance.

Just as she has for more than six decades now, she continues creating her own personal mythology: an ex-lover is the Motorcycle Betrayer; she is a shape-shifter, identifying with Diana the Huntress and the phases of the moon; the Diamond Dog tracks her lost father. She even created a twin brother, David, the lost boy who keeps her company. Casting myth into an everyday reality, she can, with her “California eyes,” watch as “Persephone Steps Off the Elevator at the Fourth Floor”:

and emerges again onto the adobe walled landing,
the Southern California horizon wide as an avalanche

In the introduction, Wakoski notes that “The Bay of Angels, of course, is a place, but to me it’s where I’d like to drown, with angels all around me, holding cards and offering me poker chips, should I ever have to die that way.”

The three sections of this collection provide room for this 75-year-old to long for sex, for love, for her father, for glamour, for winnings at the gambling table. These new poems are juicy with a love of music, food, sex, butterflies, birds, pop culture, highbrow literature, travel, friends and family.

“Each poem has a secret,” she has said in the past, “and a problem that must be solved.”

Of the 41 poems in Bay of Angels, some of the most endearing are dedicated to Mathew Dickman, the brilliant young poet she addresses as “Pizza Boy” and “Shadow Boy.” From “Goldfish Narratives”:

Boyish face, cowlick in his shiny
hair, hand placed on my arm so as not
to startle me when
he creeps up in the skate arena to
say, “hello, Diane.” Not the boy
who killed his sister’s goldfish,
not father,
not brother.  I give him
the role of Winter’s Champion, bashing
at the memory – his and mine – of mistaken
violences.

Celebrated for his own imagery, his shrewd observations and a fearless, touching vulnerability, Dickman introduced Wakoski, a guest lecturer at this summer’s poetry festival in Idyllwild, California, wearing an “I Love Wakoski” t-shirt. It was an echo: Back in the 60s, when women her generation were fighting for their rights, Wakoski’s poems told them they weren’t alone.

The t-shirt also carries a new promise. Every day now, when old, white men seem intent on turning back the clock to take women’s hard-won rights away, that t-shirt—and this book—keep fueling the courage to say, “Quiet down, boys. We’re working here.”

In one of the final poems in this collection, “Reinventing the Measure,” the links between eras and places, myths and realities, illustrate how Bay of Angels equals the stature of the American original who is Diane Wakoski:

we do both live in the same place, near a great ocean:
it is called poetry.

………………………………………..

Penny Perry is a three-time Pushcart nominee, twice for poetry and once for fiction. Her stories and poems have been widely published in literary magazines. Fiction Daily tagged her short story “Haunting the Alley,” published online by Literary Mama in August 2011.

Perry’s first collection of poetry, Santa Monica Disposal & Salvage, was published in 2012 by Garden Oak Press.

 

Book Review: The Girl You Left Behind By Jojo Moyes


Reviewed by Kit-Bacon Gressitt

 

Jojo Moyes C Phyllis ChristopherJojo Moyes is the bestselling, English author of Me Before You, considered her “breakout novel” in 2012, after having had eight books published before that.

Her newest novel, The Girl You Left Behind, won kudos last year in Britain, and it was just released in the United States in August (Pamela Dorman Books/Viking). The author will be discussing and signing The Girl You Left Behind Tuesday, September 17, at Warwick’s Books in La Jolla, at 7:30 p.m.

Moyes’ prose in The Girl You Left Behind is often captivating. She gracefully weaves contemporary polemics into a storyline that compels the reader to travel through ambiguity—and time—with her imperfect and fascinating characters.

Part One of The Girl You Left Behind begins in 1916, in the throes of World War I, in the German-occupied fictional town of St. Péronne, France (perhaps modeled on the actual town of Péronne, which was destroyed during the war).

Cover Girl You Left Behind LargWith her opening scene, Moyes plunges the reader into the depravation, fear and dark humor of wartime occupation. Despite the oppression, protagonist Sophie Bessett Lefèvre cleverly refuses to submit to the German’s brutal bullying. Her boldness attracts the attention of a new Kommandant, who proceeds to obsess on Sophie and a painting of her by her beloved husband, Édouard, who is off fighting the war. The author also introduces a compelling issue: the often ambiguous line between consorting with the enemy and resistance. Sophie’s eventual effort to negotiate access to her captured husband pits her against the Kommandant’s obsession and her human frailties. Part One concludes with uncertainty about everyone’s fates.

