Monday, February 12, 2024

The NIght Before The Day On Which, by Jean Day


This is the first book of hers in which Jean Day’s work finally “kicked in” for me at a higher level of connection and understanding. Her poems have always been evocative, disruptive, oddly bent, never going where I imagine them going, Ashbery-like in their elusiveness. But somehow The Night Before The Day On Which is the one in which I could feel all the writing in the book gathering together into something that felt cohesive, a vast yet tight pattern, however much any given line turned away from a previous line.

A twisting and twisted Americana.

There’s something about the accumulation of one detail after another, of metaphors that jump away from each other, that add up to a world view that I can feel as connected, a strange mesh of identifiable context. It’s a context that reaches far into the past, that branches out into speculation and query, and and yet still always has a firm, even harsh, critique of the limits that people and their values impose on each other, now, here, and in other times and places: Inside the kernel’s a tiny game.

You can hear a Timex pound fifty feet away

It’s not music

not even microscopic

but plain speeches of the fish and branches

of LaCrosse, Wisconsin

midway across the Miss.

from a circus of fleas

to flat-out wilderness

Our foes

don’t want us in their schools “No worries.”

God has decided to withdraw his tiny hands (p. 54) There’s a incisive take on politics and culture throughout the book, especially if you can imagine what it might feel like to be a nested doll stuck inside another nested doll, layer after layer, none of us ever getting free, each one of us brilliantly done up for a festival of the freedom of lights that is often promised but never arrives. In the poems, I feel myself present in many contexts of struggling to understand, of not always knowing what I don’t know or what I might know, of not becoming what I might. In a way, these are tragic poems, but not of the obvious kind, sort of like a tragedy you didn’t know was a tragedy until long after it happened. There’s a lot of space out there in the world, both inside and outside the human, but the openness that one might imagine from it feels, in this powerful book, almost endlessly deferred.

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Doppelgänger by Daša Drndić


I’m not opposed to “depressing” books. When people complain that a book is depressing, I usually like to say that one of the key things about literature is that it can explore the full range of human experience, and some human experiences are very sad.

That said: wow, Doppelgänger is a depressing book. It combines two novellas focusing on several central characters struggling with age, bodily collapse, and suicidal impulses. They’ve been mistreated by others, including often enough their families. They’ve been abused by the Nazis or post-WWII Eastern European communists or (lucky people) both. They live in cold places and in various degrees poor and sometimes disgusting environments among broken things that don’t work. They’re not even good people really, although they do helpful things a few times maybe among many other unhelpful things. There are going to be some moments of hopes and dreams and glimmers of possibility in each tale, but not many. 

What made it possible for me to read this book was the humor (no kidding; it’s frequently hilarious), the tight, high energy sentences, and many of the genuinely brilliant and compassionate (if often enough unbearable) insights into human behavior and the failing of the human body. What made it full of surprises were the clearly experimental, avant context-jumping and formal oddities. There’s an amazing long section that comes from who knows where (but belongs perfectly) about Foucault and Althusser, and a long list-like conversation about artists and suicide. There’s not a huge amount of narrative tension to take anybody’s mind off the relentless trouble of the characters, not much dramatic conflict (though there’s plenty of conflict as such) to take readers away from the cold facts. You can put up with it or put it down. When reading it I often couldn’t stop, it was that compelling. But when I would stop, I often wasn’t sure I wanted to start again.

The author Daša Drndić, a Croatian who died in 2018, called it her “ugly little book.” It is truly almost unremittingly ugly. But not entirely ugly somehow, as trying to tell the truth can never be an entirely ugly desire, and because laughing at or with the worst things possible makes them more possible to bear. I can’t say I would recommend Doppelgänger to anybody who isn’t prepared for what they’re going to read. But I can’t say I’m going to forget it, either. There are a lot of books that are more easily enjoyable that I barely remember at all.

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Terence Winch: Seeing-Eye Boy and Celtic Thunder: Live in Concert 1978-2018


While there are certainly numerous artists who dabble in an art form other than their main one, having a long-run history of excellence in more than one art form is a rarity.

With 30 plus years work as both a musician and a writer, Terence Winch is one of the few people to have such a history. The music on Celtic Thunder: Live in Concert 1978-2018 was released this year, and features many high points for that long-running East Coast band, one of the best American bands to be focused on Celtic music.

And just a few weeks ago, I finally had time to read Seeing-Eye Boy (published in 2020 by Four Windows Press), Winch’s novel about growing up Irish in the Bronx in the 1950s. As an author, Winch is mostly known for his many excellent books of poetry, and he is also the author of two books of short stories. Seeing-Eye Boy is his first novel though, and it shows that he is highly capable of doing more artistic things very well than people even knew.

