Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

‘Elegy Owed’, a Collection of Poems by Bob Hicok

‘Elegy Owed’, a Collection of Poems by Bob Hicok  (2013) – 106 pages

It is so rare when I find a poet whose poems I really like so that when I do, I want to shout about it from the rooftop.  Today I am here on the top of the roof shouting the name of Bob Hicok and his offbeat collection of poems, ‘Elegy Owed’.


Let’s start with some lines from the poem ‘Goodbye, topspin’.

 But nostalgia:

go to hell.


Not going to do that.


Not going to be a lamprey on the side of the past, sucking for dear life,

           Since I have had

and am having a dear life.

 The above lines show at least two qualities of the poetry of Bob Hicok.  First, there is a toughness here.  Second, the poet frequently ties in animals and plants and other facets of nature to make his points.

Many of the poems in ‘Elegy Owed’ concern death.  I am almost tempted to say that ‘Elegy Owed’ is a collection of playful poems about death, but that would not be exactly right.  The collection certainly takes death seriously, but the poet has a dexterity with words that makes even this most grim of subjects engaging. The poem ‘Coming to Life’ is about a very young boy’s early encounter with death.  His aunt has died.  This may or may not be a big deal for the boy.  However for his crying mother this is her sister and very well could have been her best friend.  As they pass the coffin, the boy’s mother kisses her sister on both cheeks and says something in her ear.  Then the mother takes the boy’s hand and puts it on her dead sister’s face.  Much later, the grown-up boy remembers this.

It was just that, in the silence of her skin, all possibilities had been taken away. 

  I don’t want to leave you with the impression this is all gloom and doom.  Even in the face of bad things like death and rape, life goes on.  That is where the toughness comes in.  There are many lines here that are just for fun.  Take these from ‘You Name This One’.

Or when

 I realized ‘she loves me, she loves me not’

 explains why daisies avoid us

 as often as they can, I say ‘Run, simple flower,

 away from my need to know

 anything at all, everything

 would be better’.

  There are many more examples I could have quoted.  I am not sure the above cover picture does this collection justice, although apparently it is trying to inject some humor into the elegy motif.

At least I didn’t fall off the roof this time.


‘In the Cage’, A Memorable Novella by Henry James

‘In the Cage’ by Henry James (1898) – 138 pages


mzi.ajcmgzft.340x340-75The novellas of Henry James are a good way into his fiction, and ‘In the Cage’, written in 1898 which is quite late in his career, serves as a gateway to his later major works.  The story here is more rooted and down-to-earth than in other of his work and is thus more approachable.

A nameless young woman works in a separate area of a grocery store, in the cage, preparing telegrams for customers. She is not really that young, perhaps about 25 years old.  She is engaged to Mr. Mudge, the grocery store manager.  Mr. Mudge is a man on the rise hoping to manage five grocery stores in the near future.  However our young woman is hopelessly bored with his scrupulous attention to all the mundane everyday details of running grocery stores.

So what does fascinate our young telegraph operator?  That would be her job or at least certain aspects of her job.  The people who send telegrams are the social elite of the town to arrange their hotels and travel plans.  Even though the lowly telegraph operators are supposed to feign disinterest in the subject matter of these telegrams, they can not help but find out intriguing and salacious details of their customers’ lives.   For example the married Lady Bradeen arranges assignations with the dashing young man Captain Everard.  They each often come separately in to the telegraph office to arrange the times and the places for their secret trysts.  The telegraph girl looks on in wonder at the illicit doings of these rich people.

 “What twisted the knife in her vitals was the way the profligate rich scattered about them, in extravagant chatter over their extravagant pleasures and sins, an amount of money that would have held the stricken household of her frightened childhood, her poor pinched mother and tormented father and lost brother and starved sister, together for a lifetime.”

Our young telegraph operator takes a personal interest in making sure all the details are correct in the telegrams which these two lovers send. She is captivated by their social lives and romance.

Captain Everard is not upper class himself.  One day our telegraph operator meets him on the street as she is going home from work.  They sit together on a bench and share some moments holding hands.