Part Two introduces Sophie’s contemporary counterpart, Liv Halston, whose struggles, in 2006, parallel Sophie’s. Liv has lost her husband, she is on the verge of economic ruin, and she suffers a crisis of identity amidst public censure, erupting from a battle over the provenance of Sophie’s painting, given to Liv by her husband before his death. In this section, Moyes challenges the reader to consider the question of the restitution of wartime plunder—and, perhaps, its broader contexts: the post-war division of lands in the Middle East, Jewish bank accounts in Switzerland, Europe’s looting of North and South America, even the uncertain rights to music or images or writings appropriated by others on the Internet. Ours is an acquisitive culture, but what is actually mine—and why?

The questions posed by the author are as compelling as is her representation of the parallel lives of her protagonists, for whom courage is, ultimately, a defining force. Although some of Moyes’ previous books have been described as romance novels, The Girl You Left Behind proves her ability to reach a broader audience with a powerful story of family, war, deception, loyalty and acceptance.

Moyes’ occasional lapse into expository writing is a minor distraction from her lovely prose. A wee bit more of a distraction is some weak plotting in Part Two, with key characters reappearing and inexplicably disappearing again. But her gift for storytelling overcomes both, giving the reader a moving and satisfying tale that nonetheless provokes self-examination.

Moyes wrote of Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins, “[I]f it isn’t perfect, then it has enough absolutely fantastic moments that it’s worth a read.” Such moments are abundant in The Girl You Left Behind.

………………………………………..

Photo credit: Phyllis Christopher

 

BOOK REVIEW: Circle of Shadows by Imogen Robertson


Reviewed by Kit-Bacon Gressitt

9780670026289_Circle_of_ShadowsBritish novelist Imogen Robertson rose swiftly in the ranks of historical mystery authors with the launch of Instrument of Darkness, her first book in the Westerman/Crowther series. Her latest and fourth book in the series, Circle of Shadows (Pamela Dorman Books/Viking, June 2013), secures her position as a writer of lovely prose that transforms a murder and mayhem-laden subgenre into a literary treat.

Circle of Shadows transports Robertson’s oddly compatible 18th-century forensic team—landed widow Harriet Westerman and titled recluse Gabriel Crowther—to the fictional German Duchy of Maulberg. There, they are greeted by a perplexing murder that has cast suspicion on Harriet’s hapless brother-in-law, and a sequence of additional deaths, all embroiled in court intrigue and indiscretions.

Robertson’s complex plot, with a few equilibrium-defying twists, is bolstered by the clever repartee of a fabulous cast of characters. Among many, there is a thoughtful but not quite apt inspector, a bogus psychic, a math whiz of a young spy, a secret Freemason sect, a wizened alchemist, a bastardly blacksmith, a virtuoso castrato of ambiguous allegiance, a duke of even less clear intentions, and the Al-Said brothers, makers of automata—lifelike mechanical creatures.

Robertson from UK_credit Rebecca Key_6.27.12Such rich resources, combined with Robertson’s captivating prose and Georgian-period details, have resulted in a thriller that will challenge armchair Sherlocks, while charming historical fiction fans. And the author’s evident delight with automata provides a fun plot thread that makes one hope there might just be a bit of alchemic magic.

Circle of Shadows, which serves well as a stand-alone novel, is an enchanting panacea for the blight of mediocre writing passing today as thrillers, with neither hide nor hair of a supernatural being. Perhaps that is the magic of this book.

That, and Robertson’s original path to publication, which offers an encouraging story for aspiring authors. According to London-based newspaper, The Telegraph, “She submitted the first 1,000 words of a novel she had yet to write to The Daily Telegraph’s Novel in a Year competition in 2007.” Robertson was one of five winners, and twelve months later she sold her full manuscript.

Learn more about Imogen Robertson at her website.

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Would you like to win a copy of Circle of Shadows? Send me the most entertaining bit of verse—a limerick perhaps?—about alchemy or automata, and the book is yours. What would make it the most entertaining? Other than being your original writing, I don’t know—let’s see what you come up with. Submit your entry(ies) to kbgressitt@gmail.com. I’ll post the best ones, and we’ll go from there. Deadline is Sunday 04 August, 2013.

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Published by San Diego Gay & Lesbian News.

BOOK REVIEW: The Mango Bride by Marivi Soliven


Reviewed by Kit-Bacon Gressitt

 

TheMangoBrideMarivi Soliven, a San Diego-based author of short stories and essays, launched her debut novel this May. The Mango Bride (Penguin NAL, May 2013) is a brilliant depiction of gender and immigration issues, bound in the restrictions of family and class.

