STARSIn our "General Index"
we give a star to books
that our editors
and reviewers deem
of especial interest.
We list below
fifteen from late 2007,
those clearly superior to
the hundreds that
cross our desks every month.
(For those starred volumes
from earlier this year, go to
to be found at RALPH #164.)
Peter Nathaniel Malae
(Swallow)Those who should be reading this book will probably never do so: the legislators, the governors, those who lobby for and run the "commercial" prison operations in the name of free enterprise.
A pity. They would learn a great deal. They would learn how to build a shiv with nothing more than a single sheet of paper and the elastic from socks. They would learn that the guards are "the most powerful gang in prison." They would learn about "the baptism of silence" used on newcomers. They would learn how drugs and condoms --- condoms are still illegal --- are distributed in prison, and how to make "pruneo" to get drunk on.
In a Prominent
Bar in Secaucus
New and Selected Poems,
1955 - 2007
X. J. Kennedy
(Johns Hopkins)Kennedy has been around a long time, writing verse for over fifty years. Along with content, he worries about meter and rhyme. This would make him a traditionalist in American poetry, but it does not make him stuffy. On the contrary, he is engaging, funny, understated, and --- on occasion --- conveys a brief, brutal snapshot of drugs and skid row murder. There is even a portrait of the sleeping dictator Francisco Franco:
Behind an oak door triple-locked
And those few soldiers he could trust
To stand with firearm hammers cocked
He slept the sweet sleep of the just...Kennedy is capable of giving us an extended day in the life of the poet ("West Somerville, Mass.") crammed with details that implies anything but calm and perfection, even an epiphany in the bathroom:
Last night in the bathtub, groping for the soap,
I tried a sloppy act of love, felt hope
Batter my heart with vague wings. Pregnant man,
What's eating you?
The Farther Shore
(Milkweed)What we used to call the American doughboy now finds himself in an unwelcoming environment of dust and unbearable heat, not knowing who is the enemy, who (if any) are those he is supposed to be helping. The enemy is everywhere.
We recall War and Peace, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Naked and the Dead, The Thin Red Line as expansive novels, exhaustingly so. The Farther Shore is so claustrophobic and ingrown that one has, at times, just to lay it down to avoid being suffocated by it. At one point Zeller, Santiago and Stantz find themselves living in a wrecked caboose, on a railroad that seems to lead nowhere. That's where they are: on an end-of-the-line war. Those who could have helped them to freedom somehow end up being shot or killed. It isn't only American soldier against the "terrorists;" it's those you are to be aiding fighting against each other. From a ruined house in a small village, Stantz witnesses the ritual castration of an adulterer, along with a slashing mutilation of the woman supposedly involved. These are the people who we are saving?
The whole brief tale --- 176 pages --- is spare, dry, enveloping, and won't let you be.
The Jew of
And Other Stories
(Johns Hopkins)"The Jew of Home Depot" tells of Chaim and his family, shipped off to Marshall, Texas. Reb Avram Hirsch has been chosen by the Chabad organization to minister to the aging Jerome Baumgarten. He had called New York to report "I'm surrounded by Gentiles. If you can send me a bunch of real Jews, I'll pay their way and make it worth their while."
Rabbi Hirsch appears, along with wife, six daughters and one son (who ends up at Home Depot). They now have to try to make do in the strange world of west Texas.Baumgarten gives them his luxurious house (on fraternity row at the University) and lives on in the Hotel Marshall, and Reb Avram performs the necessary mezuzah before they enter the home, while mother Malka says, "I can't believe it's all for us ... In Brooklyn five families could live in a house like this." Chaim, aged eighteen years, gets the entire third floor, which overlooks the Phi Kappa Delta.
And that is his downfall: each evening, lovely Laura (who also works at Home Depot) comes to meet with Jack, her main squeeze, in his room at the Phi Kappa Delta. With the lights on. Chaim has a floor-show from his window.
He thinks he shouldn't. Or worse, he thinks he shouldn't enjoy viewing her shoulders, her arms, and the rest. Every time Jack and Laura perform, he, poor innocent, is beside himself, first chastising himself and covering the window, then, finally, ripping the fabric so he can peer through the hole. In shame.
