Category Archives: Review

Recycled Reads: The Poisonwood Bible

My third installment in a series of recycled reads – a review of books found in my  local Goodwill – is The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.

Published in 1998, The Poisonwood Bible has been widely praised and was nominated for a 1999 Pulitzer Prize. The story follows the Prices, a missionary family, that moves from Georgia to the Congo in 1959. The story is told by the women in the family: Orleanna, the abused wife of patriarch Baptist minister Nathan Price, and their four daughters: Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May. There is a political undertone throughout the novel focused on the abuse of Nathan Price on his wife and children, and the abuse of the United States and European powers on the Congo, and the entire African continent.

There’s no doubt in my mind that this is an important work of fiction, and it is a book I highly recommend for readers. As a writer, I found myself thinking about a few decisions that the author made that potentially undercut the novel:

Length – The main plot arc is Shakespearean in the way it follows the tragic, headstrong, and ill-advised decisions made by Nathan Price and the escalating danger he puts his family in, leading to the death of his youngest daughter Ruth May. Imagine The Lord of the Flies, if the second half of the book followed the lives of the survivors over the next twenty-five years after being rescued. The politics of Africa shown over the final decades of the novel  are fascinating, but feel like a second story has been tacked onto the first (and more powerful) one.

Antagonist is Abandoned – Nathan Price, at the moment he puts his daughters in the most danger, disappears almost entirely in the narrative, and is not present in the moment when the mother and daughters decide to leave the mission. Nathan turns into a ghost, a rumor. Perhaps this is because it is Kingsolver’s intent to have the larger antoginist to be patriarchal America vs. the family patriarch. For me, the lack of active conflict before the climactic moment of the novel took away from its overall impact.

Author Intrusion – There are times in the narrative when the diary-like voices of the daughters are abandoned for a narrator’s voice giving us the horrific background to the political upheaval caused by Europe and the United States in Africa. This sometimes happens with an occasional paragraph and in other cases, as with the ending, there are longer stretches where the narrator sums up the meaning of the story for us. All of this additional context if powerful, but it pulled me out of the drama of the core story.

As writers, we are always looking to take lessons from every book we read. I have no doubt that others may disagree with my analysis. Please feel free to comment below.

Martin Ott

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Map Literary – On the Map of Online Literary Magazines

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As we have seen some of our best literary magazines move online or create online editions, the launch of some of the best new literary magazines have occurred in the online space.

There are some of the newer  online magazines I read for poetry like Plume or short fiction like Joyland, but there is one magazine that I follow each issue in equal parts for poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and art: Map Literary.

The Spring 2014 issue is no except. Work of interest includes poetry by Simeon Berry, the short story Your Hands by Scottish writer Halsted M. Bernard, and artwork from the Ark Codex from Calamari Press

The magazine is affiliated with the English Department of the College of Humanities & Social Sciences at the William Paterson University of New Jersey, but the accomplished editors, with a track record of publishing success, imbue the magazine with a modern aesthetic and content that combines artistry and relevance.

This is one magazine to put on your lit mag roadmap.

Martin Ott

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Why I Never Write Negative Book Reviews

Guest Post by Stacia M. Fleegal

Stacia M. Fleegal photo

A few years ago, I decided to up my good writer karma by writing more book reviews.

I’ve been editor of Blood Lotus for eight years now, and for the past two years, a blogger on regional poetry through the newspaper where I work, and I can say beyond any doubt that one of the greatest perks of (often unpaid) literary work is the community you become part of – a community you otherwise  would know nothing about.

At the end of the TV show “Sex and the City”—this is related, trust me—Carrie looks at her three best friends and, instead of saying goodbye, asks, “What if I had never met you?” And the camera pans all of their faces as they convincingly fall apart, are devastated, by the weight of that question.

I look at my bookshelves and wonder the same thing sometimes. How many of these books would never have moved me if I only gave my time and energy to something when I was being paid? God, who would I even BE right now?

Maybe, though, my motivation for writing book reviews is different than others’.

Certainly, I’m not an academic. I’m not dissecting literature through this or that trendy critical lens.

When I decide to tell someone about a book, it’s because I loved it, or things about it, sentences or cadences or certain narratives that I believe deserve a larger audience.

It’s because, and laugh or roll your eyes if you want, the book has become a friend.

I’m not trying to change the literary landscape with a review. I’m not trying to impose my tastes onto the reading world.

And I’m not trying to talk shit on other writers.

Good reviews versus bad reviews – I don’t want to live in a world where there’s only one or the other, believe me. No one likes a sycophant. So much has been written on this topic, too. For my part, I’m sticking to the personal. The way I see it, a book review should do one or more of the following: 1) inform, 2) recommend, 3) highlight key literary device(s), and/or 4) frame the work in the larger context of literature.