Writing from the informed position of a Filipina immigrant to the United States, Soliven tells the entwined stories of two Filipino families and their contemporary daughters, Amparo Guerrero, a child of privilege, and Beverly Obejas, of the servant class. Soliven deftly describes the figurative and literal landscapes of Manila as the two girls come of age in their distinct social strata and geographies.

Soliven’s descriptions of Manila scenes are vivid. She pulls us through the throngs who take over the city’s cemetery on All Soul’s Day, through the markets and eateries, the wealthy neighborhoods and high-end hotels, the slums of the city. The scenes are so effectively drawn, they serve as an armchair trip to the Philippines, a land we read as being as rich in culture as it is poor in opportunity to break the bonds of one’s inherited position, whether high or low.

Still, the possibility of change arises in circumstances that force each of the young women to immigrate to the United States. Amparo must leave to maintain her wealthy family’s crackled façade of respectability and Beverly, to pursue a better life unattainable in the Philippines. Inevitably, Amparo’s journey reveals even more of her family’s ugly underbelly and Beverly learns the futility of becoming a mail-order bride of a damaged U.S. veteran.

Marivi SolivenBut Soliven has written something more than a multigenerational family drama. She has incorporated compelling issues that humanize current news headlines as they help create vital characters. Immigration, gender and prejudice, class conflict, domestic violence—particularly its devastating effects on immigrants without U.S. citizenship—and the definition of family all drive the novel’s plot and the characters’ resolutions, both sorrowful and hopeful.

While The Mango Bride’s conclusion suggests that only the privileged can win the immigrant struggle for freedom, and the under classes are doomed to oppression and failed dreams, this disappointing notion is countered by Soliven’s insightful and sometimes lyrical rendering of the formidable social and economic structures that women must challenge to achieve their freedom.

Soliven will discuss The Mango Bride Tuesday, July 9, at the free, monthly Writers Read at Fallbrook Library, 124 S. Mission, in the Community Room. The reading begins at 6 p.m. with open mic for original poetry and prose, followed by Soliven’s reading, discussion and book signing.

For more information, contact K-B at kbgressitt@gmail.com or 760-522-1064.

Published by San Diego Gay and Lesbian News.

Book Review: O Holy Insurgency by Mary Biddinger


Reviewed by Penny Perry

 

BiddingerOHolyCoverArtMary Biddinger’s new poetry collection, O Holy Insurgency (Black Lawrence Press 2013) is a dazzling sexy hymn to the power of love. Biddinger’s heroine is a female Tom Jones sticking her busy tongue out at polyester hotel clerks, Grandma’s paisley, and the rituals of the Catholic Church. Her heroine lives and loves in a decaying prairie city where diners are boarded up, houses are deserted, there are “sad ladies in the dress shop/windows, and neighbors burn…/shoes in a metal drum.” Capitalism swept through her town, and left; the Catholic Church remains and still teaches its twin lessons of sin and salvation. The narrator finds her salvation in lust. Her poems are breezy confessions. Meeting with her lover is a genesis. “I caught you gleaming. But you/invented me with your mouth./…The azaleas shut/their blooms when you opened/me.”

The speaker endows her lover with the qualities of myth. “You were destined to hot rod/a 1965 Mustang GT 350 on a dirt road/with elbow-high corn/on either side.” She enjoys shocking the buttoned down townspeople with her active lovemaking. “Some nights we just slammed/ourselves against all doors/in the hotel screaming our love/is better than your love.”

When Biddinger isn’t writing poetry or teaching, she is taking photographs of garbage. O Holy Insurgency’s heroine finds beauty, horror and hints of mortality in the history and inevitable decay of objects. Love consoles her. There may be no afterlife, only her teeth Mary Biddinger mugleft in a teapot. But she tells her lover, “Everything with us had a certain permanence the rest of the world/lacked. The only place for me/was poured across your body.” Always alert for resurrection, she believes “There was a dead house nearby/and only we could rock it back/into its foundation.” Love is the antidote to rustbelt blight. “We didn’t mind the spilled gasoline/and you kissed me.”

The narrator is a detective looking for clues about humans from the objects they use and leave behind. “It wasn’t a paper flower they left/at the crash site, but somebody’s underpants dimpled with rain.” She searches for connections between herself and tangible objects. One object particularly dear to her is her mattress. “At a certain point I began to wonder/what the springs in the mattress thought/of us.” She hopes when she and her lover are done with the mattress that the mattress will find a new life. “When they hauled our old mattress/away, they promised it would become/a haven for orphaned magpies.”

