Category: Book Review

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An imagined landscape of the Rio Grande from Jessica Schneider's novel, "Human Stuff".

For A Lonely While: On Jessica Schneider’s “Human Stuff”

Art opens within a necessary season.

Indeed, it did in me, for my season primarily wanted succour. Adolescence, unstable time, grew the need to grow against a reality taken in. And, I admit – it was The Catcher in the Rye that placated that need, sent me towards the altar of Art. Holden’s woes seemed mine, drew me, and I turned pages to find my mirror. It was only later I learned Art could be much more, for a mirror need shatter that tells much truth; when behind – infinite lies.

So angsty works will always be in demand: the need will long exist. Yet, a certain arbitrariness resides in therapy when woe wants little but its own identification. The works in which I found my peace were, in hindsight, of variable quality: anime such as Neon Genesis Evangelion, the stories of David Foster Wallace, the novels of Herman Hesse. Some, I would realize, said deeper things, used angst as interrogation rather than end. As many a mature reader of Salinger would note, even Holden has an unreliability that implies a reality beyond him. He is, after all, recounting his tale from a sanitorium, broken, not a voice of authority. But such a work has limits. Nowadays, particularly in YA Lit, there are too many Holdens: clone Holdens, zombie Holdens. In the end, succour is lucrative. […]

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A stylized picture of snowy Minneapolis, the setting of Bruce Ario's novel "Cityboy".

A Cityboy Finds Meaning: On “Cityboy” by Bruce Ario

Whenever reviewing any writer, objectivity is important. But what when you have known that writer personally? What then? This is my third time reading Bruce Ario’s novel, Cityboy*. The first was in 2000, when he introduced it. At the time, I’d become familiar with his poems via the Uptown Poetry Group, albeit I knew not what to expect from his prose. Hell, at that time, I hadn’t even begun my trip into prose, and so what did I know? The second time I read it was in 2009, for creative purposes. I was working on my own novel and I needed to revisit the masculine perspective. And now, my third read occurred after his death, in 2022. Each read brought about a visceral reaction, with each experience growing in intensity. All I can say is wow—did Bruce hit a home run with this one.

Firstly, within Cityboy there is the notion of the city as every bit a character as that of John Argent Jr. The city never changes—it is the one lone, solid, dependable thing. It never changes, but John’s perception of it does. When he is young, the city lives as its own entity—a breathing, living being that holds endless possibility. But as John ages, the city grows more menacing. It strangles him, much like a vine within the wilderness. It overwhelms, and it sucks the life from him. Yet John is both attracted and repelled by its expectations. The city—it is this lone love, this mysterious, cosmopolitan, wonderful thing. […]

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A stylized portrait of Steven Pinker, author of "The Sense of Style" from 2014

How Steven Pinker Fails The Arts In “The Sense Of Style” (2014)

Now, to be sure, I have never had much use for style guides. Yes, there was all the studying for the writing portion of the SAT, years ago, which required lots of rule-learning and — even worse — the application of said rules to poorly-written ‘answers’ that were anything but right. Yes, I’d been assigned the oft-banal Strunk & White’s Elements Of Style in college courses, and have, out of curiosity, perused a number of similar guides not only across form and genre (prose, poetry, non-fiction, sci-fi, grammar) but multiple languages, as well, just to see how the rest of the world, well, merely hypothesizes the sorts of things that are in fact real to me. For instance, I still recall reading Orson Scott Card’s How To Write Science Fiction And Fantasy, and finding — even as a 10 year old with a desire to impart stories — the thing too restrictive for anyone but the worst writers, to whom issues of mechanics and advice re: ‘world-building’ might narrowly apply.

Thus, I was both intrigued and a little alarmed when I read the title of Steven Pinker’s new book. Now, don’t get me wrong. While admittedly a very good writer with MANY interesting ideas across the board, Steven Pinker is a thinking academic (as opposed an academic thinker!), first, and has not, in his occasional comments on the topic, shown any deeper understanding of the arts. Yes, he’s constructed some great arguments, and pointedly done away with scientific fraud within the clarion of a mere sentence or two, but that does not really lend itself to art criticism. This is because the wisdom (not ‘knowledge’) immanent to recognizing a great poem, or the odd assortment of skills and luck that goes into differentiating a good from bad metaphor is nigh-indefinable. In short, while true creativity might be easy to quantify, if one merely KNOWS how to evaluate the works, themselves, its source in most cases isn’t. This means that no intellect, personal background, type, or force of character guarantees success in this endeavor, and Pinker’s book, to its credit, does not pretend otherwise. […]

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A bust purportedly depicting Sargon of Akkad.

Great Man Out Of Time: On Dan Schneider’s “A Notch Of Eternity”

Think “tragedy”. What fits? Greek ones, the struggle of gods and mortals. Shakespearean ones, perhaps, involving the grand relations of power, and everyone dying at the end. The more modern might think of Arthur Miller’s dramas, involving little men whose middle-class worlds, desperately clung, are fated to crumble. To call Dan Schneider’s play on Sargon of Akkad, A Notch Of Eternity, a tragedy, is reductive. Great works always escape easy classification. They also illuminate old ones in novel ways. What does it mean to call a play where no blood is spilt, or spilt only in memories, a tragedy? For Dan’s Sargon never really suffers external pangs, is shown mostly in peace, has led what one might even call a rather fulfilling existence. Yet, it is the indifference of the cosmos that pangs in him.

