Posts Categorized: Writing

Review: The Sleepwalker at Sea – Kelly Grovier

The Sleepwalker at Sea is a wonderful collection of poems by Kelly Grovier. The poems meditate on aging, loss, love, and memory. These concepts spill into the dark passageways of childhood, the echoes from halls long empty. Not only does Grovier tie in a love for language and books, but his deft observations of nature position the poems as part of life.

It’s part of the human condition to experience loss. There are natural cycles involved with aging, forgetting, and dying, as well as in the movements of a “murmuration” as:

It rises in a bright shatter
of wings and lifts like a great
mind over the water’s still
uncreasing canvas,
each feathered filing an end

of thought, a pause –
each dip and wheel a mute
inflection in its organic
grammar: a poem of pure

punctuation, a ballet of full-
stops, lunulae and ellipses
flailing, falling, flicked

by a pointillist’s wrist
against the deep unweaving loom

of sea and sun and sun and sky.

Full of beauty and sadness, The Sleepwalker at Sea is a must read collection, which readers may find themselves returning to again and again.

Review: A Dance with Dragons – George R. R. Martin

A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin is the fifth book in the Game of Thrones series. I won’t go into a detailed review, because the book is 900+ pages and builds off a large, large cast of characters and has a complicated continuity. What Martin does well is in juggling so many characters and story lines. The price though is that not much happens in 900 pages. There is so much build up with very little pay off. Action almost happens, then the point of view switches, and we discover the action has taken place off stage. It’s frustrating and detracts at times.

When the next book comes out, I may just read about it on Wikipedia just to see what five things happened. Martin’s epic has become so bloated that it’s weighed down and moves with a stumbling pace.

Review: Lamb – Bonnie Nadzam

With Lamb, Bonnie Nadzam, created a novel full of small wonders and quiet terror in the American West. There is a mythic tone that calls to the reader and I found myself falling for David Lamb’s charm much like Tommie does as she conspires to drive west with him.

Who is Lamb? He’s in his fifties, wealthy, divorced, full of himself, isolated, and has no children. The novel begins with the death of Lamb’s father, which seems to precipitate his string of bad decisions. There’s a terrible edge to Lamb when he meets Tommie and “fake” kidnaps her, in order to teach her friends a lesson. At first, Lamb comes across as a father figure, telling Tommie how to act and seemingly concerned about her home life. This role morphs though as Lamb dotes on Tommie, and he begins to tell her how beautiful she is and buys her expensive gifts. Throughout the novel it’s obvious something bad is going to happen. What’s not clear is what that event will be.

What sets this novel apart from others is the clarity and beauty with which Nadzam writes. It’s a pleasure to read sentences like:

He drove into the night, along a cursive pass etched in granite, above the stands of green-fingered oaks and red-beaded hawthorns and all the aspen, above the trees that listed to the southeast, needled black along one side, twisted and deformed by forbidding glacial wind, and between great planed walls of rock dressed in little aprons of snow and shattered stone sliding down onto the road.

Another wonderful passage follows:

Let’s say there were none of those truss towers of galvanized steel lining the highway this next day. No telephone poles. No wires. Say that Lamb’s truck and the highway were the only relics of the actual world. The road was overcome with native grasses and aromatic flowers, with wild onion and pussytoes. Soft gaping mouths of beardtongue, and mountain lover, and buckbush and drowsy purple heads of virgin’s bower. Say it was like this that they crossed the Midwestern line beyond which the sky spreads itself open—suddenly boundless, suddenly an awful blue.

Nadzam further draws the reader in by making us complicit. She picks moments to speak to the reader, saying, “Our guy picked up her hand. ‘We’re just going to sit here a minute.’ He waited until she stopped crying, then pulled away from the gas pump and parked beside a derelict pay phone.” What makes Lamb “our guy”? Nadzam doesn’t give us a choice, she says Lamb is our guy and so he becomes, bellying in next to us, leaning against the counter. It’s an effective technique to bring the reader along and fill them with uneasiness toward the end.

So much of the novel is driven by Lamb’s voice. His running narrative to Tommie comes straight through to the reader. Is he full of wisdom or just trying to impress? Again, it goes back to that question, who is David Lamb? It’s a question that will probably haunt Tommie for the rest of her life.