I will not reveal any more of the plot.

I’ve read a fair amount of the fiction of Henry James, and found ‘In the Cage’ refreshing in that it did not seem so precious or convoluted as some of his other work.  It is a straightforward story of a young working class woman being very practical in arranging her own future yet enamored of a style of life that is beyond her reach.

I must say that the four major characters in ‘In the Cage’, Mr. Mudge and Lady Bradeen and Captain Everard  and most of all the telegraph woman, are presented in dramatic and sympathetic fashion, and this short novel is a joy to read.


‘Three Brothers’ by Peter Ackroyd

Three Brothers’ by Peter Ackroyd  (2014) – 246 pages


The growing up of three brothers may not be an earth-shattering subject for a novel, but it could have been a fascinating account of how three sons raised in similar circumstances could turn out so unalike.  I began this novel hoping this actually was the story of three brothers growing up in London.

I grew up in a family in which the only children were us three sons.  From an outsider’s point of view, we three brothers may bear a family resemblance and thus seem quite similar.  However from the inside of our family looking out, it is obvious that we three brothers are quite different from each other, millions of miles apart in personality, attitude, and our very being.

The three brothers in ‘Three Brothers’ also grow up totally dissimilar from each other.  The oldest, Harry, marries into money and finds success on Fleet Street in London as a journalist.  The middle son, Daniel, is gay, doesn’t marry, and becomes a noted literary academic.  The youngest, Sam, is a ne’er-do-well who can’t hold a steady job, but has a special quality that makes him likeable.

The novel starts out strong delineating these different traits of the three brothers.  We also learn some of the family back story.  Their father wanted to be a writer but ultimately settled as a nightwatchman.  Their mother suddenly walked out on the family while the boys were still in grade school.  The beginning of the novel built up my expectations that this would be an involving story of how three very different brothers live in London and interact.

However, about a third of the way through any attempt at character study is forsaken, and the novel becomes mired in this labyrinthine contrived plot involving news magnates, professors, crooked landlords, and prostitutes. Apparently the only way to bring these three brothers back together into this plot is by the sheerest chance.   When coincidence is used as a plot device, the readers know they are in trouble, and coincidence is used all over the place in this novel.   Perhaps the point Ackroyd is trying to make is that for natives, London is a small town and its inhabitants run into each by accident all the time.  I don’t believe that for a moment.

Since Ackroyd evidently gave up on this novel being any kind of character study, all we are left with is this unsatisfying complicated plot that really has nothing substantial to do with the three brothers.  Without a specific subject, the novel is supposed to have a grand subject like the city of London.    However I’ve been to London, and London deserves much more than this cobbled story.


“Marry Me” by Dan Rhodes

“Marry Me” by Dan Rhodes  (2013) –  174 pages

Marry Me Cover

The men in ‘Marry Me’ by Dan Rhodes tend to have star-dazed love-struck attitudes toward marriage such as “I can’t believe I’m going to marry the girl of my dreams.”  However the women are more realistic, saying “It’s a legal procedure.  Let’s just get through it with the minimum of fuss.”

‘Marry Me’ is a fun little book of 79 very short stories, each about as long as this post, on love and marriage.  Each of these stories will put a smile on your face especially if you’ve gone through the marriage process yourself. The book is deadpan, wry, and cynical. It is an extremely quick read and a most enjoyable way to pass a couple hours.

‘The Spinning Heart’ by Donal Ryan – The New Dark Ages in Ireland

‘The Spinning Heart’ by Donal Ryan  (2012) – 156 pages


In times of extreme economic downturn, the lives and attitudes of the people regress to an earlier more brutal stage.  Witness the severe George W. Bush recession in the United States and the subsequent rise of the Tea Party.  Some aspiring dictators have even deliberately destroyed their countries’ economies in order to make their people more subservient and to ensure there are plenty of unemployed young men available for military service.

The evidence in ‘The Spinning Heart’ indicates that with their economic downturn, the lives of the people of Ireland have returned to the Dark Ages, not only economically but also socially.  It starts with the workmen discovering that their foreman, Pokey Burke, has absconded with all their pension and Social Security money and also leaving them without a job.  They were taken for fools, and they react violently.

