Out in Print is taking the week off to cook for our dinner guests, but we would like to take this opportunity to thank all of our readers, followers, groupies, and hangers-on for their support. We will return next Monday with guest reviewer Lloyd A. Meeker’s review of Ken Shaklin’s “Fucked.” We wish you a wonderful holiday!
I usually snap up whatever Bywater Books comes out with, and I have been exposed to some amazing authors this way–Hilary Sloin, Bett Norris, and Jill Malone among others. So, I was surprised when I received this prequel to Marianne K. Martin’s Under the Witness Tree, which managed to escape my attention. I’ve since added it to my TBR list, which in itself has grown to the size of a small novel, but Tangled Roots is a standalone that is sure to please.
Addy Grayson is a matriarch raising her granddaughters, Emily and Anna in early twentieth century Georgia, but the trials that she endured during the Civil War have lingering results that filter down to her charges–especially as Anna becomes best friends with the servant’s daughter, Nessie. The girls must cope with prejudice, Anna’s nursing career and goals, her involvement in the suffragette movement as well as their sexual awakening and attraction for each other.
Martin’s greatest gift is in her sharply detailed and altogether convincing characters. Addy Grayson’s strength and indomitable nature are palpable, and she is the glue which holds the family together. Anna is also finely wrought, as is Nessie. Their actions, their dialogue, their interrelationships with each other, are all absolutely true to their characters, and they never strike a false note. Her Georgia setting is evocative, and Martin does a wonderful job of portraying the racial and political attitudes of the time period.
So why am I so frustrated by the brevity of this book? Partially because Martin creates such a terrific place to be that I never wanted to leave it. This book, only 208 pages, could be half again that long and still keep my attention. The suffragette stuggle alone could have carried the additional length, never mind any additional exploration of Anna and Nessie’s relationship. But perhaps Under the Witness Tree has those bases covered.
Nevertheless, Tangled Roots is an amazing portrait of two women caught up in the social and political strife of their time, as warm and real as it is engaging. Highly recommended.
© 2014 Jerry L. Wheeler
Whether walking alongside surrealist poet Rene Crevel (Subtle Bodies), forging his own fictional path (The City’s Gates), or approaching life as recipes in a grimoire (Conjure: A Book of Spells), Peter Dube’s work always provides a literary perspective that carries weight and importance, dazzling his readers with his facility with language and his ability to straddle the line between reality and dream state. The ten stories comprising Beginning With the Mirror mine much the same territory to marvelous effect.
Though more conventional than Conjure, conventional is a relative term as applied to Dube. The first four stories ground the reader in Dube’s approach to storytelling, linked by the fact that they’re all about the elements: “Blazon” (fire), “Tides” (water), “Funnel Cloud” (air), and “Furrow” (earth), their narrators recalling childhood incidents which continue to haunt their adult lives. But no matter how well-written, a quadriptych does not a book make, and Dube has other tricks up his sleeve.
Everything here has something to recommend it, be it the style, the metaphor, the thought, or an admiration of the rhythm of the language. Plot? Yes, but always secondary to character and voice. Bones to carry their flesh. But when Dube’s characters move, they strike sparks–as in the violent and twisty “Needle,” where Drake recalls a brutal affair with Blue as he’s getting a tattoo. What that tattoo says is as surprising as the ending. Brilliantly mean and absolutely fascinating. I also enjoyed the quiet “Drifts,” which sees love between boys from two rival tribes as our civilization morphs into one far more disconnected than the current incarnation due to a true extinction level snowpocalypse, as well as the Poe-inspired “Corvidae.”
But the most delicious of all these morsels, “Vision,” has a man named Cam attending the death watch for close friend Dean, who is convinced–in his painkiller fog–that demons are coming for him. Transitioning effortlessly between the real and the fantastic, Dube creates their Venn diagram and stakes out the territory in the middle as his character’s point of view. Even at the end, you won’t be sure what the truth of the matter is.
As with Dube’s other work, a close reading will be a rewarding one. I have always enjoyed his palette of language and the way he polishes his extended metaphors until they glisten. These ten stories leave you with much to think about as well as admire.
