Review: Luci Shaw

Every once in awhile, I find a new author (of prose or poetry, whichever) and decide to get as many of his or her books as possible, then read them in a great flurry to form a very clear concept of that writer’s style.  

It usually backfires, because I put off even the activities I enjoy, and fail to read them until they’re all due back at the library.  My tsundoku works against me and I end up reading, like, 2 books of a potential dozen.  

But that fate has been averted, more or less, with Luci Shaw.  I discovered her in trying to find poems about Petoskey stones (which, as you may recall, I adore hunting on the Lake Michigan shoreline).

shaw-petoskeystoneTurning up Polishing the Petoskey Stone: what a boon!  There’s only one poem about Petoskeys in it, but the book’s introduction explains why that title was chosen.  Shaw’s friend showed her how the fossils could be buffed on anything – one’s blue jeans, the arm of a chair, the fabric of a car door interior.  After a road trip’s-worth of rubbing at a stone, the resulting sheen made Luci consider God, polishing each one of us individually; our particular sorrows, joys, dull moments, energetic evenings, manic Mondays are all part of the process of making us shine forth.

Polishing the Petoskey Stone astonished me with its wisdom and imagery.  Every other poem, if not every single one, provided illumination of God’s work through a wealth of natural pictures: frogs, shells, the view from an airplane window, circles, blood.  So much of it provided new and weighty illustrations about the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.

I eventually recognized that the sub-headings within were not simply section titles but the titles of earlier collections.  Polishing the Petoskey Stone contains poems originally published in Listen to the Green, The Secret Trees, The Sighting, and Postcard from the Shore.  Not all of them, but about two-thirds.  

Likewise, a handful from The Secret Trees turn up in The Green Earth and Water Lines; accompanied-by-angelswhole sections of Water Lines in Water My Soul; various selections from this and that book in Accompanied by Angels: Poems of the Incarnation.  Where there is any overlap of theme, there will be an overlap of poems. 

And yet, the introductions to each book, the occasional endnotes, the different structure, and the fact that good poetry is worth re-reading and rumination all add up to a complete lack of regret for getting them all out.  

I tried to read in order, more or less, but the strictures of time and the MelCat system mean that I read certain later books earlier on.  Harvesting the Fog is a later book – published in 2010, not the 70’s or the early aughts.  I didn’t care for it half as much, as it seemed more concerned with simple description than with embodying the intangible.  

I still have six books of hers to read, and 4 more to track down and read thereafter, but I doubt they’ll change my judgment of Shaw: carefully observant, fresh and evocative, somewhat familiar in subject and tone to those fond of CS Lewis (while different in form).  I commend her to you all as a poet who will refresh your soul.

Review: Hint Fiction

During my vacation last week, I read Hint Fiction, Robert Swartwood’s collection of ficlets.  All sorts of authors contributed to it, each writing a particular sort of story: a composition of 25 words, or fewer, which does not simply tell a story but hints at a larger picture.

For example, the very first: Joe Lansdale’s “The Return.”

They buried him deep.  Again.

5 words that imply a man or masculine creature, one who apparently died and certainly was buried, who was buried deep the first time but nonetheless was exhumed (or dug his own way out), and who They, once again, buried…for all the good it will do, which may not be much.  A brief respite?  A century of rest?  We don’t know!  But we’Hint Fictionre left to imagine it.

It’s a strong entry to lead the anthology.  That sort of compression, almost a prose poem, takes a lot of thought and the ability to sift the wheat from the chaff.

Unfortunately, for every hint that grabbed me, making me pause to ruminate on the larger picture implied by it, there were four that let me pass on by.  Fortunately, in a book of 125 hint-fics, that’s 25 stories that left some impression.  The finer specimens make the most of their title, or use allusions to other stories (Penelope, “Not Waving But Drowning,” Shark Week) as a shortcut.

In the interest of moderating my judgment, I tried writing a few; to try and focus my thoughts, these hint fics are summaries of longer books I’ve read somewhat recently, though that’s not necessarily the best method to achieve this sort of iceberg-writing.

