So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Cultural Slag

Cultural Slag by Felicia Lamport
Published in 1966, this collection of poems and short essays reflects the time in which it was written. Portions of the book previously were published in publications like The Atlantic, Harper's, Life, McCall's, The New York Herald Tribune, and The Saturday Evening Post. In addition to being a freelance author Felicia Lamport wrote the "Muse of the Week in Review" column for The Boston Globe. Cultural Slag is the third collection of her work all of which were illustrated by Edward Gorey.

For this collection Gorey created a series of full page drawings featuring striped insects and piles of stones that appear on the title page and introduce each chapter. In addition each poem or essay has its own pen and ink drawing. The combination of short poems and Gorey illustrations makes this book a quick and enjoyable read. Lamport had a sophisticated command of the English language and was often creative in her use of puns.

The short pieces of the book are clustered into chapters based on broad categories. Most are one page poems with a facing illustration, but there are also several essays as well.

THE NEW YORK PEDESTAL SET pays poetic homage to the statues and busts that grace public spaces in this city. These monuments are meant to pay homage to famous people, but what if the famous people of the past are no longer household names? That is the subject of one of the poems in this chapter called "Who He?" that begins:

One expects the mind to trigger
When one contemplates a figure
Cast for sempiternral fame,
But the brainpan starts to joggle
If the viewer starts to boggle
At the name.

This is followed by verses that remind the reader of some of the not-so-famous people who have commemorative statues in New York.

ALARUMS AND DIVERSIONS is a series of satirical poems on various performing arts and literature. My favorite is a poetic review of Edward Albee's 1964 play Tiny Alice called "DAS IST ALICE". I have never read a drama review written as a poem before. In one verse of this poem Lamport asks:

Was it turgid dramaturgy meant to vent on law and clergy
All the author's rage against the world today,
Psychopathia sexuAlice, or an allegoric chalice
He was raising in a reverential way?

This chapter also contains the first of Lamport's essays, a six page piece on non- and anti-book-reviews entitled "The Hypocritics". Anyone who writes book reviews will find much food for thought here.

POLITICAL CLINKERS is a collection of political poetry which has mostly aged badly as yesterday's politicians are largely forgotten quickly and with good reason. However her Viet Nam War era poem 'EMBATTLED OXYMORON" has some universal appeal even today. Here is a sample verse:

One grows strangely apprehensive
When one contemplates the sense of
Peace offensive,
Which, aggressively commanding
That which passeth understanding
Turns the sentiment it rouses
To: A pax on both your houses."

JOTS AND TITTLES is a collection of poems and an essay on travel and social interactions. The poem "SOUTHERN COMFORT' addresses that time in spring when the north is covered in snow while the south is in bloom:

No meter can measure
The infinite pleasure
Of people in tropic resorts
who squirm with delight
Through the sweltering night
At their home town weather reports.

ANIMAL SPIRITS is a short chapter of four poems about the Animal Kingdom. "ICHTHYOLOGIC" asks the question:

Why do fish, who get no pleasure out of mating,
Top all mammals in the rate of propagating?

PARTY LINES is another short chapter of five poems describing the urban party-going scene. The poem "DENSITY PROPENSITY" starts:

From five to seven every night
The party-goers coalesce
Participating in the rite
That equalizes social debts
In all the best sub-bourbon sets.

SWEET AND SOUR SERENADE TO CAMBRIDGE is a set of poems dedicated to Cambridge Massachusetts. The poem "EDUCATION INFLATION" ends with the verse:

Corporations vie to buy queues of the higher bracket I.Q.s
That were lately held in rather low esteem:
All of Cambridge now is reeling with such wheeling Ph.Dealing
As has never graced the grooves of academe.

SOCIAL SPINOFF is a chapter on social issues of the day. The preference for plastic cards over paper money is the subject of "YON CASH HAS GOT A LEAN AND HUNGRY LOOK". It opens with the verse:

It's funny what's happening to money:
It seems to have gone out of fashion.
The flashing of cash is considered so brash
That it turns any headwaiter ashen.

While the book is 52 years old, it can still provide some amusement, and the drawings of Edward Gorey fill the pages with art worth seeing.

Murdering Mr. Monti

Murdering Mr. Monti: A Merry Little Tale of Sex and Violence by Judith Viorst
While the title brings thoughts of a murder mystery to mind, the phrase A Merry Little Tale in the subtitle reveals this novel as a Comedy of Manners where the humorous situations, and some suspense, drive the plot.

Set in the suburbs of Washington DC, the book is about Brenda Kovner, a successful 46 year old syndicated advice columnist who is married to Jake a pediatric surgeon. They have two grown sons Jeff and Wally. Wally has fallen in love with Jo Monti the youngest daughter of Joseph Monti, a narcissistic bully of a man. Mr. Monti has dominated his wife and three daughters, and Jo has shown budding signs of rebellion by falling in love with a Jewish man. Mr. Monti stands in the way of Wally and Jo's plans. Not only does he intend to drive off Wally, but he has taken steps to ruin Jake and Jeff's lives.