A Dynamic God
Living an Unconventional
(Beacon Press)Only the disabled will be able to tell you, fully, in depth, with rich conviction, of the gap between the plan and the deed. Nancy Mairs is and has been one of the most eloquent in reporting to readers this dichotomy in our lives.
More than thirty-five years ago she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Twenty years ago she was walking with a cane. Now she is in a wheelchair full time, reports that "My life is a lesson in losses:"
One thing after another has been wrenched from my life --- dancing, driving, walking, working --- and I have learned neither to yearn after them nor to dread further deprivation but to attend to what I have.
It is, she reports, the difference between "forgetting them" and, utilizing the wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh ... letting go through mindfulness. "In meditation, not by accident are the hands held loosely, palms up. In this position they cannot grasp, only cradle or release."
Mairs has prepared "to release myself into death" but "this desire for an end turns out to be sharply different from the compulsion toward suicide that haunted me during the many years I was depressed."
For one thing, I have become, as I predicted in one of my early essays, too crippled to kill myself.
(Aliform Publishing)We have told you before of our adoration --- corny word, but that's what it is --- of author José Sarney. He can stir up more fun and merry lust in less time than Chaucer, more descriptive wit than Dickens, more ribald pleasure than J. P. Donleavy. And under his art and words, you can't help but love his Saraminda, can't help but pity poor Cleto as he begins to spend his gold dust on a gingerbread house there in the ragged gold-fields, a carriage and dress from Paris, a huge Rhodesian dog from Africa.
O does she have him, runty sweating stake-claimsman that he is, trapped between the fields and her passion. She goes to see the thirty-seven pound nugget found by Li Yung, the Chinaman. Clément Tamba shows it to her and "I saw the dirty stone, reddish in color, porous and half covered with little holes." She says, "It doesn't look like much, so ugly. It's got the look of dead gold."
I didn't think it was gold, it was so ugly, and then I got to understand the beauty of gold is in men.
And, too, the men she lusts after, the Frenchman Jacques Kemper, that she loves so much that she has her Cleto build a jail cell to hold him at the back of the house. He is to live there until he fixes the rip in the dress he brought from Paris. That's what she tells Cleto Bonfim. But when he is off in the claims, she goes back to the cell, says, "Look at me, Mr. Kemper, with your blue eyes." Then,
Kiss me, Mr. Kemper, kiss me. I'm crazy for you.
You can guess what comes of it all, and when it comes, most of these characters lie dead or mad or far away, as far away from the dark smell of gold and cinnamon as they can get.
Revolutionary Art and
The Mexican Print
(University of Texas Press)
Leopoldo Méndez spent a year or so as a teacher in villages of Central Mexico.
His main shtick, there in the sticks, was to get rid of Oscar Wilde's notion of "Art for Art's Sake." Art was, as he and Rivera and Siqueiros saw it, to free the workers, to lighten the burden of the campesinos, to uplift the poor, to unburden the rich of their excessive wealth.Méndez, Ms. Caplow convinces us, was a dedicated printmaker and painter, a self-sacrificing revolutionary, a loyal comrade, and a good friend. He comes across as self-effacing, dedicated, more interested in communicating the evils of greed and violence rather than, like Rivera, pumping up his own balloon. His most moving prints are not the sometimes crude caricatures of captains of warfare and industry, but views of the humble peasant, the worker in the field, the poor drudges in the factories, the scattered heirs of Emiliano Zapata.
He also comes across as a trooper, a charmer, a persuasive writer. During the Depression, he made his first trip to America, and recalled the wonder of being approached by a poor gringo in Arizona:
I remember a man, tall and strong, who came up to us on the street, saying, "I haven't had breakfast. I haven't eaten. Yesterday I had work and today I don't." Later he explained to us, "I dared to approach you because you are Mexican. My countrymen don't like me and won't give me anything."
On the way north, he tells of a surprising find: "The wind brought us the miasma of a nearby cadaver. With a lantern we went to look for it and ..."
I was astonished by the spectacle of a dead dog in a state of decomposition, covered by butterflies with silvery wings, carnivorous butterflies that were devouring it. What a shame! I should have made a drawing with the fresh impression of this sight. It was like a dream.