Set amidst the desolation of the Midwest and West, the novel amplifies the landscape. Through it we are shown the beauty of the natural world as it closes in on the edges of failed strip malls and gas stations where tallboys go for a buck. Where are the people in this landscape? They’re somewhere in between, patiently following the arcs of their lives. They either can’t move on or will not. Except for Lamb, who seems bent on creating a story all his own.

Review: 1Q84 – Haruki Murakami

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami warps time. Words fill the pages and the reader’s mind as characters wait for things to happen. To fill in this void, the characters cut vegetables, use the bathroom, sentimentalize about rubber plants, consider breasts, and eat various meals. Otherwise, nothing moves the plot forward for hundreds of pages.

In the first book, we are introduced to Tengo Kawana, a former child prodigy and aspiring novelist. His editor friend, Komatsu, convinces him to ghostwrite a novel by a seventeen year old girl, Fuki-Eri, and submit it for a literary prize. This section is the strongest. Murakami pokes fun at the literary establishment and lowers the fourth wall. In alternating chapters we are introduced to the other main character, Aomame, who is an unassuming female assassin specializing in stabbing a sharp needle in men’s necks with no trace. Tengo and Aomame shared one special moment when they were ten years old (they held hands) and it created a loving bond that lasted across twenty years and multiple worlds. The novel is a play toward getting the two together and in the course of 952 pages it finally happens.

Both Tengo and Aomame are caught up in the drama of a cult called Sakigake. The cult started out as radicalized students and faculty members on a commune. When Fuki-Eri was ten the commune’s special goat, which Fuki-Eri was tasked with caring for, died. As a punishment Fuki-Eri was locked in a shed with the dead goat. Out of the dead goat’s mouth sprang the Little People. They sit with Fuki-Eri and teach her how to weave an air chrysalis. The most we are told about the Little People is that they’re powerful and something like gods, but not quite. After this happens is when the commune transforms into the cult, and Fuki-Eri’s father becomes Leader and is imbued with powers.

Tengo is caught up in the drama by ghostwriting Fuki-Eri’s novel, which is about the goat and the Little People. It receives great reviews and is a bestseller, but seen as a strange little fantasy. Aomame’s role is that she must kill Leader because he has been raping young girls. There’s more to the novel, or at least, a wider cast of characters, but it’s not worth going exploring at this point.

1Q84 is full of opaqueness. What’s worse is that it is mistaken as a sign that there is something hidden or wonderful in the books, which only smart people can discern. Instead, it’s sloppy writing with no clear end in sight. After the end of the second book, Murakami steps back in the third book as if he can undo the final actions. This may not seem huge, but when one of the main characters commits suicide and is suddenly alive in the next book, it’s completely jarring. Did Murakami change his mind? Was he interested in more sales or exploring how things would have turned out if the character stayed alive? The reasons are not clear and ultimately do not matter. 1Q84 is a bloated tome that is best avoided.

For a more detailed review, please read Janet Maslin’s review in the Times.

Reading: 1Q84 – Haruki Murakami

If you read my review of the excerpt, “Town of Cats“, you’ll remember I was not a fan of it. However, that didn’t stop me from buying 1Q84 and giving it a chance. Excerpts are basically marketing ploys. They don’t work as a stand alone piece very often, but they might introduce a reader to an author or novel, which would otherwise be missed. That’s the reason I picked up Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam. Unfortunately, I picked up 1Q84 at the same time, so Lamb must wait.

Going back to 1Q84, though, it’s wonderful so far. I’m about 140 pages into it and can’t stop reading. Of course, it is trademark Murakami. Reality blends into something not quite right. Characters are outside the mainstream. Music and Americana are often referenced. It’s hard to tell where the story may go. It’s not bad for an author’s style or pattern to stand out so clearly. With Murakami, you know what you’re getting. It’s like going into a restaurant for your favorite meal. There’s an expectation and while each Murakami novel is different, they are all completely recognizable. So if you were on the fence about the book, hop down and read it.

Review: Sun City – Caitlin Horrocks

In “Sun City” by Caitlin Horrocks a young woman goes through her recently deceased grandmother’s belongings and tries to gain a better understanding of her grandmother in the process.  What really caught me with this story was the opening.