Every poem in this collection is a rush down the page. The breathy narrator is in a hurry to give us snapshots of her love: “I flipped out of my grandmother’s hammock/and landed between stones/the first time/I saw you.” Snapshots of her inner life: “I would perish within moments unless buried in the/crease of your neck.” And snapshots of her city: “Everyone/knows my city: slaughterhouses and red sequins.”

It is the close observation of everyday objects that gives this collection its grit, its color. The paisley design on a bedspread looks like “anteaters copulating in a valley.” The moon is a “lone/saucepan of simmering rice.” Each poem is a kaleidoscope of thoughts, and objects, and sometimes their only connection appear to be the space they share on the page. But there is always logic to Biddinger’s choice of image and narrative. She is a master of her craft. The first poem in the book demonstrates her considerable poetic strengths.

Dyes and Stitchery

I flipped out of my grandmother’s hammock
and landed between stones the first time
I saw you. But you were just a sprig of asphodel

then. Seven-year-olds could buy cigarettes.
Dogs were trusted behind the wheel of a Jeep
when the owner was adequately drunk.

We had the simple things, like Crown Royal
bags for our marbles. Someone had cut
my hair with lobster scissors. I’m not even sure

if my eyes were this same color, or who was
driving me to Pike’s Peak. Were you
born in a field, next to a barrel filled with burning

plywood? I imagine you walking out
of the sea instead, except we only had lakes.
They would find you clinging to a lighthouse

at midnight. There could be no other
explanation. You were destined to hotrod
a 1965 Mustang GT350 on a dirt road

with elbow-high corn on either side. You
were born to step into a pawn shop and rip
all the guitars off the wall. Streetlights

wouldn’t dare blink out when you walked by.
I had dreams of becoming a Carmelite
nun, spending every day with my onionskin

dyes and stitchery. You learned to ride
an appaloosa when your great-grandfather
abandoned you in a snowy field.

I learned to ride my first horse before
I was even alive. I knew there would be one
man courageous enough not to drink

margaritas from plastic sombreros, who
wouldn’t bring a Bensenville Lolita
to the junior prom, or build his own boat

with a garbage bag sail. The day you were
born, jackhammers refused to pummel
the asphalt. There was a ghost cavern

in the center of every loaf of bread.
Bells had no more reasons not to ring.
What was once upstream traveled down.

Often surreal, always lyrical, Mary Biddinger ties her wavering universe down with her brassy narrator’s bold proclamations and exact descriptions of decaying objects. O Holy Insurgency is a journey and a joy to read.

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Penny Perry’s first collection of poetry, Santa Monica Disposal & Salvage, was published in 2012 by Garden Oak Press.

How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir


by Amber Dawn

 

Review by Kit-Bacon Gressitt

HowPoetrySavedCoverCompared to the dearth of little girls who say they want to grow up to be prostitutes, the existence of hundreds of thousands of sex workers in North America suggests there are forces propelling women into the sex trades beyond their free choice, external to their personal “agency.” And, powerful enough to challenge any Gender Studies “sex-positive” stand, is the argument against the purported joys and self-empowerment of sex work inherent in How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir. The new book, to be released by Arsenal Pulp Press May 1, makes this argument eloquently and forcefully while revealing the gifts of author Amber Dawn, those of poet and memoirist.

Dawn, from Vancouver, Canada, made cross-border literary waves with her debut novel Sub Rosa (Arsenal Pulp Press 2010), an allegorical fantasy pitting magical sex workers against evil johns and a fictionalized spin of the author’s own story. In the book’s release, Dawn outed herself well beyond her Canadian audience as a former sex worker, a lesbian, and a literary activist. The book won a 2011 Lambda Literary Award for lesbian fiction, and the author was on her way to greater recognition and acceptance—but only to a degree.

Dawn found resistance to her story, her openness about her past, yet she had been poking at that taboo for years, writing poetry, struggling to take ownership of her stories, to avoid the destruction implicit in her trade, and society’s response to it, by speaking of it. And poetry did ultimately save Dawn’s life—the poetry she wrote, the poets who encouraged and taught her through college, the poetry of her MFA program. Now, the poetry and prose in her memoir exquisitely articulate her resigned entry into the world of paid sex work, her passage from the street to safer indoor work, and her eventual reconciliation with herself.