(Lonely Planet)The cover shows cheerful bearded guy lounging back, talking with a kid. There are thirty-three color photographs --- girls playing, a bird market in Kabul, the colorful Shrine of Hazrat Ali, five hearty Afghans lighting a fire under their truck on the Salang Pass "to thaw their vehicle's frozen engine." Editor Clammer says the best time to visit Afghanistan is late summer, and he speaks of the fruits of the market, sweet grapes from Shomali and "fat Kandahari pomegranates and melons everywhere."
We have to love this one because of the editor's affection for a loony country ... made even more loony by armed interventions from abroad. We also have to applaud his willingness to overlook a few problems that some of us might class as scary, if not downright dangerous. Kabul, he says, "is generally a calm city, with the greatest risk to personal safety being the insane traffic," although if you drive, it is suggested that you keep "all doors locked."
We don't recommend walking in Kabul after dark because the broken pavements present a genuine accident risk.
There is also the problem of the air, "thick with pollution from the traffic, thousands of generators and the endless dust." It results in "Kabul cough," and one is advised ultimately to seek "fresh air outside the city."
Where Have All
The Soldiers Gone?
The Transformation of
James J. Sheehan
Sheehan's thesis is simple but no doubt true, especially for those of us who recall the Cold War Years 1945 - 1990. The military horrors of WWI and WWII were so startlingly awful that when the United States and Russia squared off in 1947, the Europeans were able to give up military adventurism, leave the warring to the two great powers. Despite continuing crises in Berlin (and Cuba, and North Korea, and Viet-Nam), and while no one was looking, they created "the largest economic bloc in the world," the European Union. Its members now create
one quarter of the world's gross national product and one fifth of the world's commerce.
This wonderful novel's hero (and Where Have All the Soldiers Gone? has a narrative style and flow as rich as a great novel) is a man now barely remembered, Robert Schuman. Not the composer, dummy. His name was spelled "Schumann." The inventor of the European Union was a French foreign minister with only one "n" and no lieder at all to his name. By 1949, he and many of his peers knew that Germany's recovery "was unavoidable." With this --- and the history of so many wars --- how could France remain secure in the mid-twentieth century? The answer was simple ... and relatively small potatoes, to start with. A cartel was created to control the heavy mining and production of six countries, what was soon to be termed the Inner Six: France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Italy.
This association of nation-states, technically known as the European Coal and Steel Community, was to change the face of European power (and power-politics) forever. According to Sheehan, the ECSC created an "institutional template [that] expressed a radically new approach to the European order."
The Yiddish Policemen's Union
Harper Audio/Recorded BooksOur bruised, slightly alcoholic, melancholic detective is Meyer Landsman. He elects to solve the mystery of the murder of a Tzaddik Ha-Dor, a man who might be the messiah, if the time were right. It's not, so this one --- Mendele --- becomes a junkie who uses his tefillin for a tourniquet and plays chess for enough money for a fix. I told you it was screwy.
I also want to tell you it is plain, down-home, up-against-the-wall, out-and-out, non-stop overwhelmingly fascinating, crammed with enough tricks to remind you of the best of Nabokov. (And, like Nabokov, chess plays a central role, including an end-game with --- impossible, almost --- three white knights). It is sour, bitter, funny, filled with word- and mind-games.
In the string-maker's jargon --- Zimbalist, the man who makes it possible for the faithful to evade the Sabbath --- their women "are born pregnant." A gun is a sholem, a peacemaker. in Sitka, there is a special frequency on the shoyfer --- the mobile phones --- for Jewish mothers "to call their sons home for lunch."
Carol Brown Janeway,
(Pantheon)I can always tell when I have gone bonkers over a writer's writing when I find myself disgorging long chunks of quotes instead of tending to my knitting ... a review. Well, I just can't do it. Kehlmann's prose --- and the translation by Janeway --- is so fetching that I'm going to give up right here. Kehlmann's way with words convinces me that you and me and that dumb Don DeLillo, Sherrilyn Kenyon, Daniel Steele and any of the rest of them who presume to tell a story with a hum-drum plodding novel should be taken out, chained down and abandoned on the rocks for the hyenas and toadwort. Measuring the World is spirited, short, funny, wildly eccentric. You not only get Humboldt but shy Gauss, ancient Kant, mad Leibniz, anxious young Weber ... all seeded generously with aperçus on physics ("space was folded, bent, and extremely strange..."), aging ("How had he grown so old? One didn't feel right any more, one didn't see right any more, and one thought at a snail's pace. Aging wasn't a tragedy. It was a farce...")