© 2014 Jerry L. Wheeler
Damage Control: A Memoir of Outlandish Privilege, Loss and Redemption – Sergei Boissier (Argo-Navis)
Toward the end of Sergei Boissier’s memoir, he mentions a particularly odd physical service his domineering mother had her lapdog perform on her–in front of her children yet, and I wondered, “Do I really need to know this?”
The grown-up Boissier is a psychotherapist, however, so for him every nuance and particularity of Dollsie, nee Dolores, his Cuban born Social Register aspirant mother, must be brought out and aired. If not, how can he possibly be “cured”? This unique and remarkable book itself is the cure, and so we readers are made complicit in the procedure. Which brings up an entire set of possibly unanswerable questions about what it is we do exactly when we write a memoir, what are the expectations we have and how are they met; and, as importantly, how we interact, and what we do precisely when we read such a memoir.
But first the book: it is compulsive reading. It is also well written. For the most part, scene after scene is prepared for, laid out, and then limned to a climax, and onward we go to the next excess, the next scene of folly or sheer temperament. Boissier’s own life is there, in full detail, and eventually so are those of his older brother, younger sister, and his stepbrother. But the star of the book, the overriding presence, is his mother. Books like this are needed if only to show that people like Dollsie do actually exist and not just managing concentration camps, or as wardens in prison schools. They exist on all levels of society, and in this case, when their enormous ego is allied to a great deal of beauty, charm, breeding and money, they also exist at the highest levels of society, where they are free to indulge themselves at their most twisted and perverse.
The author attempts many times to get at what it was that drove this woman who then never ceased to drive her children, and who managed to drive and then drive away her husbands and lovers. He gets into her past in Cuba, the life of privilege wiped away by Fidel Castro when the wealthy were forced to flee their country. He delves into her own family history’s oddities: how when she was a child, she often traveled with her nanny and her father’s mistress, while her father traveled with her mother. More than a single generation of official hypocrisy helped form this formidable woman, and Dollsie learned early on that if she didn’t take charge utterly that she too could end up like those cast off concubines and those long suffering saint-like wives who were her models while growing up.
I was reminded of the heroines of nineteenth century novels: Becky Sharp, naturally, but even more those morally dubious heroines of Spanish literature by Perez Galdos and Alarcon, those Dona Perfectas and La Regentas. Even though her theatres of sexual war were 1960’s venues like Serendipity and the Peppermint Lounge and not some cathedral town or royal court, Dollsie left no stone unturned and even fewer un-thrown in her precipitous rise to what she had always expected should be her natural milieu. So millionaires and heads of state, couturiers and industrial magnates all had to kowtow or fall beneath the unceasing wheels of her personality, grinding out her inexorable rise. Speaking of one of her recent social conquests she lectures young Sergei: “You ‘d have to be hiding in a cave in Siberia not to know him.”
But such a rise when your talents are realistically few are perilous indeed and as a corollary, everyone around Dollsie also had to be impeccable in every way. Her first, not nearly perfect enough or ambitious enough husband, Sergei’s father, soon fell out of the picture as Dollsie tumbled ever upward, and while Boissier’s older brother was the perfect macho, polo-playing, hooligan male, sensitive and gay young Sergei was his opposite in every way. He soon became the target of Dollsie’s greatest bouts of improvement, all of which were pretty much torments to him and form the bulk of this memoir.
But if Boissier is expert at dramatizing his mother and family’s life, he’s no slouch with his own : “The first day of school was a disaster,” he tells us, “And pretty much set the tone for the next nine years.” If he enjoys camp, he’s pulled out for doing girly arts and crafts, not canoeing. If he hates a boarding school where he is bullied, he’s stuck there a perennial victim. As a reader I wanted to yell, “Get a grip, kiddo! Kick ‘em in the nuts!” But I wasn’t bullied, so what do I know?