 “Auld Mickey Briars lamped Timmy Hanrahan twice across both sides of his innocent head before we subdued him.”

I doubt if there is a Pokey Burke in every small town in Ireland who stole all the people’s money.  There are larger economic forces, more sinister villains, at work at a national or global level.  It is just easier to blame all the problems on one of your own.

‘The Spinning Heart’ is divided into twenty-one chapters, each told by a different person from a village in western Ireland.  We get the same story from numerous different angles.  There are so many points of view that the story is not entirely coherent; the novel is more like a chorus, an Irish chorus, of voices.

Life goes on even without a job.  Some of the young guys are headed off to Australia, some to England.  Some of them stay, their heads filled with bitterness and resentment.  Their talk turns to girls, and who is ‘tapping’ who.  There is little talk of birth control here, and the only mention is when a  young woman stops using it without telling her boyfriend.  Usually the men here don’t care.  Generally the women in this novel are happy to have his baby even if their man is long gone.  I did not say this novel is realistic; supposedly these are the old Irish ways.  It gives the villagers something to gossip about.

‘The Spinning Heart’ is quite mean-spirited about everyone except its hero, Bobby Mahon.  This may be just because of the whole chorus of voices who are only repeating gossip and hear-say.  It also may be the result of the downshift in people’s lives caused by the bad times; the need to blame someone.  There is a lot of lashing out here.

I suppose ‘The Spinning Heart’ may be an accurate picture of village life in western Ireland today.  It is not a pretty picture.


‘Byzantium’ by Ben Stroud

‘Byzantium’, stories by Ben Stroud (2013) – 206 pages


When our thoughts turn to historical fiction, we usually think of long epic novels which evoke a particular time and place in history.  However several of the stories in ‘Byzantium’ show us that historical fiction can also be in the short story form.

Did you know that the Emperor Constantine I moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Byzantium in 330 AD and renamed the city Constantinople?  In 1923 the city was again renamed to its modern name Istanbul.  It must have been an incredible move to take the entire government of the empire from Rome to what is now Turkey.

The ten stories in ‘Byzantium’ have the depth and density of a novel yet also contain the individualized point of view of a short story.  The stories range from ancient Roman times to modern times, from ancient Byzantium to east Texas.  Even though the settings for the stories are wide ranging, they get down to the specifics of individuals and the relationships between them. We get inside the head of the main character in each story.

The stories are outdoor and action-oriented.   They are not drawing room comedies.  If I sense a weakness in the author, it is in dialogue.  Don’t look for witty repartee here.  Stroud is no Oscar Wilde; the dialogue is more suited for stone tablets rather than for the stage.

However the stories are extremely well presented and are evidence of a vivid imagination.  Ben Stroud does an excellent job of framing each story to fully capture its significance for the readers.

A particular favorite of mine is ‘At Boquillas’ which takes place along the shallow Rio Grande border between Mexico and the United States.  A modern-day young husband and wife confront their marital difficulties.    Getting out of a failed marriage may be as easy and as momentous as walking across the shallow water into Mexico.

‘Byzantium’ is a strong collection of offbeat and vastly different stories.


‘Bark’ by Lorrie Moore

‘Bark’ by Lorrie Moore (2014) – 192 pages


Sincerity is something a lot of writers can do.  In fact the writing world is drowning in sincerity.  That is why I appreciate Lorrie Moore who interrupts her stories with edgy silly jokes.  Take this line about a woman singer who was booed by her audience.

 “Despised especially were her hip-hop renditions of Billy Joel and Neil Young (she was once asked to sing down by the river, and she thought they’d meant the song).”    

 But sharp humor is a young person’s game.  As time goes on, life gets all too serious, sometimes even desolate.    There are illnesses, failed relationships, divorce, bad jobs, severe recessions, unnecessary wars, despicable politicians, deaths of loved ones.  How does one keep a sense of humor?