Dawns writes of learning the hard way how to avoid abuse by her johns; of offering an array of sex acts in the language of a fast food menu to skirt anti-solicitation laws; of contemplated suicide; of the void of queer funeral etiquette. She writes of her life with weathered rage and hilarity and love; she writes of coming of age as a prostitute.

It happened suddenly. It happened without warning. One day I woke up and I was an old ho. … My dream shifted from high school sweetheart to winning big at the ho game. Maybe some dumb regular would buy me a condo or I’d land that mad-money stint in Vegas. My “real life” certainly didn’t have any bling makeover potential. I was a poet, a homo with a weakness for broke-ass butch dykes, and I danced burlesque—badly. I ought to have tattooed the word ‘penniless’ on my titties and tossed in the towel. If I was ever going to go from geek to chic, from trash to cash, I figured ho-ing was the only way. I constantly scanned the adult help-wanted ads for the perfect gig. I chatted online for hours with potential sugar daddies. But even in my final days of sex work, I still hadn’t discovered the place where the money was greener.

And she writes of reconciling with herself.

I understood very clearly then that there would be no cumload of cash or fame. No Ricki Lake Show. No free condos. No Viva Las Vegas. … I knew that this is what I am: a queer femme who often has misguided crushes, dances low-rent burlesque in sticky-floored dyke bars, and writes goddamn poetry. And what, I asked myself … is wrong with that?

Dawn also invites readers to join her, to stand naked with her on the art gallery’s steps, to be there at anti-homophobia kiss-ins, to ­become a community of voices. Perhaps one that resists a society that transforms little girls who want to be scientists and teachers and artists into sex workers.

… And We Did

I have stood naked on the art gallery’s steps.

We were one hundred strong, lesbians,
we seized the food court at the Pacific Centre mall to disrupt
the heteronorm with an anti-homophobia kiss-in.

I have kissed pavement while an officer handcuffed me
another searched my bra and underpants for an alleged weapon.
(No one read me my rights. No weapons were found.)

Our rubber-soled boots tracked red footprints down
the highway on ramp. Vaseline will help
break down spray pint stains on skin—share this information.
Our mark the next morning: shame / stop / smash / the state
vote no / yes / now / rEVOLution.

We ate pepper spray.
We saw riot tanks rush London on Financial Fools Day.
I have torn a sleeve from my blouse and used it to bind
an open wound.
Once, I sat in a cake at a charity ball where the mayor
was in attendance.

Before the Internet we found each other in the streets like swallows
who find their way home each summer. How did we know?

We linked arms. A human chain, we chanted the people
united will never be defeated.
We were young. So certain we would change the world…

We were young. So certain we would change the world…
The people united will never be defeated.
We chanted. A human chain, we linked arms.

How did we know to find each other like swallows
in the summer?
Before the Internet we made our home in the streets.

I once sat in a cake at a charity ball where the mayor
was in attendance.
I once tore a sleeve from my blouse and used it to dress
an open wound.
We saw riot tanks rush London on Financial Fools Day.
We ate pepper spray.

shame / stop / smash / the state / vote no /
yes / now / rEVOLution: our mark.
In the morning, share this information.
Vaseline breaks down the spray paint stains
on skin and rubber-soled boots.
We tracked red footprints down the highway onramp.

(No one reads us our rights. No weapons were found.)
We have kissed pavement while officers handcuffed us,
others searched our bras and underpants for the alleged weapons.

We seized the food court at the Pacific Centre mall to disrupt
the heteronorm with an anti-homophobia kiss-in.
We were one hundred strong, lesbians!

I have stood naked on the art gallery’s steps.

…………………………………………….

Upcoming events

Amber Dawn will be at:

The San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Arts Festival on May 23 and 24

A “Meet the Author” event at Seattle’s Gay City Library on June 6.

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Also published by San Diego Gay & Lesbian News.

Interview: T. Jefferson Parker


Author of the bestselling Charlie Hood series

By Kit-Bacon Gressitt

FamousAndTheDeadCover

It is spring in Fallbrook, California, the sweet breeze season. Fruit tree blossoms fill the air with the anticipation of nectarous things to come. Songbirds do violent battle over choice aeries. Scarlet camellias bloom, then drop blood petals to the ground. And into this convergence of life and death and nature’s magic, Fallbrook author T. Jefferson Parker launches his new crime thriller, The Famous and the Dead, the sixth and final novel in his bestselling Charlie Hood series.