The novel balances careful realism and Irish and Irish-America history and folk history and ultimately manages a rough-hewn and even feel-good tale about growing up that never becomes either fantasy or nostalgia. As a narrative about Irish-American life, there are very few works I can think of that might be a match for it. The novel never stops being both informative and enjoyable. It does a great job of mixing its pain and its pleasure, which as everybody already knows, is what Irish folk music too is all about.

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Poor Gal: The Cultural History of Little Liza Jane by Dan Gutstein

My junior high delinquent suburban punk jock hockey player going-nowhere-fast friend Dan Gutstein, former scourge of Silver Spring playgrounds, who somehow has become the author of books of poetry and fiction and has been the lead singer of a jazz punk band that has “won awards” and been featured on NPR and who has a significant feature in a National Geographic episode on rats not of the human kind, although he knows a lot about both, and who fritters away everything sensible people are supposed to do and has worked all kinds of short term, who-are-you-kidding jobs from farm work to assistant professorships, who was turned down when he tried to join the Merchant Marine, who spent a year in Northern California and nearly froze indoors, who once asked a Provost in a job interview “What does a Provost do?” and who one year was declared the “hottest professor in America” by Rate My and experienced his own personal warming event, has now also somehow become the author of a scholarly work on a fascinating and little known portion of the history of American music.

Poor Gal from the University Press of Mississippi traces the history of the song and character “Little Liza Jane,” who not entirely unlike Dan has danced and sung her way across much of the history of America and American music.

And to think I once let this guy housesit my place and he went through all my clothes and drank my expensive, high-alcohol beer without knowing what it was. What was I doing? This is not a man who can be trusted. Why am I his friend? Because he doesn’t like the word hockey and prefers the Canadian term “shinny”? At least he once sent me an 8-CD homemade anthology on the history of jump blues. Why does he keep writing these books that no one expects him to write and that other people want to publish and read? I have no idea. But I’m telling you: if he comes to town, steer clear, because you have no idea what might happen next. The book can be purchased from the press at this link and of course from other online sources as well:

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Commentary on Robert Stone's Damascus Gate

Published in 1998, this novel obviously has nothing directly to say about events in the Middle East in October and November 2023. At the same time, the portrait it offers of life in contemporary Israel shows the social and political forces struggling in the region to be very similar to those of right now. Life in Israel has a long history, and the stakes that people have in it have a history that’s just as long.

The book is centered on events in Jerusalem, with significant sections taking place in the Gaza Strip and Tel Aviv. It’s a book about money and power and violence and religion and much else. It shows Israel and Gaza as sites of political struggle not just for the people living there but for power players from all the world who come and go with their own agendas.

It’s not for me to say what those with close personal ties to recent events might learn from this novel, or people who have been experiencing any part of those events directly. But I can certainly say that for those of us who are in some degree outsiders, whose experience of recent events comes through television screens and social media and public events, protests and otherwise, in countries far away from the center of the violence, this book is incredibly revealing of the differing forces that shape the struggle for power in a profoundly contested part of the world.

Damascus Gate seems to me an undeniably great political novel. The variety and precision of its information is astonishing. Thomas Pynchon is the only other writer I know of who can rival it. The range of Stone’s compassion and understanding is admirable. Although the book is deeply serious, there’s still quite a bit of humor, albeit often darkly ironic. Some of the horrible moments in the narrative are emotionally wrenching, even exhausting. At times I couldn’t put the book down. At times I had to take a break because I couldn’t handle any more.

It’s not a perfect novel: a few sections in the first half of the book move a little slowly and threaten to overwhelm the reader with information, and some of the murkier entanglements of the second half remain murky, although clearly that’s part of the point. But the novel’s feverish intensity and stunningly impressive range of knowledge combine for a unique experience of a kind no other author could likely offer. The novel feels profoundly aware of the variety of sincerities and ironies and cynicisms that people bring with them to this part of the world, along with their weapons, physical or intellectual.

And just to be upfront: everybody knows by now that there’s no such thing as objectivity. Books and people have perspectives, and this one is no exception. The novel’s central character is to a significant degree an uninformed outsider regarding the events taking place. But I will say that this book is not partisan, even as it never holds back on the problems and results of violence in international partisan politics. What is most marked in it is a sense of empathy for all involved, as well as a refusal to deny what’s horrible. It’s trying to show readers how an inevitably global politics works in a region of the world that is deeply beloved and contested by people with differing ideas about what it means to believe. It’s not a book that offers certainty, as if it was the role of novels and novelists to solve political problems.

