Friday, April 27, 2018

Ramblings of a Lonely Stranger by G.H. Monroe

The Ramblings of a Lonely Stranger
By G.H. Monroe

I should probably say that I may be somewhat biased about this author’s poetry as he is a member of the writer’s group I run through our library.  However, I feel that pulls out imagery and concepts that are eminently relatable.

“Poetry is like a special cable that allows me to share the aches, joys and longings of my soul with the souls of others.” Those are aches, joys and longings that many of us have felt and described in a beautiful way.

“I believe that a poem is born in a moment of feeling or inspired thought.”

“Someone says something that stirs a feeling in me, something that makes profound sense to me, deep within my soul, and I think, “That’s a poem!”

This is a short volume, a collection of some of those poems. Capturing people, feelings, moments in time. Inspiration.

I’ll share my take on ten of my favorite poems from this collection.

Big Wes – the loss of a father and how it comes back upon the son time and time again. “In that moment it hits me like a steel-toed kick to the midsection and all of the wind leaves my soul.”
That’s an incredibly vivid sensory image of being punched but taken into the metaphysical by the wind leaving the soul instead of the lungs or diaphragm. The simple change up bothers, irritates. I’m not sure I like it but it gets under the skin.

Losing Mother – Not just in the physical sense but as she loses her faculties, losing the mother that he knew. “I see you hoping, no, longing, that one might drift down to the dry ground and spark the raging fires of your recollection.” A mournful and painful image, aching for the way things used to be.

Fine Art – I like this one for not just the appreciation of beauty but of the manners that make one FEEL the beauty. “Your focus, like your manner, is soft.” And “The gentle smile, the downy shoulders and indulgent eyes.” The indulgent eyes speak of the subjects manner rather than their physical characteristics, but both are what make her beautiful to the observer.

Deliverance – A poetic turn of phrase helps the reader experience the oppressiveness of the summer air before a storm. “The stifling shroud that hangs in the summer air brings burden to even the simplest of acts.” “Breaths come with difficulty, as if drawn through plastic wrap.” Then the cool relief of a thunderstorm sweeps through. “This breeze, pregnant with the scent of distant lakes, holds the promise of cool, wet relief.” Who hasn’t smelled that water in the air? It is one of my favorite scents, wish they could capture THAT in an air freshener!

Summer in a Jar – A collection of simple couplets, like glasses being poured. Twilight hours, dinner, lawn chairs, lemonade in a glass with ice, sun setting, children chasing fireflies. It’s an unusual sort of poetry for Monroe, but well-chosen for this poem. “They play and laugh, both near and far, catching summer . . . in a jar.”

Forever Road – Begins with a musing on the frailty of humans, how our memories are flawed and we lose the most precious experiences all too readily. A moment caught in time, driving down the road with a beautiful woman, wishing the road could go on forever. But if memory goes on, then can these moments persist? “Perhaps . . . if I can keep just this one memory . . . it might.”

A Million Prayers – “Miss me please, as I miss you, wonder if I’m well.” “ . . . foolishly, I hold out hope to write a kinder end.” Cuts to the quick.

Life in Two Days – “Our lives are lived in two days.” The author speaks of the impatience of youth using well-chosen almost universal longings – Christmas, license, graduation. Then he uses the snooze button image to move us suddenly forward in time. “…find ourselves smack in the middle of life’s second day, whose hours pass like the blurred faces on a training racing past.” So true, waiting, waiting, waiting and now the days rush past. “We begin to hear each grain of sand crash to the bottom of our mortal hourglasses.” (I wish that had been hourglass instead of hourglasses.)

Slow Violence – A poem on how media loves the flashy violence but has no interest in in the slow violence of the things that hurt us in the long term. I agree but I also think it’s part of our nature, how we lose track of the long term problems when we feel helpless to change them.

“Thousands homeless and hungry? Humans too poor for medical care? Reel in the news trucks, go back to your regularly scheduled lives. There’s nothing more to see here.”

But is it because we don’t care or because we have to cope with our own lives and don’t see what we can do? Perhaps a little of both. As the author once said to me, “I care, just perhaps not as much as you do about the things that directly affect you.”

I Hate You for That – “My walls are sturdy, they are tall. Tirelessly, I add more stones each day, yet every day you peek over the top . . . and I hate you for that.” Love it! The introvert and the extrovert tearing down his wall.

A great collection of poetry to help you feel connected to the rest of the world.

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel by Magdalena Zyzak (Guest review by Tarren Young)

The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel 
by Magdalena Zyzak
Guest review by Tarren Young

I have been pondering on how to give this book a proper review for several days now.