Despite everything, including the terrible inconvenience of being gay and coming out, he does survive. And he survives his mother too, who ends up dying of cancer in a long drawn-out almost comic-tragic manner. Ending up with Boissier writing, “And here we are at the end of her life, making polite conversation, the two of them (mother and brother) trying to build me up and make me feel good on my birthday…For we always have been a family that thrives on chaos and crisis. That’s when the best comes out in each one of us making us feel like knights in shining armor coming to the rescue … ” Well. Maybe. And he does end up happy at last, a single parent of a lovely adopted girl.
When we read such books with such avidity, are we in fact encouraging more of them? I have to wonder. Or will monsters exist and need to be written about no matter who reads what? Maybe we should just forget about the philosophizing, get a box of chocolate bonbons and a heart-shaped satin pillow to lie our head upon, and enjoy.
© 2014 Felice Picano
I haven’t tried DeMarco’s Vampire Inquisitor series, but I’m definitely a fan of his Marco Fontana stuff, so I was anxious to read Death on Delancey. The only thing that could be more exciting is if DeMarco has his next volume of queered Sherlock Holmes stories ready. But (he sighed), I’ll wait. In the meantime, Death on Delancey is a rip-snorter–maybe the best yet in the series.
Two of Philly’s most popular gay bartenders are found dead following a contest in which they were both entered. One won. Was it jealousy culminating in murder-suicide, or were other forces at work? That’s what Jonny Tate, local entrepreneur and rich sleazebag whose bar the winner worked at, hires Fontana to find out. Unbeknownst to Fontana, to make sure he comes to the correct conclusion, Tate agrees covertly to finance a restaurant Fontana’s brother wants to open up. The results surprise everyone involved, including the reader.
DeMarco, like many mystery writers, has discovered the secret to a successful series. Create an interesting, complex detective, surround him with colorful minor characters (in this case, Fontana’s Russian secretary Olga and information specialist Nina), kill one or two people off, and let them all do their jobs. Okay, it’s probably more complicated than that. But DeMarco makes it look easy. Effortless, in fact. His plotlines are sturdy and eminently believable, and he leaves no loose end untied.
And let’s talk about DeMarco’s action scenes–the climax here is definitely worthy of mention, involving a not-so-innocent bystander who is not used to all this private eye business. The tension in this scene is absolutely delicious, and it’s the perfect capper. If there was a fault, it’s the mysterious red-headed woman who appears, is explained, and then disappears again without being involved in the plot as much as the reader is led to believe she will be. But the dinner at Marco’s mother’s house to celebrate his brother’s entrance into the restaurant business more than makes up for it. Mama Fontana is so much like other Italian women of that generation that I don’t need a description to see her. Her wit and charm is as abundant as the spread she puts out for the party.
But, really, there’s nothing about Death on Delancey that isn’t fun–and DeMarco also puts Philadelphia up front and center, displaying a knowledge of the city only a local would have, and that translates beautifully. So, if you’ve not read one of the Marco Fontana series before, this is a great place to start. If you have, you’ll know how involving they can be, so set aside some time and let Joe DeMarco take you to Philly.
© 2014 Jerry L. Wheeler
I missed Rhodes’s first two volumes of poetry, but I’m delighted to say I’ve now found this Provincetown bard. The structure of his pieces is as simple as his language, but that doesn’t equal simplistic. These poems are as complex and full of meaning as any overburdened with effete and obscure metaphors. He has a fine sense of irony coupled with a keen eye for detail, and his eye roams everywhere–post WWII musings, living with HIV, cruise ships, seasons, love, sex, faith, and the joys and agonies of being gay. But as observant as Rhodes is, he’s most successful when turning that eye inward. Whether it’s his personal history (“On the #1″), his aging process (“Old”), or his fondness for Vivian Vance (“Ethel”), he’s always winking at the reader, his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. Take, for example, his rumination on his own place in poetry, “Pretend I’m dead”: Pretend I’m dead and read this poem/as if the world has truly lost/an important, vital voice. Prepare/to assess my work in a fresh light/and try your best to put aside/those death-engendered sympathies/which have made poetic mountains/out of molehills. Some poets would rather die than undercut their inflated self-importance like that. Rhodes is cheeky and clever. What else do you need?