Lorrie Moore made her name with sharp stories containing wicked sardonic humor.  In ‘Bark’ the humor is still there, but the stories also deal with the calamities listed above.  This is a high wire act, combining jokes with despair, and sometimes Moore does not fall.

 “ ‘Marriage is one long conversation,’ wrote Robert Louis Stevenson. Of course, he died when he was forty-four, so he had no idea how long the conversation could really get to be.”

However sometimes things get disjointed.  My example is the first story in this collection, a long story called ‘Debarking’.  Ira has been divorced for six months and is rather desperate for a relationship.  He gets involved with a woman named Zora who is a friend of a friend.  It turns out Zora has a fifteen year old son Bruny whom she is constantly nudging, wrestling, and physically teasing. Soon Ira realizes that Zora ‘might not be all that mentally well’. This story is played mostly for laughs but could easily go the other way.  I applaud Moore for putting such unusual characters and situations in her stories.    

Throughout this collection there is a mixture of laughter and sadness, and sometimes they go together uneasily. 

 “A woman had to choose her own particular unhappiness carefully.”

Sometimes it feels like Moore is trying to accomplish too much with each story including social satire, political commentary, humor, emotion, and poignancy.  That probably is better than attempting too little. 

‘Travels With My Aunt’ by Graham Greene

‘Travels With My Aunt’ by Graham Greene  (1969) – 244 pages


Reading a Graham Greene novel is for me like meeting a dear old friend again.  I have a strong liking for Greene’s writing and have read most of his work. 

There are a couple of reasons I had not read ‘Travels With My Aunt’ before.  First the title wrongly suggested to me that this might not be fiction and might instead be some dreaded memoir.  I’m no fan of memoirs generally.  Also I erroneously thought that ‘Travels With My Aunt’ was one of the last works by Greene, and I have not had good luck with the last works of prolific authors.  Only today did I find out that he wrote several of his best novels including ‘The Human Factor’ and ‘The Honorary Counsel’ after ‘Travels With My Aunt’.  For whatever reason, I still find the title ‘Travels With My Aunt’ anomalous among the titles of his novels in its personal reference   However the number of Graham Greene novels I haven’t read is dwindling down to a precious few, and it was time for ‘Travels’.

‘Travels With My Aunt’ is a fun good-natured comedy by Greene, perhaps not as edgy as some of his other books.

The main character in this novel is Englishman Henry Pulling.  He has recently retired from his life’s work as an accountant.  He has never married, and now that he is retired his main interest is tending his garden of dahlias.  The novel begins on the day of his mother’s funeral.  His aunt Augusta shows up at the funeral, and she turns Henry’s world upside down or right side up as the case may be.

Aunt Augusta’s life is entirely different from Henry’s sedate life.  She is a free spirit living her life to the fullest.

 “I despise no one, no one.  Regret your own actions, if you like that kind of wallowing in self pity, but never, never despise.” - Aunt Augusta in ‘Travels With My Aunt’

Soon they are travelling to Paris, Istanbul, Argentina, and Paraguay on missions involving mysterious gentlemen, jewels, and government intrigue. 

I found ‘Travels With My Aunt’ a merry romp of a novel, but perhaps not quite as dramatic as some of Greene’s other work. However a technique is used in this novel that I hadn’t seen before.  A secret becomes apparent to the readers early in the novel.  We wait for the main character Henry Pulling to figure it out, but he never does.

I would not recommend ‘Travels With My Aunt’ as a book to start with in reading Graham Greene.  Better books to start with would be ‘The Heart of the Matter’, ‘Our Man in Havana’, ‘A Burnt-Out Case’, or, above all, ‘Brighton Rock’.   There are any number of other fine Greene novels to start with, but ‘Travels With My Aunt’ isn’t one of them.

However I do recommend that you start reading Graham Greene if you haven’t already.   I should mention that I am a fallen-out Protestant and still hold this most Catholic of novelists, Graham Greene, in highest esteem.

‘The UnAmericans’ by Molly Antopol

‘The UnAmericans’ by Molly Antopol  (2014) – 258 pages


Listen carefully to the stories you hear from your relatives and friends.  Some day a few of those stories might make great fiction.