If you like a book that you’re reviewing, you are informing a reader about the book (where to buy, a little about the author, etc.), recommending the book to others, demonstrating that you can intelligently discuss what you like about the book so the reader trusts your opinion, and perhaps making a statement about where that book fits into the canon of books out there to consume.

By these standards, if your review has nothing nice to say, what are you accomplishing? You’re 1) informing the reader not to buy a book, 2) recommending against buying a book (which at this point is just redundant), 3) highlighting what’s not working, or what you don’t like, and/or 4) framing larger problems in literature.

Except…when was the last time you read a horrible, scathing review of someone’s work and thought,

wow, I really learned something about literature today? If you know the author, do you think, wow, I change my mind about previous work by that person that I’ve read and thought I enjoyed? If you don’t know the author, do you really decide to never read anything by her/him again?

The exception, in my opinion, is when a reviewer takes on a classic or a New York Times bestseller. If someone writes an articulate, thoughtful, seemingly agenda-free hate piece on The Catcher in the Rye or Harry Potter, that in and of itself might add to the conversation of American letters. If everyone loves something and you can make a smart argument against it, can make people think, then go for it.

But what does slamming a hand-stitched first chapbook of an unknown indie poet do for that conversation? Or for anyone? I mean, it makes you look like a jerkface, but that’s about it. I firmly believe we can learn from work we don’t enjoy reading, but do we have to do that learning in the public space of a published book review?

Look. I have, like, zero free time. I don’t want to spend hours mired in negativity to churn out a review. To me, it’s akin to spending hours letting someone bore me to death at a bar, rather than having a drink with a few close friends. I want to devote my time to promoting someone deserving of the little bit  of attention I can give her/him. Wouldn’t it be a better, more karmic use of my time to write lengthy reviews of books I like? And if I must wax sarcastic or unimpressed, merely list, like a comprehensive PSA, those books I wish I’d never “met”?

I view book reviewing as arts advocacy. So I guess the real question becomes: Is it an act of advocacy to criticize—to essentially tell a reader, “don’t read [this]”?

If you aren’t advocating for the written word in a book review, why are you writing book reviews?

About the Author:

Stacia M. Fleegal is the author of Versus (BlazeVOX, 2011), Anatomy of a Shape-Shifter (WordTech, 2010), and three chapbooks, most recently antidote (Winged City Press, 2013). Her poems have recently appeared in Best of the Net 2011Fourth River, North American Review, and Mud Luscious, have been nominated for Best of the Net 2012, three times nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and are forthcoming in Barn Owl Review, Knockout, and Crab Creek Review (2013 poetry contest honorable mention)She co-founded (in 2006) and co-edits the online literary journal Blood Lotus and runs a poetry blog called Versify for the York Daily Record/Sunday News, where she is a journalist.

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The Poetry of Sherman Alexie’s War Dances

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One of my New Year’s resolutions is to better utilize the lengthy commute to my job by the Los Angeles airport. Another is to read more in 2014 than in 2013. Another is to be more budget conscious. Multi-tasker that I am, I decided to combine all of these resolutions together in the form of library audio books.

So I went to the Los Feliz Public Library and was embarrassed to discover that my old library card had gone inactive and I needed to fill out a new form. My first selection with my new card was War Dances by Sherman Alexie.I have read a number of Alexie’s stories and poems in magazines over the years, but hadn’t yet read one of his books.

War Dances is a combo platter of short stories, flash fiction, and essayistic vignettes. I was quite moved by Alexie’s ability to weave hardscrabble stories with complex themes and layered mythologies while still managing to shape the stories in a way that made it seem like your literate uncle was sitting down next to you and sharing a story from his life. Alexie’s voice was hypnotic for my commute that week, and I instantly became aware of poetic threads throughout his work::

  • Bookend poems that help frame the collection
  • Odes to mix tapes, sweethearts, and pay phones
  • Imbedded poems within stories

What strikes me most, however, is that there is little difference between the poetry and the prose. The poems have the same accessibility and humor of Alexie’s prose, and the prose contains aspects of what might be considered narrative poetry. For example, I’m not sure I’ve encountered a prose writer who so effectively and continuously utilizes repetition. Nouns are repeated throughout the book in a singsong flurry, mostly in groups of threes. In the story Invisible Dog on a Leash, the protagonist states: “Isn’t it cool to live in Bigfoot country? In the heart of Bigfoot country? In the heart of the heart of Big foot country?”

There are also multiple examples of meditations on things, that remind me of object poems, from the bat in Breaking and Entering, to the owl in Bird Watching at Night, to the cockroach in War Dances. There are also a few times where Alexie provides clinical or dictionary definitions of certain words, then use the word in a metaphor or analogy. In The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless, the protagonist defines “microlender” in the context of a woman he is interested in, then later uses it in a different context to define his relationship with his daughter.

Even though I occasionally become annoyed when it felt like the author’s voice intruded into the stories, I happily listened to War Dances twice. I’m pretty sure that the fiction writer and poet inside of me won’t have to get into a fistfight for me to select another book of Alexie’s for a future week of commutes.