Brenda has reached middle age having slept with only Jake her husband, and her attempts to micro-manage their life has created tensions in their marriage. She had decided before the story begins to sleep with other men before her 46th birthday in order to have a variety of sexual experience and ended up sleeping with three men in 24 hours. One of them was Mr. Monti.

Once she decides that the only way out of her problems is to murder Mr. Monti, the readers' fun begins.

Judith Viorst is an established author of poetry and children's books. This delightful novel shows her skills at character development and humor. Filled with her own advice from her syndicated column, well-developed characters, outlandish situations, and a complex plot full of surprises, this is a delightful fun read.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

My Horizontal Life

My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One Night Stands by Chelsea Handler
My Horizontal Life is a set of 18 stories depicting short-term sexual relationships that Chelsea Handler claims to have had between the ages of 18 and 28. Actually the first story "Guess Who's Having Sex with Mommy" tells about the time seven year old Chelsea walked in on her parents having sex. All the actual details of these stories must not be taken as factually true because Chelsea Handler claims to drink and lie an awful lot. So the possibility that she can't remember details or that she makes them up makes this book probably more fiction than memoir. What she does remember or lie about is more often humorous rather than lascivious. I get the feeling that even Chelsea was too drunk to actually remember the sexual part of the relationship. So these stories consist of a lot of amusing situations leading up to and following the sexual act, without any actual salacious sexual details.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

The Renegade Queen

The Renegade Queen by Eva Flynn
Eva Flynn's The Renegade Queen is a novel told in the first person about the life of Victoria Woodhull, one of the most amazing women of the 19th Century who, because of her radical positions, has been written out of many historical accounts of the time. There are several excellent biographies of Victoria that have built up the details of her life from the published sources of the time. Benefiting from all that research this novel, by telling her story in the first person, breathes life into the character and personage of Victoria Woodhull. What Eva Flynn has done most admirably in this book is to "channel" the spirit of Victoria's character so the reader can glimpse, not only what she accomplished, but why she did all the things she did in the fields of Spiritualism, Women's Rights, Civil Rights, Commerce, Publishing, Free Love, Politics, and so many others.

The Renegade Queen won the 2016 Independent Publisher Gold "IPPY" Award for Best Adult Fiction E-Book and I can see why. Not only does Flynn bring Victoria Woodhull to life, but she does the same for her two husbands Canning Woodhull and James Blood, her sister Tenny C. Claflin, her father “Buck” Claflin, Susan B. Anthony, Commodore Vanderbilt, Massachusetts Congressman Benjamin Butler, and a host of others. I feel the author has immersed herself in the Civil War and Reconstruction period and used her knowledge to create great depth in the characters and the settings of the novel. If you have ever wanted to learn more about Victoria Woodhull, this novel is a very enjoyable way to do that.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris
David Sedaris is a master of short biographical memoirs that are funny, insightful, and poignant, sometime all at the same time. This volume collects a group of his essays mostly about the members his large Raleigh, NC family. I enjoy reading his insights into life as revealed by his interactions with others.
"Us and Them" is about moving next to a family that is raising their family without television.
In "The Ship Shape" David describes his family's version of the North Carolina custom of having or renting a house at the coast.
"Full House" describes David's first sleep over when he was in the sixth grade.
David gets hit in the mouth with a rock thrown by one of the most popular boys in his class in "Consider the Stars." This leads to a confrontation between his father and the parents of the other boy.
David's relationship with his rich great aunt is the topic of "Monie Changes Everything."
Asking for Spare Change at the NC State Fair is the topic of "The Change in Me."
In "Hejira" David tells the story of when his dad kicked him out of the house when he was 22 because he is gay.
"Slumus Lordicus" is about the time his parents' get rich plan of buying and renting out apartments.
In "The Girl Next Door" David makes friends with the nine year old girl next door with disastrous consequences until his mother saves him.
"Blood Work" tells of an unusual but lucrative experience David had while working in New York City cleaning apartments.
In the next story David tells of seeing "The End of the Affair" with his partner Hugh.
"Repeat After Me" describes David's visit to his sister Lisa and her talking parrot Henry.
On a visit to Amsterdam David asks the cab driver about his Christmas celebration and learns about the "Six to Eight Black Men" who accompany Dutch St. Nick.
David's brother Paul, who runs a floor sanding service in Raleigh, is the topic of "Rooster at the Hitchin' Post."
Hugh and David visit the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam in "Possession."
Most poignant was "Put A Lid On It" describing his visit to his sister Tiffany who lived in Boston. Their lives are obviously worlds apart and the distance is painful to watch unfold.
A "Can of Worms" found in Texas that survived the space shuttle explosion is the dinner table topic of an evening in Los Angeles.
In "Chicken in the Henhouse" David helps a young boy at a hotel, and then has second thoughts about how his gesture might be misinterpreted.
David and Hugh get into an argument over a rubber hand during a dinner conversation with friends in "Who's the Chef."
Paul becomes the first of David's siblings to have a child in "Baby Einstein."
A burglar gets stuck in a chimney and dies in "Nuit of the Living Dead."