Parker will be discussing and signing The Famous and the Dead at Fallbrook’s Writers Read, 6 p.m. on Friday, April 19, at the Café des Artistes, and his books will be available for purchase.

Like Fallbrook’s natural cycles, the Charlie Hood series was conceived, developed and thrived in a fertile ground, that of the author’s imagination—but certainly not in a sociopolitical void. The novels reflect the varied landscapes—the sere desert, urban dismay and decay, lush jungles, Beltway politics, extravagant drug cartel violence, the illegal gun trade—that propel dedicated and deadly characters headlong into the critical space bordering Mexico and the United States.

tjparaker2“The series started with Charlie Hood being a sheriff’s deputy, six years ago,” Parker recounted. “My books became more topical and more political as the series progressed. By the time I wrote The Famous and the Dead, I was dealing directly with various things: the Fast and Furious debacle for ATF, lunatics with guns and large capacity magazines, the Tucson shooting. It’s slightly prophetic. I think it echoes the devastation in Newtown, even though the novel was written long before it happened. I didn’t set out to be political, I don’t have specific axes to grind, but I do know a line of bulls–t when I hear it. I hope the book is intelligent in the way it deals with those things. I hope the book takes those things seriously, without being preachy or overly fear mongering.”

The Famous and the Dead is not at all preachy, and it is certainly as intelligent and thrilling as Parker’s readers expect, but it is also, in the end, a fond farewell to a character who grew into a wonderfully conflicted human, the beloved Charlie Hood—not his mourning, but a wake. Indeed, a celebration of Parker’s writing at its best, an intriguingly cross-genre thriller, with the heart and soul of a literary treatment of compelling moral conflict.

“I’ve always enjoyed looking at life as kind of a battle between good and evil. I like that. I like the idea that there’s good in the world and evil in the world and they butt heads. I thought it might be good to give evil a face and a body, and incorporate that in the books. Mike [Finnegan, a recurring antagonist] is a literal devil, and he plays a big, messy part in this series. I thought he would be a useful and wonderful literary conceit, a character by whom readers would be abhorred, tickled and perhaps a little surprised.”

The novel’s dark and magical tones, and its hopeful redemption, also suggest a hint of what things Parker might create next.

“I miss Charlie and his devil in the basement,” Parker said, “but he’s run his course. I think I left him in a good place, and it’s time to move onto other things. It’s liberating and scary at the same time. It frees up the mind. I’m open to sensation and information and experience. It’s nice to be looking for a story in the things you see around you. I may try to do a literary novel. I may try to write a darker thriller, what I’m known for. It’s really up to me.

“I’ve written three short stories in the last few months, just to fill the space, while I think about other projects,” Parker continued. “I’ve got some outlines and notes going, on a literary book I’d like to write. It’s a story of a young Marine returning to Pendleton and trying to resume his life here in Fallbrook. It’s not that the returning Marine and soldier story has not been told, but I’m not so sure it’s been told in the context of this splintered political situation, this heated partisan world, this devastated economy. That’s kind of what I’m after. But until the book’s finished, you may as well just shut your mouth.”

To the delight of his readers, Parker hasn’t shut his “mouth” since his first novel, Laguna Heat, was published in 1985. Nineteen novels later, he continues to hone his craft and delve deeper into the human psyche. Whatever Parker writes next will have an eager, eclectic audience ready to devour it—perhaps amid Fallbrook’s verdant groves.

 •     •     •     •     •     •     •

Local T. Jefferson Parker events

La Jolla: Thursday, April 18th, 7:30 p.m.
T. Jefferson Parker program and signing
Warwick’s
858-454-0347
7812 Girard Ave

Fallbrook: Friday, April 19, 6:00-7:30 p.m.
T. Jefferson Parker program and signing
Fallbrook’s Writers Read
The Café des Artistes
103 S. Main (enter from the rear parking lot off Alvarado)

The Charlie Hood series

L.A. Outlaws 2008

The Renegades 2009

Iron River 2010

The Border Lords 2011

The Jaguar 2012

 

The Famous and the Dead 2013

Also published by San Diego Gay & Lesbian News.

BOOK REVIEW: Harold Jaffe’s ‘Revolutionary Brain’


By Kit-Bacon Gressitt

revolutionarybrainAuthor and SDSU professor Hal Jaffe has released another collection. Revolutionary Brain is the title, and it’s a compilation of things he calls essays and quasi-essays.