“The floated into the afternoon in their little stucco submarine, the blinds shut against the sunlight and the swamp cooler whistling on the roof. Bev sat on the couch, Rose knelt on the matted carpet, and in the artificial air the two women wrapped jewelry in tissue paper and placed it in egg cartons. Rose had had this idea, the egg cartons, on the plane to Arizona, and it had made her feel organized. In the aftermath of her grandmother’s death, at least there were omelettes to be made. When she realized just how much stuff her grandmother, Vera, had owned, and how little of it Bev wanted to keep, Rose should have come up with a new plan. Instead, they just kept eating eggs.”

I enjoy the description of the stucco submarine withe the swamp cooler on top of the roof. It creates a strange image for the desert. Next, there’s Bev and Rose, with Rose kneeling, wrapping the jewelry. It’s a peaceful image that shows some intimacy. Horrocks also gives us some information in a way that’s not condescending. We learn that Rose is unprepared for this role and didn’t visit her grandmother often. In the final sentence of this paragraph, Horrocks displays humor in the amount of eggs the women eat. It’s an odd detail that ties everything together well.

“Sun City” is a story where everything is not as it seems. Were Bev and Vera lovers or just two old women who shared a house? We believe they had a relationship together, partly because the point of view is that of Rose’s. She thinks Bev and Vera were more than roommates, through the joint Christmas cards and pictures the women would send. As the story moves forward, we discover Rose may be projecting onto her grandmother. It turns out that Rose is gay and her grandmother disapproved.

Another revelation is Vera’s past. Vera was estranged from her daughter, Rose’s mom, and besides being a harsh woman, she used to have a drinking problem as well. Rose’s memories of Vera are spending one week a year with her as a child, while Rose’s mom went on vacation by herself. The estrangement carries on as Rose’s mom has no wish to go through Vera’s belongings, which illuminates why Rose is stuck with the job. It’s sad to imagine family not caring, but beneath the charade of occasional letters and phone calls, we realize the truth of what Vera thought of her daughter and granddaughter.

The intimate scene of Bev and Rose breaks down over the days. It is Bev who tells Rose the truth of Vera and that leads to problems between the two. Rose doesn’t know what she’s doing there and Bev feels as though her space is being intruded upon. The two come together again by rebelling against the spirit of Vera. They drink vodka and rum, reminisce, and try to help one another. However, the ending is wrapped in such an obvious metaphor that it becomes a little too neat. Bev is literally in over her head, grasping onto Rose for support in a swimming pool. The story concludes with Bev clinging to the pool wall, drink in hand, while sitting on the edge of the pool Rose raises her drink in the air. “‘Medicine,’ she offered, and they drank, as if it might be some kind of cure.”

“Sun City” was published in the October 24th issue of The New Yorker. For an interview with Horrocks regarding “Sun City” please read the Book Bench.

Review: Oubliette – David Long

I want to be fair. I really do. But, “Oubliette” by David Long struck me as a narrow, pat story meant more for MFA-wielding literati, than for a broader audience.  For those of you not acquainted with the finer points of language, “oubliette” is a dungeon with a small opening at the top.

The characters, while not two-dimensional, are slightly generic.  First, there’s the documentary film director father, who is kind and sympathetic.  Second, there’s the beautiful, off kilter mother.  And third, there is the scarred daughter who takes after her father, but is tormented by her mother.  See them smiling in the Christmas card? Wonderful.

At this point, it may be clear where the story is going.

Is it:

A) Freakish affair between the father and daughter.
B) Mother goes crazy and locks daughter up in an attic.
C) Daughter runs away and father makes documentary about it.
D) Metaphor for dementia.
E) All of the above.

Okay, so now that we have cleared up that point, the story jumps ahead using the rough transition, “flash forward eighteen months: her parents had split up, her father had become ‘the custodial parent,’ life was proceeding.” The rest of the story contains two more scenes.

We learn what happens to Nathalie’s mom and we learn how Nathalie reacts to her mother’s death. It ends with a late night phone call, because people don’t die during the day, there’s “a dry listless snow…falling,” and Nathalie must begin her “never-ending task of not forgetting her mother.” The writing is fine, but like the falling snow “Oubliette” has a listless quality that makes it seem longer than two pages of prose. For Q&A with David Long, please read the Book Bench. For a more thoughtful review, check out the Mookse and the Gripes.