Kieran York is a hopeless romantic, but that is not perjorative in any way. If our society needs anything right now, it’s woman (and men) whose souls are centered on romance rather than snark. As readers can discern by the cover, some of this volume consists of nature poetry, sincere and achingly heartfelt (“As Nature Moves Us Through Life,” “Rocky Mountain Utopia,” “Etiquette of Morning”) but York sucessfully blends these metaphors with other life lessons of beginning romance (“Touring With My Wilding”). She also reminds us of those pre- and immediately post-Stonewall days when things were rockier between us and straight society (“Waiting for a Good Man,” “Kissing at the CherryBomb Grill”). However, I picture York as a 60’s lesbian troubadour, a remnant of the era when this country had a conscience instead of merely a consciousness. And she fesses up to that image in pieces like “Lesbos After Dark,” “Do Not Disturb,” and, my favorite of the lot, “Confessions of a Retired Hippie”: I’m not warrior material/Roz, however, was a three-beer mercenary/A snoutful of brew, and she’d swing at anybody/We were too pompous and too tortured/to take the shape of a shadow./In the scheme of life,/we were smoother than a sharpened bayonet./After soaking up a second beer,/she was the butch of all chivalry./That made me the jovial sidekick./Saving a woman’s honor – that’s what Roz was doing. Rock on, Kieran. Rock on.
And speaking of firebrands, if Orville Lloyd Douglas isn’t one, he’ll do until the real thing comes along. Many Americans have this idealized, utopic view of Canada, but Douglas explodes that myth to give us a glimpse of a country that has faults as real as our own. Racial hatred and injustice are as rife in “Alberta” and “Africville” as they are in Ferguson. Douglas’s rage is real and palpable, but its articulate nature gainsays any Us Vs. Them scenario and puts you squarely in his corner. If gay men and women understand anything at all, it’s rage. Rage at religion (“Choir Boy”), rage at homophobia (“Passion”), rage at the closet (“Crimes of Passion”) and rage at rage (“The Rage Within Me”). Powerful and muscular, these pieces are not to be consumed all at once. One or two bites are all you need to digest before you go back, but Under My Skin is a harsh meal that deserves to be finished because its lessons are so vital for everyone, as in “You Know Everything”: You know what it’s like on the subway or the bus/People standing clear or inching away, making a fuss/an old white lady clutching her purse/Being different is a curse/Yeah, you’re really black/You are so down my brother/But you don’t want to live in my section of town. Harsh poetry, harsh words, and harsh truths–but their harshness enhances their meaning. Even if this isn’t the kind of poetry you usually like, you need to read it.
Kelly McQuain is not as harsh or angry, but he is every bit as observant and personal in his latest chapbook from Bloom, Velvet Rodeo. This volume is dedicated to his mother and partner, so as expected, the work concentrates on family but not necessarily domesticity. Titles like “Southern Heat,” “Creation Myth,” and ‘Lent” are important to McQuain’s personal mythology, but they’re universal enough that we can all relate to them. And who can’t recall the liquors of their youth, as in his “A Man in the Station Bar Makes Me Miss My Train?” Liquor is also important in “The Absinthe Drinker,” but not as important as the narrator forgiving the callowness and shallow superiority of the youth he drinks with. But of all the memories recalled here, perhaps the strongest is portrayed in “Uncle,” which sees an older brother requesting a sperm donation from his younger. McQuain takes this opportunity to muse on not only life’s inception, but what happens to brothers once they enter the arena together. The last stanza is particularly poignant: My brother doesn’t need me/after all. We can keep on ghosting/through each other’s lives. Ten years slip by./My brother doesn’t phone to ask any favors./He had a boy our father never got to hold./Our hellos and how-are-yous are occasional tithes/offered at birthdays and funerals/followed by awkward goodbyes./Sometimes I see children—/other brothers. The way they wrestle,/bodies sweaty, getting knotted,/steeped in tension and smells/—armpits, peanut butter, sour milk—/until, with a twist, one gets the upper hand:/stronger pins weaker, makes him cry uncle. Involving and deceptively honest, McQuain’s voice is as true as it is edged.