That’s one way to describe it. Another might be a bunch of whops upside the head. This is fitting because, if you really read the book—as opposed to skimming it and then googling the online porn he mentions—it’ll certainly grab you and shake you to attention. And it is what Jaffe does with others’ words that makes his writing so riveting. Along with poignant, startling, disturbing. …

He starts with a snippet of news, a commercial, an online blurb, an interesting person, and “treats” the source material in a way that suggests new meaning.

Now, for those who got stuck on the porn, jeez! Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Except that much of it is sexist and racist. But that’s an obvious message. Less discussed are the themes in Jaffe’s “Anal Acrobats,” such as the “erotic collision” of two men while diddling one woman that is marketed to men who insist on the definitive boundaries of their heterosexuality.

Jaffe offers the reader the option of taking a moment to deconstruct such pop culture artifacts as commodified sex, and his subjects are broad.

I largely copied from the pornographic sites, and then I’ve treated them in certain ways because I want to speak about how a revolution has become a sort of devolution.

The way this culture works, so far as I can tell, when something becomes inevitable—the culture was naturally against it, but when they saw that it was inevitable—they co-opted it and ran with it, in a sense subverted it.

Commercials, patriotism, “news,” sports talk, entertainment; it’s almost a single thing and one leads into the other. You can’t even distinguish them.

[In the book] I’m talking about ass-gape and suddenly I’m switching to Bangladesh.

Jaffe admits that he wants to “establish some sort of culture shock,” and that’s still surprisingly easy to do, even though pornography and violence are increasingly normalized in our culture.

More shocking than porn, then, is the simple recitation of last statements by executed prisoners in the collections’ first piece, “Death in Texas.”

I want to give people who’ve been made invisible a way to express their own feelings, whether they are accounted as mad, whether they’re on death row.

Someone sent me the file, and I treated it, added to it. [For example] I moved Karla Faye Tucker from Florida to Texas. They’re primarily Mexican American and African American and very, very poor white. I read the transcripts and they moved me, a lot.

In “Freeze-Dry,” Jaffe briefly describes a quest to “freeze-dry” a severely disabled nine-year-old girl, to keep her small so that her parents can care for her, despite her having the mental capacity of an infant.

I think it works on a number of levels: on the one hand, the passion that these people feel for the child and on the other hand the disregard for the child; the extraordinary dysfunction, even though the parents’ intentions are not dishonorable, really. …

I speak a lot about death, about shit as substitution for death. You know in American we’re so afraid of death. Other cultures, death doesn’t mean so much to them. They live collectively, so when one of them dies, you go into the ground, and the collective goes on.

And the human collective goes on here, as well, but Jaffe has a gift for confronting us with questions we might ask ourselves, if we indeed are paying attention. Why are so many men on death row Black or Latino and poor? Why are women so brutally objectified in pornography, while men who abjure homosexuality are titillated by two men in a scene? And again, it is the method with which Jaffe poses the questions that makes one move beyond the obvious answers. But then what do we do? Does this literary discourse provoke us toward change?

Whether I think ethical change will come about, whether climate change is inevitable—and that’s something that distresses me—I don’t know what it’s going to do. I’d like people to read [Revolutionary Brain] and to recognize as far as they can some of my intentions. And to give voice to people who have none, to animals and species that are becoming obsolete.

A lot of my best audiences are Mexican American here. (Jaffe’s work is translated into French, Spanish, Japanese and other languages.) They seem to be more interested. They seem to be more patient and less cynical.

At this juncture, though, all I can do is get the work out. If people respond to it, good. If they don’t, I can live with that.

But it’s pretty darn hard to read Revolutionary Brain and not be changed by it, if in no other way than to find yourself thinking about difficult things in new and challenging ways.

Love,
K-B

Also published by San Diego Gay & Lesbian News.

Interview with James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell, Authors of The Blood Gospel


By Kit-Bacon Gressitt

Available from Morrow January 8, 2013, in hard cover and ebook

Available from Morrow January 8, 2013, in hard cover and ebook

Inevitably, the New Year is offering fantasy fans yet another vampiric mythology. But The Blood Gospel, on sale Tuesday, is not a run-of-the-mill, pulse-thrumping, blood-sucking urban fantasy.

No, Blood Gospel, co-authored by bestselling authors James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell, is a smart and complex blend of their complementary talents for thrilling plots, character and place. Together, they present readers with a grand and grotesque reimagining of the history of the Catholic Church, a history that places mankind and myth in a dire conflict, riddled with twists and otherworldly-creature turns that give new definition to the origin of vampires and confound the story’s three current-day protagonists.