Come on, this is a New Yorker story. Of course, there will be freakish affairs, but incest? Wait, you may be on to something.

Sorry, but, you may have noticed “Oubliette” is not on this list. Return to the rest of this cranky review.









Wow! Not only do you love Flowers in the Attic, but you’re also right.  Return to the rest of this cranky review.













Running away is a serious problem.  I’m sure your not a bad person, but if you want to help, learn more at  Return to the rest of this cranky review.














Of course it’s a metaphor, but is that all the story is? It’s not, is it? Oh. I see. Will there be a last line to make sure I know that? Return to the rest of this cranky review.














You’re indecision does not due you credit. Return to the rest of this cranky review.



















“And when it did, though she couldn’t quite see it yet, Nathalie would begin the never-ending task of not forgetting her mother.” Return to the rest of this cranky review.

Review: The Warsaw Anagrams – Richard Zimler

In The Warsaw Anagrams, by Richard Zimler, the narrator, Erik Cohen, searches for the people who killed his nephew and two other children.  He’s a psychiatrist, who was once respected, but now must deal with the hardships of the ghetto and the change in his station.  While still respected, he’s no longer one of the elite as the ghetto has destroyed the social order from the “Before Times.”  The voice of Cohen is rich and unique.  Zimler stays with him throughout the novel and creates a solid character.  Cohen fluctuates between compassion and anger, humor and grave melancholy.  It’s refreshing to read a character who is complex and whose actions cause him remorse.

While, technically a mystery, the novel is more about life in the ghetto than a compelling puzzle to solve.  Part of the confusion stems from the title.  It seems as though there will be coded puzzles throughout the novel and the anagrams do refer to the garbled names of people in order to hide their true identities; however, the anagrams fade below the surface as the novel progresses.  The final anagram/puzzle is so hidden that “only a Jew would know both Polish and German well enough to understand that linka was string and Flor was gauze.”  For the reader it is next to impossible and the narrator doesn’t care to share this information until he’s been told by an accomplice to the crime.

Zimler’s description of the early days of the Warsaw ghetto show a place full of heartache and desperation.  The black market thrives as Jews cross over to the Christian side through hidden tunnels.  People try to sustain the normalcy of life through music and cafes.  But how soon before that goes away?  The novel concludes before things become more terrible in the ghetto.  We know what will happen eventually, but the novel sticks to the time frame of Cohen’s perspective.

One issue with the narrator is that as he tells the story to a man, his current state is that of an ibbur, kind of like a ghost.  This didn’t trouble me; I assumed it was part of Jewish culture, but it is kind of cheesy.  It does add another layer to the story, but for readers who do not enjoy the fantastic, it may be a problem.

The Warsaw Anagrams provides a glimpse of life in the ghetto and the suffering involved.  Full of interesting characters who must make decisions, in which they question their morals, the novel leads the reader through the twisting streets, cramped apartments, and secret lives constrained by the ghetto walls.  The novel is published by Overlook Press and available on Amazon.

Review: Starve a Rat – Justin Torres

If you haven’t read “Starve a Rat” by Justin Torres, please do; it’s wonderful.  Published in the October 2011 issue of Harper’s, “Starve a Rat” deftly uses first-person point of view to create a wonderful narrative that draws the reader in.  Are we being lied to by the narrator?  Definitely.  Does he ever tell us the truth?  Probably.

The narrator is basically homeless and sleeps with other men to get by.  He’s charming and attractive, but also manipulative.  In the story he hooks up with an older man, Norwood, who cares for him on some level, but also is interested in using him, though it becomes difficult to tell who is using whom.  There are truths Norwood wants to know, like does the narrator have a disease, and stories about the narrator’s past, which seem fabricated, that Norwood is willing to accept.  For the reader, we know more of the truth than Norwood, so it’s a bit easier, but still ambiguous.  The idea of truth and lies is clear in the following passage.

“My girl and I used to play a game called Two Truths and a Lie—but the trick was just to tell three lies, or three true things; the trick was to let no one ever really figure you out: Take my picture. Be my father. Let me stay right here.”

This paragraph haunts the story as we listen to the narrator.  Is he telling us three truths, three lies, or a combination of the two?  It’s up to the reader to decide.