And the ultimate warning on the ultimate dangers of the black hole of science: "A bearded university professor with a bald head and round spectacles presented them with a tiny glass flask containing cosmic ether that he had separated out from the atmosphere with a complicated filtration system. The little flask was so heavy that it needed to be lifted with both hands, and its contents radiated such as darkness that even at a short distance things lost their clarity."
The substance must be stored with care, said the professor, cleaning the dirty lenses of his glasses, it was extremely flammable. As for him, he'd dismounted the experiment; besides what was in the flask there was nothing left over, and he recommended it be buried deep underground. It was also better not to look at it for too long. It wasn't good for the temper.
The Sanity We Are Born With
Approach to Psychology
(Shambhala)Among patients, theoreticians, and therapists alike, there seems to be great concern with the idea of some original mistake which causes later suffering --- a kind of punishment for that mistake. One finds that a sense of guilt or being wounded is quite pervasive. Whether or not such people actually believe in the idea of original sin, or in God for that matter, they seem to feel that they have done something wrong in the past and are now being punished for it.
It seems that this feeling of basic guilt has been passed down from one generation to another and pervades many aspects of Western life ...
The problem with this notion of original sin or mistake is that it acts very much as a hindrance to people. At some point, it is of course necessary to realize one's shortcomings. But if one goes too far with that, it kills any inspiration and can destroy one's vision as well. So in that way, it really is not helpful, and in fact it seems unnecessary. As I mentioned, in Buddhism we do not have any comparable ideas of sin and guilt. Obviously there is the idea that one should avoid mistakes. But there is not anything comparable to the heaviness and inescapability of original sin.Go to the complete
(Victoria and Albert/Abrams)Adipose cherubs decorate a 16th Century candlestick from Saint-Porchaire, France. A bowl from Naples gives us a gorgeous ring of stylized angelic fat kids gathering bunches of oranges. The message, according to the editors, was E no se po mangiare senza fatiga ("Please don't eat the daisies..." oops, I mean, "If you don't work you don't get nuttin' to eat.")
Even the Holy Child was no anorexic. In a statuette from the fourteenth century, the ivory infant looks like a baby Newt Gingrich; indeed, Mary seems to be mouthing the words, "What hath God wrought?"This volume is slim but superb. It is so exquisitely laid out you want to take up residence on Cromwell Road, across from the V&A Museum, where you could go see these caskets, stained glass windows, ivory figures, bowls and diptychs, in person, daily.
There is a sad passage on the loss of so many objects d'art over the centuries. The Robespierres of the French Revolution were not all that different than China's Gang of Four: anti-intellectual slobs who destroyed a gorgeous heritage, stomped on their grandparents' artifacts, thought they were doing their heirs a favor by dumping gorgeous works of art out the windows, down the cistern, into the wells. As Diderot observed, the plebeians will forever use revolution as an exercise to destroy their own children's glorious history.
Die in Bed
Charles Yale Harrison
(Annick/Firefly)Not long ago, we reviewed The Somme by A. D. Gristwood, which told us of WWI through the eyes of the wounded (some, indeed, self-wounded ... just to get out from under. Do they still do that?) Generals Die in Bed tells of the life of those who lived and worked and suffered and died in the trenches.
There have been countless other you-are-there novels, but this is the first one that I have come across that details the shooting of a callous officer by his own troops (do they still do that?), the looting of a whole city (Arras) by the allied troops, and the looting of the incoming packages from home: "The mail for the battalion comes up. Most of the boys to whom the packages are addressed are either wounded or killed. We share them among ourselves." And, most haunting, the casual murder of young German soldiers trying to surrender:
"Bitte --- bitte (please --- please)."
Their voices are shrill. They are mostly youngsters.