The unlikely triad includes gifted archeologist Erin Granger, barely containing her troubled childhood; stalwart and pragmatic Army Ranger Sergeant Jordan Stone; and the pale and hooded Father Rhun Korza, whose unspoken past is nonetheless ever-present.

Rollins and Cantrell launch the three on a sixty-seven-hour quest to find the mysterious Blood Gospel, a quest that provides a showcase for the authors’ penchant for research. Described by Cantrell as “research junkies,” the co-authors divvied up the many eras their plot visits, as it takes the reader from the 1st-century AD Siege of Masada’s mass suicide to the Renaissance-era torturer Countess Elisabeta Báthory to Nazi Germany’s fascination with the occult to a contemporary corporation of the mystical variety. The result is an engaging work wrought by Cantrell and Rollins’ experiment in collaboration.

In recent phone interviews with Rollins, based in California, and Cantrell, based in Germany, the two authors raved about their experience.

Rolllins James credit to David Sylvian2Rollins: “I got this idea of a vampiric retelling of early Catholic history. After writing twenty-four books, I know my weaknesses as a writer. To capture that gothic quality, I don’t think I could do that. … [Cantrell is] really good at creating an evocative sense of place and time. I thought our two talents could mesh: If I could bring the plot, she could bring the time and place.”

Cantrell: “He called me up, said, ‘I love your work and I’d like to work on a project with you.’ What’s it about? ‘Well, the details are confidential.’ Then he caved and told me everything about it. It just sounded like it would be so much fun. As a writer, you’re always looking for stuff that will pull you in new directions. … It’s absolutely wonderful, creating your own world, and doing it with someone else is even more fun—you get a richer mythology.”

Rebecca Cantrell credit to Angela Marklew

Despite the fun, the challenges of a long-distance working relationship were surely present, and they continue as the pair work on the second book, tentatively titled Punishment of Silver, in what has become a planned series.

Cantrell: “This collaboration would not have been possible without technology. I guess we could have done a lot by phone, but— I’d ask him a question and he’d be silent for a minute. So, OK he’s obviously off playing Internet poker!”

Rollins: “I’m sometimes shocked that Rebecca is in Germany. We Skype for four to six hours every week. We spend a lot of time chatting. It’s amazing that technology can bring that intimacy, bring us so close.”

Rollins and Cantrell also addressed the Catholic theme of the novel.

Cantrell: “While we were writing it, we were trying to be true to the characters, so it felt more faith-based than I expected, but a lot of Catholics are very upset about it. While we didn’t set out to infuriate anyone, we certainly did. … We are taking the most sacred ritual and saying it was created to feed vampires.”

Rollins: “I saw it as a deeply spiritual novel that might be considered blasphemous.”

Has co-authoring changed them as writers?

Rollins: “I’ve learned a lot from Rebecca in regards to some of the things she talks about, how she talks about characters before she starts writing. She’s more character driven; I’m more plot driven.”

Cantrell: “My friend called it the James Rollins forced march, because Jim is a lot faster that I am. Through the process, I’ve learned to write a lot faster and to move through the story a lot faster, and I hope that’s going to stick with me for future projects. Now, I’m more open to being more collaborative with my work in general.”

This particular collaboration promises a long-term writing adventure for Cantrell and Rollins: The Blood Gospel is the first book of two planned trilogies, The Order of the Sanguines Series. And the series is sure to put the Pope’s head in a spin. If the Pope reads vampire novels. Which it’s reasonable to assume he does not. … Perhaps he should start?

San Diego Reading: Friday 11 January, 7 p.m., at Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore. James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell will be reading from and signing The Blood Gospel.

Visit this wonderful independent bookstore often! Mysterious Galaxy is at 7051 Clairemont Mesa Blvd., Suite #302, San Diego, CA 92111—858-268-4747.

You might also like to read:

City of Screams,” a short story by Rollins and Cantrell that introduces Sergeant Jordan Stone’s character

Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel Nazi-era mystery series and her  young adult iMonster cell phone novel series, including iDrakula and iFrankenstein, written under the pen name Bekka Black

Rollins’ SIGMA Force thriller series

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Photo credits: Rebecca Cantrell image by Angela Marklew, James Rollins James image by David Sylvian

Crossposted at San Diego Gay & Lesbian News.