The stories in ‘The UnAmericans’ seem to be the result of listening closely to family stories.  Some of the stories go back to the old European world while others take place in the modern world of the United States and Israel.  These stories capture the poignancy and emotion of the lives of the people in them over time.

Molly Antopol is one of the 2013 ‘5 Under 35’ fiction writers selected by the National Book Foundation.

All of the stories in ‘The UnAmericans’ are strong, but in order to give you a better idea what this collection is like, I will focus on a single story.  In ‘The Quietest Man’, a father finds out that his 24 year old daughter has written a play about her family which is to be performed in New York City.  The father is terribly anxious to find out what is in the play, because he is divorced from his wife and estranged from his daughter. When his daughter visits him, he recalls times over the years when he was less than a good father  The story goes all the way back to Prague, Czechoslovakia when he and his wife were young, and their daughter was born.   It tells about the reason they left Prague, their life in the states, the marriage falling apart, the strained relationship between father and daughter.  As the story ends, we find out the plot of the daughter’s play.

When one reads this story, one can’t help but think of the young Molly Antopol writing stories about her own family.  I suppose most authors face this dilemma of including the traits or the past of people close to them in their fiction.

Some of the stories begin in Belarus or in Kiev, Ukraine and wind up in either the United States or Israel.  Except for the Native Americans, most of us who live in the United States are UnAmericans in that the stories of our families begin long ago and far away. If there are any pictures from the old times left, these ancient family members may bear an uncanny resemblance to us.

Each of the stories has as much substance as a novella, yet is only about 30 pages long.   These stories in ‘The UnAmericans’ are so well-written and moving, they reaffirm my faith in the short story form.  Adam Johnson describes Molly Antopol as “a writer of seismic talent”, and I agree.

Molly Antopol is at work on a novel tentatively titled ‘The After Party’.

W. H. Auden and the Great Divide Between People


Here is a fascinating article in the New York Review of Books this week called The Secret Auden by Edward Mendelson.  Unlike so many articles today, this one does not reveal the secret vices of a famous person.  Instead this article reveals the kind acts of generosity that W. H Auden did but kept hidden from the public.

 But the main point of the article is to show us W. H. Auden’s views of life and of people.   Auden was a sensitive supremely intelligent man who was able to put the whole world into his poems.

“Evil is unspectacular and always human,
And shares our bed and eats at our own table …”
                                            ‘Herman Melville’, by W. H. Auden

The key time in our world history is just after World War II.   Civilization had just been through two major wars, the second much worse than the first. Auden said, ‘War may be necessary, but it is still murder.’  Many people were pessimistic that a third world war, much worse than the second, was inevitable.    Auden addressed this fear with the following lines.

“More than ever
life-out-there is goodly, miraculous, loveable,
but we shan’t, not since Stalin and Hitler,
trust ourselves ever again: we know that, subjectively,
all is possible.”

‘The Cave of Making’ by W. H. Auden

Somehow we have muddled through these almost seventy years since World War II without that third world war occurring, although we have built and stockpiled the weapons for it.

As Mendelson points out in his article, there are two sides to our current argument, two ways of looking at things.  Since Mendelson presents this idea so persuasively, I will let him explain.

By refusing to claim moral or personal authority, Auden placed himself firmly on one side of an argument that pervades the modern intellectual climate but is seldom explicitly stated, an argument about the nature of evil and those who commit it.

On one side are those who, like Auden, sense the furies hidden in themselves, evils they hope never to unleash, but which, they sometimes perceive, add force to their ordinary angers and resentments, especially those angers they prefer to think are righteous. On the other side are those who can say of themselves without irony, “I am a good person,” who perceive great evils only in other, evil people whose motives and actions are entirely different from their own. This view has dangerous consequences when a party or nation, having assured itself of its inherent goodness, assumes its actions are therefore justified, even when, in the eyes of everyone else, they seem murderous and oppressive.

One of many forms this argument takes is a dispute over the meaning of the great totalitarian evils of the twentieth century: whether they reveal something about all of humanity or only about the uniquely evil leaders, cultures, and nations that committed them.”