Where dreams come true, so do nightmares.

Suffering the rough buffs away our raggedness until we shine. 

Curiosity, puzzle-solving, and loving the 1980s enough could make you a billionaire.  Bonus girlfriend, if the evil corporation doesn’t kill you first.

They shared what beauty they could find like war rations, to multiplicative effect.  Friendship does not destroy death, but it does discourage suicide.

I wouldn’t call Hint Fiction a must-read, and I certainly wouldn’t call it a must-buy.  But it’s a fun read, and beneficial to writers who don’t otherwise weigh out their words.  Certainly these droplets of story prove that a lot of horror fits in a small space; it’s harder to fit a great deal of glory into that same small space.

 

Review: Choke

This post might easily be titled “Reading Regret: Addendum,” because this book is so regrettable that I fully expect you to ask “Why, exactly, did you even read it?”

To be honest, I keep asking myself the same thing and coming up short.

Here’s why I started: I have watched Fight Club a few times with various groups of friends.  By the third viewing, I was less concerned with the plot and more interested in the philosophy behind the movie. Given that so many people watch it and discuss it, what are they most likely to take away from it? What sorts of ideas did the original book contain? Was it most concerned with making something meaningful of one’s life, or satisfied by fighting overweening consumerism with bloodsport, adrenaline, and mayhem? Was there anything true in the book, or was it all metaphysically suspect?

I decided to get it out of the library, found that it was already checked out, and elected to get another of Palahniuk’s novels instead of waiting for Fight Club.  Which was silly, because Choke sat on my shelf all summer, and autumn, and winter, and I finally cracked it last week.

So much for why I started. The very first words are “If you’re going to read this, don’t bother,” and I ignored them, which means any unwanted gunk in my brain is my own dang fault.

ChokeIt’s easy enough to read; swallow a couple chapters and you’ll probably be a little curious about what happens in the other 47, even if you choke occasionally on some nauseating detail or other.  Victor, the deadpan snarky narrator, goes back and forth between describing his messed-up childhood, his abhorrent job, off-putting sexual encounters (his own and other people’s, as he is part of a sex addicts anonymous program), the hours spent visiting his mother (afflicted with dementia, such that she forgets to eat) at St. Anthony’s nursing home, and the revolting way he goes about getting more money for said home’s fees: purposefully choking at restaurants so someone else can swoop in, be a hero, and thus feel responsible for him forever (which apparently extends to sending him money periodically.  I’m not sure what it says about me that I found that the least believable part of the book).

That summary makes it sound better than it is.  The non-linear narrative remains engaging enough to see one through, and just as one becomes thoroughly grossed out by one anecdote, Victor turns to describe something else.  Which is about all the positive spin I can put on it.  The most sympathetic character is a recovering masturbation addict who sublimates his compulsions into collecting rocks to assemble into some kind of erection edifice.  This book is Pandora’s box, except that instead of hope being shut inside at the end, you’re left with an ambiguous cessation of action.  It’s everything I disliked about Catcher in the Rye, but far more sordid and gruesome.  The congenital is not made congenial by making the pubic public; it’s just taking the dirt from its proper place in the garden and hurling it all over the coffee table, the kitchen, the bed.

Somehow, that approach feels significant; despite my disgust I wonder if it represents some aspect of reality, putting a finger to the pulse of what people believe in society today.  There’s the conversational prose stuffed with informative tidbits.  There’s a discussion about misogyny springing from misandry: how many times can everybody tell you that you’re the oppressive, prejudiced enemy before you give up and become the enemy[?] …I mean, in a world without God aren’t mothers the new god? The last sacred unassailable position. Isn’t motherhood the last perfect magical miracle?  There’s a despairing rejection of religion, a blasphemous treatment of the specifically Christian, and so much emphasis on the carnality of flesh, all the filth that issues from it, and all the disgusting ways it breaks down.