They throw themselves into the crater of a shell hole. They cower there. Some of our men walk to the lip of the hole and shoot into the huddled mass of Germans. Clasped hands are held up from out of the funnel-shaped grave. The hands shake eloquently asking for pity. There is none. Our men shoot into the crater. In a few seconds only a squirming mass is left. As I pass the hole I see the lips of a few moving.
Generals Die in Bed was published in 1930. According to editor Robert Nielsen, one officer responded, "I have never read a meaner, nastier and more foul book." Another said it was "pure obscenity." Twelve years after the end of the war, a few books --- A Farewell to Arms, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Coward, The Somme were published and, for the first time, spoke of the real obscenity of those on the front lines, being forced into daily acts of carnage against their equals, against their hearts, against themselves. Generals Die in Bed is one of the great documents of the new honesty.
(Southern Methodist University Press)In 2003 we reviewed Tumbling After by Susan Parker. It told, for the first time, at least in our memory, a refreshingly direct account of one who cares for a disabled family member, in this case, Susan's husband. He was not a quadriplegic when she married him but after the bicycle accident and for the rest of his life he is just that, a man with no use of arms nor legs (nor bowel nor bladder).
Susan has apparently, over the years, cared for him lovingly and well; what she tells us of her new life is funny, tender and heart-rending. When we lose something (a part of the body; a part of our history) things can go strange. The one you married yesterday may be someone else tomorrow. To care for Ralph (or Simon, or whoever it is over there in the wheelchair) turns into a full-time job, and certainly changes your day-to-day.Some choose to take it on with patience and affection and humor. Others disappear or call in the martyr chip (or the nursing home manager). Those who choose to stay with it are part of Susan's story ... and, in this book, Ann Harleman's.
In "Thoreau's Laundry" and "Meanwhile" we encounter a husband with CPMS, chronic progressive multiple sclerosis. What's a good woman to do? According to Dr. Jacques, Simon's urologist,
Zere are two kind of woman. Zee kind which divorce zee 'andicapped and zee kind which marree zem.
Only two? No. There are others. There are those who choose to stay on with Ralph and Simon and Dan and take care of them, no matter what. And, too, there are those who choose to stay on with the Ralphs and Simons and Dans and, while ministering to them, take on another man. A lover? Yes. With guilt? Sure. With shame? Maybe. With love? Why not?Go to the complete
(Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)Anyone who has the wit to name a book of poetry --- published by the much respected Farrar, Straus, and Giroux --- Oogba-Booga has our vote. Especially one who can write the King James version of a love song to a landing field: "The East Hampton Airport is my harbor. / I shall not want..."Or, this on old man love:
I enter the jellyfish folds
Of floating fire
The mania in her labia can inspire
Extraordinary phenomena and really does cure colds.Seidel's poetry is not only passion (and airports), but love and death, with wonderful lines such as his telling us that he finds his own poetry "incomprehensible." And
I spend most of my time not dying...
I like your brain. Your pink. It's sweet...
The butterflies titter and flutter their silk fans,
End-of-summer cabbage butterflies, in white pairs.
There are times when it may get to be a bit too much, "Mother Nature went to China, / China the vagina." But we have to forgive Seidel because he is funny and sophisticated, so sophisticated that he wants to die in Paris. "I mention I am easily old enough to die:"
The value of life which will end is unbearable.
After the Fall
Poems Old and New
(University of Pittsburgh Press)His early poetry was devoted to Hollywood fare, Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Joan Crawford, Mae West. There is a touch of bitterness at what must have been the saddest realization of them all: to grow up gay in America, a place where to show one's love openly was to invite violence and arrest. Now, traveling through Turkestan, he writes,
Desolation filled me as I saw
everywhere the men
out walking, holding hands
or with arms around each other,
friends kissing on street corners.
In the 40s and 50s, he recalls, "I had suffered for nothing, / been punished for nothing. / Not only my parents had been crazy, / but where I grew up was crazy --- " Yet most of his poems are filled with a good-natured fun. In one of his funniest, he tells of leading his blind friend, "a blink," around New York, hand on shoulder, while kids are jeering, truckers leaning out of their windows to make cat-calls. There is (again) the touch of sadness, "I found / after lonely years of near suicidal misery, / my role in life, helper."