                             ‘The Secret Auden’, Edward Mendelson

So here is the great divide between people.  The members of one group say, without irony, ‘We are good persons and it is all those other evil people that are causing all the trouble’.  However the members of the second group say, ‘We ourselves, as well as everyone else, have the potential to commit evil.  It is up to each of us to curb our own evil instincts.’

AudenVanVechten1939Auden and I strongly support the second group.  If Hitler and all the Nazis could have figured out for one second that they themselves were the problem, tens of millions of people would not have had to die in World War II.

Over the last few days, I’ve discovered much more in Auden’s poems than his views of evil and good.  Only now am I beginning to realize the full extent of his accomplishment.

Another line from Auden seems appropriate here.

“You shall love your crooked neighbour, with your crooked heart.”

             ‘As I Walked Out One Evening’ by W. H. Auden

‘Strange Bodies’ by Marcel Theroux – A Novel with a Split Personality

‘Strange Bodies’ by Marcel Theroux (2014) – 292 pages


‘Strange Bodies’ starts out as a literary mystery and then changes into a science fiction caper.  Somewhere during the transformation the novel lost me, because the two parts were not joined together particularly well at all.

Nicholas Slopen is a literary academic specializing in the 18th century and in particular Samuel Johnson, the great English man of letters and creator of  ‘A Dictionary of the English Language’.  Slopen is asked to authenticate some essays purportedly written by Johnson.  These are essays that have never before come to light, so Slopen is excited to have the chance to read them.  After a thorough examination of the essays, Slopen is ready to validate them as the work of Samuel Johnson only to notice that the paper they are written on would not have been available in Johnson’s time.

So who wrote these essays?  That is the central literary mystery here.  I suppose many readers would be impatient with all this talk of Samuel Johnson and such, but for me that was the most interesting part of the novel.  

Just as I was settling in, the novel turns into a futuristic science fiction chase involving wild Russian experiments into the resuscitation of human lives.  When the book left the literary world, I found that I did not care enough for the present-day characters in order to sustain my interest.   

The chief concern of the second half of the novel is the Malevin Procedure which is a wild-eyed technique for implanting the writings and thoughts of one person into another.  Samuel Johnson may be worthy of this procedure, but others in this novel are not.   We are not given a detailed enough description of how the procedure is actually implemented.  The procedure itself is incomplete, and the result is a mixture of before and after.      

I suppose that the main problem with the novel is that the chief character, Nicholas Slopen, is never developed into someone we empathize with.  First he is an academic authenticating someone else’s writings.  There is a half-hearted attempt to give him a wife and two children which is rather unconvincing.

I must admit that science fiction is usually not my genre of choice, although I have enjoyed several of the classics such as ‘The Martian Chronicles’, ‘We’, and ‘Brave New World’ in the past.   ‘Strange Bodies’ seems to have a split personality.  Somehow I don’t believe that it takes its science at all seriously beyond putting its characters in motion.

‘The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel’ by Magdalena Zyzak

‘The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel’ by Magdalena Zyzak  (2014) – 269 pages


Here we have a ribald comic folk tale from the imaginary Slavic nation of Scalvusia about young pig farmer Barnabas Pierkiel and his quest for the beautiful gypsy Roosha Papusha. He first encounters Roosha in her garden bending over as she pulls out weeds, and “his beloved’s buttocks glared at him through a cloche of heaped skirts.”

What is special about ‘The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel’ is that it is written in the fashion of those wonderful novels from the 17th and 18th centuries such as ‘Tristam Shandy’ and ‘Don Quixote’ and ‘Candide’ and ‘Gulliver’s Travels’.  Each chapter has a subtitle such as ‘In which two friends become friendlier in a shed’ or ‘In which Apollonia divulges her secret’.  My favorite chapter subtitle is ‘In which too much transpires to be summed up’. 

To have a modern novel written in this old manner is a delight.  It has been so long since a modern novel has been written in this classic style that it comes across as new and different and unique.  Magdalena also pulls off the archaic language and the bizarre plot of a twisted folktale well.    