I read Choke trying to understand whatever people might believe this, people with abusive childhoods and compulsion-riddled adolescence. But mostly I came away wondering if I’ve actually met people as hopeless as this.  I came away full of pity for both Palahniuk and anyone bearing a passing resemblance to his creation, because this does not treat men like men: it treats them like animals, and then argues that this is preferable because knowledge brings pain.

There is no such thing as altruism here, no redemption, nothing noble or lovely or of good report.  There is nothing admirable, just lust and gluttony and reveling in the foulness of what is foul.

If you want to learn about the diseases killing you and everyone around you, read WebMD.  If you can’t think of the word you want but insist on trying the first that comes to mind, read a thesaurus.  If you want to ruminate about the possibility that nothing good can exist without the risk of something bad, read Brave New World.  If you want to contemplate “a life based on doing good stuff instead of just not doing bad stuff,” read “The Weight of Glory.”  If you want paradoxes, read Chesterton.  If you want to muse about a past that cannot be remade, read “The Road Not Taken” or The Great Gatsby or Brideshead Revisited or An Artist of the Floating World.

Basically: whatever it is you seek, find it anywhere but here.

Mistaken Title Twins

A couple years back, David reviewed a book called Undine.  I read his review, put the title on my mental “to read” list, and went on my way.  Before long, time ate away all details of the review except that title, but I figured it was enough to see me through.  So last week, flushed with the victory of my new library card, I typed “Undine” into Ann Arbor District Library’s catalog, and rejoiced when I picked it up.

It was only after dashing through it that I looked at David’s review again and realized that oh, the thing I just read was written nearly 200 years after the thing he reviewed.  Not only that, but he included a note that the novella he read is available in full on Google books.

Woops!
Undine
So perhaps it could be regarded as an inconvenient happenstance, but I grieve not.  Instead of an Irish fairy story by Friedrich de la Motte Fouque, I got an Australian story of magic and the sea by Penni Russon, very clearly inspired by The Tempest, with some intriguing relationships and a dash of localized diction.

Undine’s a sixteen-year-old girl living next door to her best friend Trout (not even his teachers call him Trevor anymore), dealing with a peculiar heavy feeling and the unpleasant weight of Tuesdays (“which, on the whole, were not to be trusted”).  Whispers call Undine home, as though she weren’t at home already, and she has a freak storm, a love triangle, and curiously inevitable fights with her mum to deal with as well.  Meanwhile, Trout is doing a bit of research on chaos theory, a bit of reading on Shakespeare, and a bit of pondering how discrete he should be with other people’s secrets.  My apologies for being vague, but I’m trying not to spoil any of the plot.  Here are a few selections from it:

Little scales glittered on her hands from the fish, and her skin felt dry and salty.  She lathered and washed, but suspected the scales were as insidious as Jasper’s day-care glitter, which hung around for months, miraculously appearing underneath a fingernail or at the end of an eyelash, no matter how many baths he took, and migrating to Lou and Undine, and various other unlikely places, so that little bits of Christmas would suddenly and surprisingly appear in the corners of things.

“Anyway, he didn’t waffle.  He sang.”
Undine groaned.  “That’s even worse.  Tra la la.  And then the great hero Achilles went into an epic sulk and was boring for a very long time.  Tra la la.  And here’s the name of every ship, all one billion of them, and everyone who was ever on each ship, tra la la.”

“But who…I mean…I already know my father is dead.  This is hardly a revelation.”
“Do you know the story of The Tempest?”
“No.  We studied Hamlet in English lit.”
Trout rolled his eyes.  “You can actually just read Shakespeare, you know.  It’s not outlawed outside of school hours.”

It was a fast and evocative read.  My chief complaint is that a storyline dependent on the extra-ordinariness of the protagonist may ring a bit hollow to the ordinary reader.  There were moments when I thought “Okay, so there’s this power you could wield; what is that to me?” because, of course, I can’t.  Thankfully Undine has enough of the ordinary teenage girl about her: navigating relationships with friends and family, some awkwardness, and a quest to understand who she really is when she’s never seen or heard from her father.