Deftly, the expected tragic tropes are evaded. Sargon of Akkad’s enemy really is time, the fate of being a great man born in a wrong time. Unlike the assassin’s blade, the jealous harem, these enemies are invisible, known little to most even as they wear away their names in eternity. Sargon is aware of this, obscurely. Within, he fights. But little can be done with human hands, without technologies or the accumulations of thought. Sargon is a stepping-stone, cannot be anything more than such. Sometimes, the only course of action is to accept this. I know I will never survive to see art’s greatest revolutions. There is some grief in that, but Sargon’s rings greater. […]

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A stylized rendering of an anonymous villain from Dan Schneider's novel, "The Vincetti Brothers".

Against Literary Lollipops: On Dan Schneider’s “The Vincetti Brothers”

Here is the letter I wrote to Dan Schneider after reading his manuscript. I’ve known Dan since 1992 when we used to read poetry at open mics, and later when Dan formed the poetry group, Uptown Poetry:

I just completed your manuscript. In view of all the time you’ve spent helping me with my work, I’m sure I owe you a response to yours.

The Vincetti brothers are lower than snakes. You took me to a world that is more repugnant than vomit. I thought I had met some lowlifes, and I have, but the character of Gino takes them all.

And that’s what you did – take me all the way in. Never I have read a book with such visceral depictions of human beings, and it was not just a section, but the whole book. I was reading it with one eye on the page and the other one shut.

However, it was fresh like blood. You didn’t use tired old descriptions in your portrayal of these thugs. No, every page brought me to a new level of revolt. […]

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Chris Ware, author of "Rusty Brown"

Mere Reaction: Why Chris Ware’s “Rusty Brown” Fails

In reading the comics of Chris Ware again, long after the dazzle of his formal novelty had dimmered, a word came to mind: ‘reaction’. Now, let’s excise all narrow political connotations and deal with the essence of the term: that any swing too much in one direction necessarily begets a counterforce, less because it has value than simply that it must exist, as uniqueness is a perennial human want, though little understood. And, as much contemporary media is infantile, democratic in the basest sense, and abusive of well-rooted psychological patterns, alternatives are almost destined to crawl out of the margins of the mainstream. In the most lucrative, and most besieged mediums, that of comics, video games, and animation, reaction creates a mirror-world of seriousness, clutches at ‘the grown-ups table’, an aesthetic to counteract the frivolities, the ‘sell-outs’, that is consciously unfun, unentertaining, uninteresting, and bloated with consciousness itself. None of this determines that the products be mediocre, as Art sometimes has a way of slipping past intentions. Yet what it means is these works are subject to the same dice-rolls that plagues all pabulum. This is because reaction is also a pattern; a nobler pattern, but a pattern all the same. […]

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A stylized depiction of Macbeth in William Shakespeare's titular play.

Superstitious Ambition: On William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”

“Good friend, for Jesus’s sake forebeare/ To digg the dust enclosed heare/ Bleste be the man that spares these stones/ And curst be he that moves my bones.” The writing on Shakespeare’s grave makes us wonder, was the mysterious bard superstitious? In his play, Macbeth, he gives us the three wicked sisters who prophesize the life of Macbeth. Magic shows up in other works by Shakespeare most notably in The Tempest, with a ghost and a skull in Hamlet. Shakespeare wasn’t Merwin, but he did dabble.

And we know Shakespeare was ambitious like his character in Macbeth. It’s one thing to be superstitious and another to be ambitious, but when we mix them all bets are off and the sky is the limit. Shakespeare definitely shot for the moon. No one talks with the words Shakespeare put in the mouths of his characters, at least not all the words in one sentence, line after line. The playwright was well beyond everyday reality as most of us know it.

He presented a different brand of reality. He presented the reality most of us have in our guts, and magic was this cloud that gave the audience space and made his work palatable. Nobody could handle a Shakespeare play directly. Except that his characters do.

We have the aspiring king in the person of Macbeth prodded on by a scheming wannabe queen in a direct path to the top. But he just can’t seem to do it without the help of the witches. His road is tainted and unsurprisingly leads to destruction. […]

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A stylization of Martin Guerre, French peasant, depicted in Janet Lewis's The Wife of Martin Guerre.

Facts of a Face: on Janet Lewis’s “The Wife of Martin Guerre”

The more one looks back, the more time crowds, with history itself entrapped. Ages slant, personal becomes personnel, while facts flourish. A writer writing about the distant historical past may find such a subject liberating as, already packaged, the facts never blur the way they do in moving time. Yet, art is never about the facts. What the historical fiction writer wishes were true plays as much a role as the truth itself. And, to make great art, the facts must always be a canvas, upon which faces ambiguate.

While reading The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis I was struck by how comfortable she was with facts. In this novella, Lewis crafts, with alluring prose, the case of Martin Guerre: a well-known historical episode in 16th-century France where a peasant woman was fooled by an impostor playing her husband for three years, after the real one’s disappearance years back. In about a hundred pages Lewis creates a simulacra of French peasant life, reinventing their customs and livelihood amidst lush nature. The extent of her research shows on every page. She follows Bertrande, the aforementioned wife, first as a young girl marrying Martin in one of those underage peasant marriages, then her married life, the years of loneliness after the disappearance, the deluge of doubts after the impostor’s reunion, and the case that unfolds when she finally brings her doubts before the French courts. Neatly packaged, The Wife of Martin Guerre terminates where sufficient: the real Martin Guerre returns at the last moment and is revealed to be a cur; the imposter is executed, even though he may have been a better husband to Bertrande; and the omniscient narrator of the story adds a bit of historical ambiguity to the ending with the following paragraph: “Of Martin Guerre, nothing more is recorded, whether he returned to the wars or remained in Artigues, nor is there further record of Bertrande de Rols, his wife. But when hate and love have together exhausted the soul, the body seldom endures for long.” Life returns to facts, plunged in their mystery. […]