This absurd bawdy farce takes place in this backward town of Odolechka just before World War II, and the Germans are on the verge of invading.   We meet the mayor, the mayor’s wife, the police chief, the priest, as well as many others.  All are town characters in one way or another.        

The distinctive classical style and Magdalena Zyzak’s wicked sense of humor make this novel great fun at first.   Zyzak has pulled this madcap folk comedy off for about 150 pages. However the novel is 269 pages long. It loses some of its comic energy during the last half.  Too many characters from the town are introduced, and many are not defined sharply or rudely enough to be funny.  This is broad humor, and it probably could have been limited to 10 or 12 well-defined characters.

Despite not being entirely satisfied with ‘The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel’, I believe that Magdalena Zyzak is a novelist to watch in the future.  It is her willingness and ability to attempt something different from the crowd that makes her fascinating.

A Descent Due to Alcohol

The Drinker’ by Hans Fallada (1950) – 282 pages

Translated by Charlotte and A. L. Lloyd


There are two distinct sides to German writer Hans Fallada. In ‘Every Man Dies Alone’ (also called ‘Alone in Berlin’), he wrote what Primo Levi called “the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis”. That is a wrenching powerful account of what Berlin was like for working class people during the Nazi era. Fallada wrote it soon after the end of World War II shortly before he died.

‘The Drinker’, another of his novels, captures the other side of Hans Fallada. It was written in an encrypted notebook by him while he was locked up in an asylum for the criminally insane in the early 1940s. He was locked up, because he had made drunken threats with a gun against his ex-wife during an alcohol-fueled nervous breakdown.

‘The Drinker’ tells the story of one man’s descent due to alcohol. While it certainly is fiction and written as a novel, one gets the sense while reading that this is very much Fallada’s own story. The first part of the novel is about the drinking taking over this man’s life, and the second part is about life in the asylum.

“This place was horrible with its filth and meanness and envy, but that is how it was, and what was the use of rebelling against it? We prisoners, we patients, were not worth it.”

Lately the subject of American writers and alcohol has been up for discussion due to the recent book, ‘‘The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking” by Olivia Laing. The case of Hans Fallada would suggest that alcoholism is a problem not only for American writers.

‘The Drinker’ very much reminded me of the novel, ‘Disturbing the Peace’, by American writer Richard Yates. Like Han Fallada, Richard Yates had a form of alcoholism that went well beyond the fashionable. His alcoholism was also mixed in with bouts of psychosis and depression. At age 34, he spent one weekend in the Men’s Violence Ward of Bellevue Hospital in New York. He put that weekend into his novel ‘Disturbing the Peace’.

‘Disturbing the Peace’ was the first novel by Richard Yates that I read, so this searing account of an alcoholic has always had a special place in my memory. Since then I’ve read all of Richard Yates’ fiction. Recently I came across a critic saying that ‘Disturbing the Peace’ is one of Yates’ lesser novels, and I don’t believe that critic for a second.

falladaThe style of ‘The Drinker’ is much different from the style of ‘Disturbing the Peace’; they are very different writers. ‘The Drinker’ captures a bit of the humor of the drinking episodes, while ‘Disturbing the Peace’ is more heartfelt and sincere. What Hans Fallada and Richard Yates share is a brutal accuracy about themselves. Perhaps that honesty gave them the empathy and insight into the plights of other people so they could get beyond their walls and deceptions and reach the real story.

Staying Alive – Real Poems for Unreal Times

‘Staying Alive – Real Poems for Unreal Times’, a poetry anthology edited by Neil Astley (2002) – 496 pages


 ‘A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great.’  – Randall Jarrell  

‘Publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose-petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.’ – Don Marquis


I finally discovered a poetry anthology that works for me, ‘Staying Alive’ which is edited by Neil Astley,  I admit I’m late to the party, since this book was published way back in 2002 and has already sold over 200,000 copies in Great Britain alone.  However this book of poems is so powerful, I consider myself fortunate to have discovered it even now at this late point, better late than never.