I received this book as a gift  at Christmas. I’m thrilled that “Santa” knows my tastes fairly well. I also know where Santa found the book. Santa stopped off at the Dollar Tree late one night after a long day in his workshop, to pick up a few odds and ends, and decided to meander through the books. 
Now, one does not typically associate high “literary” works of writing with Dollar Stores. But, if you are willing to browse through them with a little bit of patience and diligence, there are often some rare gems to be found.

I did not read the reviews of this book until after I had already started this book. (I rarely do, because I do not want the reviews to sway me one way or another...despite the fact that that is the sole purpose of the reviews.) At first, I was rather disappointed to see that it received terrible reviews, right down to “how does this crap get published?” because I was thoroughly enjoying the story!

This is her first published novel (if I am understanding right, she has moved into film directing) and the inside flap clearly states, “Magdalena Zyzak’s rolicking debut is a literary mash-up: equal parts bawdy farce, picaresque adventure and comic love story.” It makes me wonder if the people who have reviewed the book completely forgot the part about it being a farce and comical love story?

Granted, the time frame is 1939, and the characters are about to experience an event in a dark time in history. The characters are so secluded in the country that, really, that they can’t help but be their under-educated selves and, for them to be any other way, would be a disservice. I am also fine with there being some bawdy humor touching up against a dark time in history, because we all have found light and laughter even during some dark times.

The story revolves around Barnabas Pierkiel, although the other characters like to attempt to overthrow the stage occasionally which makes for a laugh out loud read for me. I often read passages aloud to my husband or would have him read the passages if there were little ears around (yes, sorry, this is not a PG rated book.) The narrator relates the story of Barnabas and the disastrous family he comes from . . . a long line of men who have somehow, seemingly become cursed to lose their limbs and shortly thereafter their lives, due to random, unpredictable, unfortunate kinds of events. How Barnabas tells his story, when he actually gets the chance to tell his own story, often left me laughing so hard tears were streaming down my face. You both feel sorry for him as he seems so uneducated, yet at the same time, one of the most educated in his very rural (very made up) country, Scalvusia.

Going back to the aforementioned stage-stealing characters and the quirky narrator, the story does change from first to third person perspective, often in the same chapter, but for me it was never abruptly. It was similar to the narrator in Lemony Snickett’s, A Series of Unfortunate Events. Who knows? Maybe that series is what inspired her to write the story in the way that she did. Sadly, even though I did not find an issue with this, many reviewers did.

Trying to stay on topic for our book club theme of crime for January, I really wanted this to be my book choice. I am a very slow reader and I read this book in two weeks, which is fast for me. I am not going to say there were not any crimes in this book, as there most certainly were! At first, I thought, how boring would that be if it was all just petty crimes? But the petty crimes add up eventually, interlocking like puzzle pieces and fitting together in the end...mostly. You may have to slam that last piece in with a sledgehammer because it’s a bit warped, but, it’ll fit.

Two gypsy sisters (supposedly) are renting a house as they decided to stay behind when their caravan went through the town a while back. Barnabas is madly in love with the oldest of the two sister’s Roosha. Sadly, every time Barnabas tries to make an impression on her, it doesn’t go well. He is usually tripping over something or being slammed into by someone. She turns her nose up at every attempt, and for good reason - she is supposedly a mistress to one of only handful of prominent men in the town. Or, at least the man she is mistress to thinks he is a prominent man. Personally, I think he’s a pompous jerk, but that’s just me. Alright, every once in a blue moon he’ll have a redeeming quality, but still a pretty arrogant windbag.

It is these gypsies that eventually fall prey to the hideous “crime” from the community. Other people fall prey as well to minor crimes such as being beaten up and having things stolen from them. But the biggest crime is blaming the gypsies for an event that the people of the town want to see as murder when it is actually a suicide.

Perhaps the people want to have a scapegoat because it is the pastor of the town who commits suicide. It is often hard for people of religious backgrounds to understand why a religious figure would do that, and therefore, they think, it must have been murder. The mayor’s wife heads up a committee to root out the gypsies and have them pay for their crime.

Despite the anger I felt at the characters trying to blame innocent people for crimes they did not commit, I did really enjoy this book. That is, right up until the last two chapters. The last two chapters really, to me, did not connect to the story in any coherent way. Abstractly, I’m sure that they do connect, but it drove me a bit insane that the ending of the story felt completely disconnected from the rest.