The Voyeurs

The Voyeurs by Gabrielle Bell
This book was my first encounter with the cartoonist Gabrielle Bell and it took me a while to get into the structure and content. Most of the book is a chronological series of dated sketches from Bell's graphic journal covering the four years from 2007 to 2010. The book opens with a 13 panel cartoon called "The Voyeurs" from which the book derives it's name. In it Bell finds five of her friends on the roof of her apartment building watching a couple make love in an apartment across the way. I get a sense that she thinks of the readers as Voyeurs into her life through the reading of her journals.

Getting thrown into the middle of a person's life as revealed through their journals can be a bit disorienting at first and it took me a while to warm up to the format, the story, and the author. Once I got involved in her life, though, I found it a good read with lots of detail that the dialog and the sketches bring to life.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg

Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg by Kate Evans
Red Rosa follows the life of Rosa Luxemburg from her birth in Zamość Poland in 1871 to her execution in Berlin in 1919. Born with a congenital dislocation of the hip, Rosa's left leg was shorter than her right and she walked with a limp and used a special shoe with a lift. After she was born her family moved to Warsaw where, at the age of 15, she became involved with the Socialist Proletariat Party and helped organize a general strike. When four of the Proletariat Party leaders were put to death and the party was disbanded, she fled to Switzerland where she attended the University of Zurich. Her doctoral dissertation, "The Industrial Development of Poland," was published when she was 27. It is in Zurich that she meets and falls in love with Leo Jogiches who helps her organize Polish Socialist activities.

Wanting to be in Germany where the leading Socialist thinkers are, Rosa marries the son of an old friend Gustav Lubeck to get German citizenship and moves to Berlin in 1897. They never lived together and they formally divorced five years later. She became a leftist member of the Social Democratic Party and a founding member of The Spartacus League. Through these groups she promoted equal rights for women, an internationalist perspective, and opposition to the First World War. She tried to rally the workers to a general strike when war was declared saying "If they think we are going to lift the weapons of murder against our French and other brethren, then we shall shout: 'We will not do it!'". During the war the Spartacus League wrote illegal, anti-war pamphlets signed "Spartacus" (after the slave-liberating gladiator who opposed the Romans) and Rosa was imprisoned for two and a half years, as was her lover Karl Liebknecht. At the end of the war she and Liebknecht were freed from prison and they resurrected the Spartacus League, pushing for a Free Socialist Republic. Both were shot by right-wing paramilitary militia working for the government.

That is the framework that Kate Evans uses through her drawings to breathe life into the story of Rosa Luxemburg. She uses a recently made available letters written by Rosa and other works of scholarship to create a detailed account of her life. Filled with lovely black and white drawings, we find a Rosa Luxemburg that author Stephen Eric Bronner called in 1987 A Revolutionary for Our Times. I found her economic arguments written at the end of the 19th century, and very deftly explained by Kate Evans, very forward thinking and with extreme relevance to our 21st century predicament. Kate Evans' six pages of Rosa explaining Capitalism to her family at the dining room table is excellent. The book closes with 33 pages of notes for people who want to know more about particular events in the book. There is also an Afterword that brings the reader up to date on the historiography of thinking about Rosa Luxemburg and her influence. An excellent introduction to a radical and highly insightful scholar.

Thursday, March 08, 2018


Munch by Steffen Kverneland
Munch is a graphic novel biography of Edvard Munch, the Norwegian painter born on December 12, 1863 and died 80 years later on January 23, 1944. Most known for his painting of The Scream, his works cover a wide range of portraiture and group settings and are drawn from his own life experiences. He painted what he felt rather than realistically portraying what he saw. Many of his paintings are recreated in the text or used as source material for the author's own drawings.

The author wants Munch and the other characters in the book to speak their own words so all their spoken words are authentic quotes from letters, diaries, and notes. To make the book more interesting to read the author and his friend Lars Fiske introduce the book and appear occasionally explaining the methodology of the work or some of the background material, mostly as drawings but with some photographs taken at sites used in Munch's paintings. This mix makes for an enjoyable read that also provides an in-depth view of the artist, his family and friends, and the the society in which they worked.

I can highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the artist and his work. The translation from Norwegian by Francesca M. Nichols reads very well. It has made me interested in reading other volumes in the Art Masters Series put out by Self Made Hero Press.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

When You Are Engulfed in Flames

When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
I have been a David Sedaris fan for a long time. He grew up in Raleigh and writes humorous sketches on life, often based on his experiences here in the City of Oaks. When I moved to Raleigh in 1979, he was the waiter at the coffee shop I frequented before going to work each morning. Most days it was David, DD (a woman who worked in a dairy lab at the land grant university across the street), and me. This was before he was a writer. He considered himself a performance artist at the time and would stage strange performances with his friend Avi for a small but confused audience of friends. I am glad he took up writing as he is much better at it than performance art.

When You Are Engulfed in Flames was written in 2008 around the time David was living in France and gave up smoking. There is a large 83 page Smoking Section at the end of the book where he recounts his experiences with smoking and ends with his three month trip to Japan to give up smoking "cold turkey." This book seems to be more introspective than his earlier works and includes many stories about his relationship with his partner Hugh Hamrick. His mixture of humorous observations on life, mixed with his own foibles, make for both funny and tender reading moments that are unique.