Too many anthologies seem to be written more for the poets who appear in their pages rather than for the people actually reading the poems.  I’ve read anthologies where none of the poems hits home.  If I don’t discover even one poem which strikes me or stays in my mind, that anthology is a failure for me.

‘Staying Alive’ takes a different approach which can best be summed up by its subtitle: ‘Real Poems for Unreal Times’.  The focus here is on the reader.  These are contemporary poems written since 1900.  Many of the poets are justly famous like Robert Frost, T. S Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop, and Philip Larkin.  Yet there are many other lesser known poets as well. The amazing thing is that many of the poems by the less famous poets rival the classics.  This anthology gives a good sense of the continuation of poetry from the early twentieth century until now.  It may have been helpful to know the year each poem was first published, but in this book the emphasis is on the words of the poem itself.    

Neil Astley founded his poetry publishing house Bloodaxe Books in England in 1982.  At least since then he has been devoted to finding and publishing other people’s good poems. He has played a fundamental role in getting new poets published and in increasing the audience for poetry.

‘Staying Alive’ is divided into twelve sections with such section names as ‘Body and Soul’, ‘Roads and Journeys’, and ‘Bittersweet’.  Each section starts with a short explanatory note from Astley. Of course the poems don’t always fit neatly in to their categories or fit into more than one category,

I’m not going to quote individual poems here, but I will list a few from the book which particularly impressed me.

 ‘Wild Geese’ by Mary Oliver (Page 28)         (This poem has a place of honor in the book as the first poem and the only poem that is outside of all of the twelve sections of the book.)

‘And the Days Are Not Full Enough’ by Ezra Pound (Page 130)

‘I, Too’ by Langston Hughes (Page 326)

‘The Moose’ by Elizabeth Bishop  (Page 87)

   ‘The Door’ by Kapka Kassabova (Page 70)

‘Consider the Grass Growing’ by Patrick Kavanaugh (Page 455)

‘Staying Alive’ is a book that I will pick up occasionally whenever I want to discover another good poem or poems or to reread an old poem I particularly like.  It was followed by two more major anthologies also edited by Neil Astley, ‘Being Alive’ and ‘Being Human’, both of which I’ve added to my future gift wish list.

I would recommend ‘Staying Alive’ to anyone who already has an appreciation for poetry and wants to discover more poems or anyone who wants to develop a taste for poetry.

‘Dept. of Speculation’ by Jenny Offill

‘Dept. of Speculation’ by Jenny Offill  (2014)  – 177 pages

 ‘’Up until the seventeenth century, it was widely believed that magnets had souls.  How else could an object attract and repel?”  

17402288If you are looking for a traditional novel with a structured plot and endearing characters, avoid ‘Dept. of Speculation’ by Jenny Offill like the plague.  But if you can handle more modern offbeat fare, ‘Dept. of Speculation’ might be just the novel for you.

This novel is a collage type work with short paragraphs containing as the title indicates speculation, brief images and insights, facts, and literary tidbits on the order of ‘Speedboat’ by Renata Adler or the works of David Markson.  It is a slim novel, and I found it well worth the little time spent.

Take the following lines from ‘Dept. of Speculation’:

“What Keats said: No such thing as the world becoming an easy place to save you soul in.” 

Many people really do not care what Keats said. However I found this line and the many others like it fascinating. 

There is a story here about the birth and young childhood of a daughter and then a marriage unraveling.  Fortunately the patchwork of bits in ‘Dept of Speculation’ do add up to a coherent story, not like some of David Markson’s later novels which seem to have no point beyond the fascinating quotes and facts themselves.

 “There is a picture of my mother holding me as a baby, a look of naked love on her face.  For years, it embarrassed me.  Now there is a picture of me with my daughter looking exactly the same way.”

One of her definitions struck a little too close to home.  “Art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things.  Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella.”  ‘Art Monster’ fits the person I am a little too close for comfort.

I suppose ‘Dept. of Speculation’ would be classified in the category of Post-Modernism.  Some people reject even the modern, let alone the post-modern, out of hand.  All I can say is that I found ‘Dept. of Speculation’ original, insightful, and rewarding     


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