Overall, I would rate this story probably about a 3.75 stars. If the last two chapters and epilogue had been more coherent and less disparate, I would have probably rated the story as four stars. If this author published another book, I would probably read it to see how her style has or has not changed.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Dust Tracks on a Road by Zora Neale Hurston

Dust Tracks on a Road
By Zora Neale Hurston

I first fell in love with the writing of Zora Neale Hurston when Their Eyes Were Watching God was chosen for a community read. I put off reading it for a while but when I did, I was deeply engrossed by her story-telling, her beautifully descriptive settings, and her philosophical musings. It was one of the best books I had ever read.

Then our book club decided to read books with “beautiful covers” for the month of March. I was sitting on my bed, doing my Morning Pages journaling and saw this book peeking out at me from my bookshelf. What a beautiful cover, I thought. It’s a shame I never gotten around to reading it. Then I knew my book for the month had found me - Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography by Zora Neale Hurston.

The only problem was that it was a hard copy. I don’t have much time for reading that isn’t on my Kindle while I’m putting my child to bed. But, I looked at the length of the book and the number of chapters. I had three weeks and there were only 16 chapters. Surely I could do this if I just read one chapter a night, right?

Yes, it’s okay to laugh now. No, I haven’t finished the book. In fact, I’m only a few chapters in but it is every bit of the incredible characterization, thoughtful musings, and amazing story-telling that I saw in Their Eyes Were Watching God. I have long had a weakness for autobiographies by writers and this one does not disappoint.

In the first chapter of the book, Hurston talks about Eatonville, Florida, and describes it “at the time of my birth.” However, she was born in Alabama and didn’t move to Eatonville until she was three. That confused me a little. However, since most of us remember little of our lives before the age of 3, I can understand it.

As simple a description as how and why a road was improved between towns is beautifully laid out, the courtship of her parents is a tale indeed, and how she started walking because a sow was after her cornbread is delightful.

Her tales are filled with vivid characters, clearly realized settings, and the philosophical observations shine through.

“Nothing that God ever made is the same thing to more than one person. That is natural. There is no single face in nature, because every eye that looks upon it, sees it from its own angle. So every man’s spice-box seasons his own food.”

I am going to finish the book, I just bought it for my Kindle for all of $2.15. I’ll update this review when I finish it.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Melville in Love: The Secret Life of Herman Melville and the Muse of Moby-Dick by Michael Sheldon

Melville in Love: The Secret Life of Herman Melville and the Muse of Moby-Dick

By Michael Shelden

Sheldon opens the book with a scene of Sarah Morewood crowning Melville with a laurel wreath at Christmas dinner, in honor of his completing Moby-Dick.

“The obvious, but unspoken, truth here is that Mrs. Morewood is in love with Mr. Melville, who is also married. Indeed, Sarah will prove the most enduring influence on Melville’s life, a muse as well as a lover.”

Sheldon paints a vivid portrait of the times and the inner motivations of both Herman Melville and Sarah Morewood. It reads like a terrifically romantic story, not a dry look at the facts and history.

“Melville fell completely under his lover’s spell from the moment they met in the summer of 1850. Mrs. Morewood was a singular character in the Berkshires of her day, a woman both bookish and beautiful, intelligent and inquisitive, creative and compassionate. Melville regarded her seriously as a kindred spirit, though his biographers have not. She is one of the great unsung figures in literary history.”

Some of the information given is fact but much is also conjecture.

“. . . a wild lament for forbidden love in the novel he called Pierre, didn’t soar to such heights or plunge to such depths in an emotional vacuum. The tempests in those books had their parallels in his life, and at the center of the storm was a relationship for which he was willing to risk everything.”

Sarah was clearly a passionate person. But the author assumes some things based on modern sensibilities in certain places while pointing out how different it was at that time in others. For example, he says she initiated a summer fling with Alexander Gardiner. There was some gossip in certain circles about the two of them being caught in a compromising position which must have been “more revealing than a kiss or an embrace.” But at another point he says that a large group of friends going on an overnight camping trip was scandalous. So which is it?

Neighbors gossiped about a clergyman who was spending too much time as a guest at her home. Really? With others in residence, just spending too much time there was cause for gossip.

It is a thoroughly interesting and entertaining book that delves into the lives and love of Herman Melville and Sarah Morewood but I don’t think the author fully makes his case that two of her children were by Melville. There’s no doubt they were great friends who may have loved each other passionately but that does not prove a physical relationship. Unconsummated relationships can endure all the longer for never being able to reach that stage.

Sadly, Sarah died before she turned 40, most likely of consumption. If the author is correct in only a percentage of his assertions though, some of her spirit lives on in Melville’s writing.

“The key for Sarah was always to be understood, not judged. But, of course, the world prefers to judge . . .”