Instead, it’s about what happens when certainty collides with certainty and blends inevitably into uncertainty. It’s about both the possibility and impossibility of universalism.

Thursday, July 6, 2023

Brief Review: The Course by Ted Greenwald and Charles Bernstein


The Course
Ted Greenwald and Charles Bernstein
Roof Books, 2020, 350 pgs.

Bam, pow, wow do I love this book. I can’t immediately think of other books of poetry that embody the concept of the jazz jam session so thoroughly. Two language and musical intelligences bounce ideas and energy off each other in a rapid, varied, and ultimately extended back and forth.

At times it seems like I can recognize this or that line as likely the work of one or the other of the writers: the deadpan, flat, yet somehow full of wonder pop art understatement of Greenwald; the twisting puns and pungent ironies of Bernstein. But mostly what feels created here is a third voice containing both of those approaches and a tone that seems to come from both poets simultaneously. Ultimately, identifying who wrote what hardly matters. As Bernstein says on the back cover, the writers themselves frequently forgot which lines were originally their own.

The focus on language play rather than reference dives occasionally into reference and creates through interaction a pertinent world view in which play and perception and response matter more than defined theme and statement. Development over the course of the book is like the development in music; the mood and tone tell the story. I feel like I’d have to go back to early Clark Coolidge books like Polaroid or The Maintains to get this much non-referential verbal interplay jumping around on the page so pleasantly:

Spit into face

All about


Another nice day

2nd movement

How bout snack

Tangy thirds

Is peligrosso

Means huh?

A what-about-me


In a Dodge

Medical street

Work out for

The Beast

I’m about to stare

(Revenue of the wasted)

(Base relief)

As in

Bad day at

(Welcome to)


From “Succor Punch”

I don’t feel like I read The Course so much as participated in it, feeling the music, letting it do the talking, giving up on explanation and just being alive to what’s present in human involvement. As Bernstein’s note on the back cover also says, the collaboration continued until several days before Greenwald’s death in 2016. This book in relation to that fact is a key reminder of how much life we can live in every day of living it.

Sunday, April 2, 2023

Confederates, a novel by Thomas Keneally (1979)


Why doesn’t this book, first published in 1979, show up on lists of the best Civil War novels ever written? Maybe because the author is Australian? It can’t be because the book focuses on Confederate soldiers (of all ranks). Other lesser novels of that sort (Shiloh by Shelby Foote, or the barely tolerable Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier) regularly make lists of Ten Best Civil War novels.

Unlike those two books, this one is not tacitly pro-Confederate. The flaws of the Confederacy, both in its beliefs and in its functioning, are displayed clearly.  As part of that, its characters are complex and insightfully portrayed, whether it’s General Tom Jackson (aka Stonewall) or the men of various ranks serving under him. Jackson is an anti-slavery, religiously-convinced-anyway zealot of the Southern cause, determined to attack the Union at whatever cost to anybody. He comes across as fascinating, charismatic, brilliant, and vicious, with an oddly and believably incoherent set of feelings about the world around him as he tries relentlessly to destroy the enemy. He knows what he wants, even if it’s never clear that he knows logically why he wants it. It’s a religious feeling, a messianic power he never questions.

The soldier characters, and there are many of them of all kinds of backgrounds, from Generals on down, are not always as individually interesting as Jackson, but taken together their varied stories are fascinating and they serve to create a panorama of the kind of men who soldiered for Jackson and Lee. Their various fates are uniquely and believably and often enough horribly portrayed. Yet the book is also very funny at times. In some ways, it’s a book of character sketches, and all of the characterizations (or let’s say nearly all) are convincing and filled with both psychological and social insight. If a few times I wished that the story would return to the Generals, that’s only because the portrayal of those actual historical human beings was so compelling. As far as I know, some of the non-General characters might be based on real persons as well, but Keneally doesn’t say.

This is a book of action as well, both the action of war and of politics. It handles those subjects like the others, with a level of precisely realized historical realism that few other Civil War novels (or indeed many war novels period) can match.

The weakest portion of the book, for me, is the portrayal of the women characters, who are connected to some of the few less convincing and in some cases annoying subplots. They’re not one-dimensional in either social context or character, and it’s reasonable enough that they’re mostly not the center of events, although desire for them often is. But few of them are as believable as the male characters, and some of the comic elements of their roles feel like they come as much from the 1970s (when the book was written) as from the 1860s. 

Some of the near-to-the-conclusion battle scenes are as realistically believable (and necessarily graphic) as any I know of in war literature.

All in all, Confederates is a vivid and powerful novel that taught me as much about the life of Civil War soldiers as any work of fiction I’ve read.