Brent Calderwood’s debut collection from Sibling Rivalry is an impressive volume speaking to possibilities–the potential of the narrators to become any number of men, from the “different boys” in “Ballad of the Kind Young Men” to the ones who seek absolute perfection of “Anal Bleaching is All the Rage.” Such journeys begin in childhood, a base Calderwood covers well (“Stay Little Valentine Stay,” “Abecedarius”) but he doesn’t become stuck reminiscing. He also deals with the very real adult concepts of impermenence and its consequences, both in a portentious way (“Evolution,” “Goat Rock”) and with lighthearted metaphor (“Dog Villanelle”). That he does both with equal facility shows the breadth of his voice. And he has a particular talent for repurposing popular culture references, tossing off a beautiful restatement of The Eurythmics in “Rain” as well as a fascinating use of Norma Desmond’s famous line in Sunset Boulevard, “We had faces then” in “Headless Men”: “We had faces.”/A line from a movie no one sees./They are all headless men./We used to read books in a leather den,/then head to the tearoom on our knees./We had faces./Now we’re online till god-knows-when/for a knight with a horse in his BVDs,/but they are all headless men,/either chopped at the neck like a free-range hen/or cropped at the crotch like limbless trees. This is poetic voice at its finest, and it’s only his beginning. I look forward to hearing more.
© 2014 Jerry L. Wheeler
You never know what you’re going to get with sequels. The best ones continue the story, deepen the characters, and allow you to come away with a sense of growth. The worst ones reek of imitation and make you forget why you liked the first one so much. And then there are a whole range of in-betweenies that start off great but lose steam quickly, as if the author forgot what the point was. Not so with Cari Hunter’s excellent Tumbledown, which takes the main characters from Desolation Point and puts them back in danger.
Alex Pascal and Sarah Kent have healed, physically at least, from their last encounter with the Church of Aryan Resistance, during which Sarah killed the organization’s founder. That leaves his son–as dangerous as he is angry–hungry for revenge. Alex and Sarah have relocated to a small town in Maine, living their lives as best they can with one eye over their shoulders. A newspaper article about a birth Sarah assisted with, however, draws the attention of their pursuers, and the game is on again. The game turns out deadly for one of Sarah’s co-workers, who is killed as a warning. Things go even worse when Sarah is arrested for the crime, putting the burden on Alex to find the killer before he finds them.
Even though this is a continuation of the Desolation Point plot, this is an entirely different sort of thriller with elements of a police procedural. The first was grittier and had more of an Us v. Them feel due to the fact that it was just two women being hunted in the forest. In this installment, ancillary characters are brought in, but Hunter is able to maintain the reference points of isolation, deprivation, and danger in ways that depart from the first one. Sarah’s incarceration is told with an incredible eye for detail matched only by Alex’s efforts to get her released so they can track down the culprit. And Hunter’s heroines are very well-drawn here, richer and deeper than the last time around because of the experiences we’ve shared with them.
But the characters and the elements wouldn’t mean a thing without the tension of Hunter’s action scenes, which are flawless. Other thriller authors (yes, I’m looking at you Patterson and Grisham) could take lessons from Hunter when it comes to writing these babies. Twists and turns and forgotten or unconventional weaponry along with pluck and spirit keep me breathless and reading way past my bedtime. I can almost imagine Hunter as sweating and out of breath as her heroines once she writes her way out of the set-ups she conjures.
But can she do it again? Will there be a third installment featuring these characters? My gut says she should stop now and not go to this particular well too often. Still, a third book would be welcome if it didn’t stretch the reader’s credulity. While not exactly left open-ended, there are directions she could go that make perfect sense. And Hunter’s not afraid to change it up. Let’s wait and see. In the meantime, enjoy this fine thrill ride. But don’t start it at bedtime.
© 2014 Jerry L. Wheeler