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Last Coon Hunter by Joe Crance (Guest Review by Tarren Young)

The Last Coon Hunter
by Joe Crance

Reviewed by Tarren Young

Gosh, it’s hard to know where to start sometimes when reviewing a book. You want to not only do the story justice but the author as well. Sometimes the words flow and other times you have to gather your thoughts, grapple and wonder what the heck just happened when you finished the story. What happened is the fact that I sobbed my way through this story in 8 days.          

I bought Joe Crance’s book The Last Coon Hunter back in December with all kinds of crazy notions that the other pile of local authors I needed to read would be read in the month or shortly thereafter!

This is where we all laugh because I’m a mother! At Christmas! Trying to read! I wonder if that thought even crossed my brain? I don’t think there was any comprehension in that idea at all. Nope. None whatsoever.

But I did run into Joseph one night in late January, and he asked me if I’d read the book yet. Sadly, at that point, I hadn’t even opened it. Sigh. Sometimes I wish I was a faster reader or that I could read two books at one time. But I believe we are meant to read the books we are meant to read at certain times in our lives for a reason. I don’t know why, we just do. I opened the book that night and was immediately drawn into the character’s lives, desperate to know more!

Besides getting the kick in the pants I needed, this story also worked well for our book club theme for February of a historical book with a story set at least 20 years before. The Last Coon Hunter spans the years 1976 to 1993, and fits well into that theme.

I am an active reader and my copy is well loved, with several notations and highlights. Of course a few things could be tightened up here and there, but that is the case with every author. Even J.K. Rowling isn’t perfect! We all have to start somewhere, and Joe Crance started with characters that are real and heartfelt from page one.

I loved every character--well, almost every character--(I won’t spoil it for those who want to read it) from the beginning. Each of them had flaws, which is nice, because no one wants to read about flat, stagnant characters. I really don’t think I could sit and pick a favorite character. It would be like trying to tell me I had to pick a favorite child. There’s no way I could do it.

Besides the characters, I have a very soft spot for the setting of The Last Coon Hunter. Though I did not directly grow up in Painted Post, my paternal grandfather worked at Dresser Rand and my paternal grandmother worked at Corning Glass. Growing up in Tioga County, PA, Painted Post was literally my backyard.

Oddly enough though, The Last Coon Hunter reminded me more of my maternal grandfather than anything. The way the characters talked and interacted with each other, their dialects, brought to mind my maternal grandpa who was born on the homestead, in the holler, in Little Marsh, PA and was a logger with horses all his life.

My grandpa not only talked like the father, Jacob Ernst, in Crance’s book with certain dialects, but was full of life wisdom along the way. And you can bet, the life lessons that my grandpa and Jacob Ernst peppered through life and through The Last Coon Hunter story, could and did make you take a step back and realize just how much truth was in such a short sentence.

I will honestly say that I did not expect to like this book as much as I did, much less fall in love with it. Joe Crance is a natural born storyteller, not many people are, and he has only gotten better from here. His story telling style captured my heart. His characters are still lingering there as he weaves a story much like my own grandpa did. 

What I’m coming to realize is that I will never have the time to hear my grandpa’s stories again, and a healing took place through this book that I did not know I needed, and for that, I am grateful.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven
By Emily St. John Mandel

The book opens with a play in Toronto starring Arthur Leander, who has a heart attack on stage. A member of the audience, Jeevan who is training to be an EMT, jumps onto the stage and performs CPR, but to no avail.

 “The lights changed, the blues and whites of the snowstorm replaced by a fluorescent glare that seemed yellow by comparison. Jeevan worked silently in the margarine light, glancing sometimes at Arthur’s face.”

Mostly, the language in the book worked beautifully. The first chapter is full of literary description, but margarine? That was a shade too far. Not a typical description and it confounded me, made me wince.

The play has ended unceremoniously and all go their separate ways. Jeevan leaves the theater after the paramedics take Arthur away and wanders a bit. His girlfriend had left him behind and he doesn’t really feel like going home to her. “The theater tickets had been intended as a romantic gesture, a let’s-do-something-romantic-because-all –we –do-is-fight…”  

Chapter 2 takes us into the lives of the actors and gives us the lay of the land very sparsely, like a script, as they talk over the loss of Arthur. The last line particularly struck me. “Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.”

In chapter 3, Jeevan gets a call from his friend who works in an ER warning him to flee the flu pandemic in the city. “If it had been anyone other than Hua, Jeevan wouldn’t have believed it, but he had never known a man with a greater gift for understatement. If Hua said there was an epidemic, then epidemic wasn’t a strong enough word.” Just the phrasing of that struck me as lovely.

We follow Jeevan a little bit but then he disappears. We meet Arthur’s ex-wives and his one child. We follow a child actor who was in the theater that night but survived the pandemic as part of a traveling symphony. The book shifts between time periods frequently but easily. “Twenty years after the end of air travel, the caravans of the Traveling Symphony moved slowly under a white-hot sky.”

Chapter 6 begins with “An incomplete list” of things that don’t exist after the pandemic. It is simple and intense. A couple of comic books play a strangely important role in the book.

An inordinate number of people who knew Arthur seem to survive, considering the sheer number of people who are estimated to have died, something like 99% of the world population. You’d still have around 74 million people but you’d expect them to be more separated. Some of it seems wildly improbable, but I’ve seen far stranger things in real life.

It’s funny, even though you know it’s a book about an incredibly severe flu pandemic, there are some characters you just don’t expect to die. No one is immune. There is one character that I just kept wondering whether he would survive into the later portion. Then one person, you get a mention of how and where she dies, and I’m just shocked. Perhaps because it is a piece of foreshadowing and the events happening at the time weren’t directly related to her death.

We drift in and out amongst these disparate threads, getting a full picture of the people who survived, some of the people who didn’t, but how they affected those that did, over a long span of years. And, in the end, it all comes together in ways I never expected. A fascinating journey. Six degrees of separation? The butterfly effect? We see the connections here, given time. It will keep you wondering until the end.

“Jeevan found himself thinking about how human the city is, how human everything is. We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world, but that was a lie, it seemed to him; it had never been impersonal at all. There had always been a massive delicate infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed around us, and when people stop going to work, the entire operation grinds to a halt.”

Monday, February 5, 2018

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry
By Gabrielle Zevin

I find it ever so slightly odd that this novel opens with a character who is, while important to the story, absent for so much of the book. It’s an interesting choice and it lets us meet the main character, A.J. Fikry, through the eyes of someone else, at one of the lowest points in his life. An interesting choice indeed, and this book is not boring - it is full of interesting choices and beautiful writing.

We follow Amelia Loman over to Alice Island, where she is going to pitch the latest books from her company to the book store owner, A.J. Fikry. Amelia tells him that she has taken over for the previous rep, who had died, and A.J. is very rude.

From their first contact you might think A.J. is a real jerk but then the story turns and we see it from A.J.’s perspective. His beloved wife is but a ghost in his dreams, having died in a car accident almost two years before.

“She had been two months pregnant. They hadn’t told anyone yet. There had been disappointments before. Standing in the waiting room outside the morgue, he rather wished they had told people. At least there would have been a brief period of happiness before this longer period of  . . . he did not yet know what to call this.

The night after Amelia’s first visit, A.J. gets drunk while looking at his first edition book of Tamerlane. When he wakes, the book is gone. He hightails it down to the police station and has an absence seizure while talking to Chief Lambiase. The Chief insists on taking A.J. to the hospital to get checked out.

Later that year, two days before Christmas, A.J. finds a two year old child left in his bookstore. How? Why? By whom? There is a note asking him to care for the little girl. It is a Friday night on an island in the winter so he has to care for her, with a little help from his sister-in-law, for the weekend. They bond. He decides to adopt her.

“A.J. watches Maya in her pink party dress, and he feels a vaguely familiar, slightly intolerable bubbling inside of him. He wants to laugh out loud or punch a wall. He feels drunk or at least carbonated. Insane. At first, he thinks this is happiness, but then he determines it’s love. Fucking love, he thinks. What a bother. It’s completely gotten in the way of his plan to drink himself to death, to drive his business to ruin. The most annoying thing about it is that once a person gives a shit about one thing, he finds he has to start giving a shit about everything.”

How Amelia comes back into the story, the truth of the baby’s parentage and how she affects the story, other twists and turns, along with many life and literary observations, make this an interesting and lovely book.

A.J. observes on reading The Luck of Roaring Camp by Bret Harte as a college student and then later in life, “Methinks I have grown soft in my middle age. But me-also-thinks my latter-day reaction speaks to the necessity of encountering stories at precisely the right time in our lives.”

I did find this book to be slightly uneven. Zevin tried to pack a lot in and it covers a large period of time. There were parts that felt true and made my heart sing so that it deserved a 5 star review, then there was a portion where I thought, "Isn't this over yet?" and planned to leave it at 3 stars. In its entirety, I would have hated to miss this journey. She took some chances and a few of them didn’t work as well as others but, in the end, the cumulative effect was magnificent. It deserves a good 4.5 stars. I would recommend this book to anyone.