Martin Ott

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New Letters – Attitude

Cock Fight Spine Set.indd

Attitude is the theme for the fall 2012 issue of New Letters. From cover to cover, we are presented with a mix of hard-hitting poetry, fiction and essays, artwork from Leonard Koenig and William Wind McKim, and an interview by Anis Shivani with one of our most talented and underrated authors Don Lee.

Favorites in this issue was the story A Kind of Tender Infinity by Wendell Mayo, that captured a time and place in the American imagination with a marriage proposal during the race to the moon, and poetry by Albert Goldbarth, William Trowbridge, Peter Balakian and Carolyne Wright. These writers don’t pull any punches as they hold up a mirror to the America we know and thought we knew.

I read the entire issue cover to cover in a single sitting, and recommend you get some Attitude as well.

Martin Ott

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Recycled Reads: The Human Stain

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I’m pleased to kick off 2013 with the second in a series of recycled reads from my Goodwill in Los Feliz. The book is The Human Stain by Philip Roth, which forms the third in a loose trilogy following American Pastoral and I Married a Communist, and has been much lauded since its publication in 2000.

Critiquing Philip Roth is daunting, as the novel is damn good, but there is much to dissect from the perspective of a writer. Let me start by saying that I was bummed after reading The Human Stain because  I felt like it had the potential to be one of the best books ever penned by an American author if it weren’t for a few vexing narrative decisions.

First things first. Who’s story is this anyway? Nathan Zuckerman is presented as the narrator  in a key juncture in the life of the book’s protagonist Coleman Silk, a classics professor at a small New England college. We begin the novel shortly after Coleman’s wife has died, and he has been forced to retire after referring to absent students he’d never met as ‘spooks.’ Unknown to Silk, the students are African-American, and he becomes embroiled in a scandal that ruins his academic career.

Unfortunately, Zuckerman is only present at the beginning and end, with a bit of him mixed throughout the novel with the close third person perspectives of multiple characters: Faunia Farley, a janitor with a tortured past, her abusive ex-husband and Vietnam vet Les Farley, and Delphine Roux, a lonely young classics professor and careerist who plays an active role in Silk’s fall from grace.

The stories of these four characters are compelling, and Zuckerman’s half-role as narrator impedes our ability to truly commit to the dramatic world they inhabit. If the intention was to have Zuckerman uncover the shocking mystery that Silk was in fact part African American and completely turned his back on his past to better assimilate into American life, then why did Roth so richly delve into stories of other characters that the narrator would have no way of knowing?

The problem with Roth’s partial commitment to the “I” voice of  Zuckerman is that he can’t maximize using the narrator as a detective to unearth the mysteries surrounding the life and death of Silk. And because we never fully commit to the world of the other characters, we have many lost opportunities for dramatic tension. For example, we start with the drama of the scandal and retirement completed; we know far in advance the Silk will die; and the description of the supposed murder of Silk by the jealous Les Farley is described in a single sentence.

The novel’s half-commitment to unspooling a mystery and  to the active portrayal of the tragic love triangle makes me feel like we are presented with two half-novels spliced together. Don’t get me wrong, only the genius of an author like Roth could have overcome these types of challenges with a truly memorable novel.

On another note, Philip Roth made quite a stir this year with an open letter to Wikipedia in the New Yorker refuting the origin of The Human Stain, as well as the sad news reported in the French magazine Les inrockuptibles  that he is retiring from novel writing. This is a loss for us all, as his later work, such as The Human Stain, challenges us to ask questions of ourselves and America.

– Martin Ott

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Bad Robot Poetry

Yes, we have survived another bout of doomsday zaniness and 2013 beckons. I wanted to end the year by giving a shout out to a UK-based blogzine I recently stumbled across: Bad Robot Poetry.

The magazine mixes verse and media in ways that feel dangerous and fresh. Here you’ll find poems in HTML, hashtags, tweets, track changes, screenshots, images and auto translations. The vibe is experimental, punk and sci-fi, and while my own tastes run more traditional, I had to let my inner geek out and tip my tinfoil hat to the editor Catherine Woodward.

– Martin Ott

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Easy Does It – Chad Harbach and Tracy K. Smith

Recently, I decided to read a novel (The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach) and a book of poetry (Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith)  at the same time. I read a chapter, then a group of poems, and continued this pattern over the course of several weeks. I discovered similarities – things I mostly liked and occasionally disliked – about both works. I also found a few lessons.

Lesson #1 – Don’t Shy Away from Well-Traveled Terrain

As writers, we are often told to explore new subject matter and forms. However, there are some subjects that are universal for a reason and strike chords. The topics of baseball in The Art of Fielding and outer space in Life on Mars speak to the geek in me. At different times in my life, I was obsessed about both topics, and I’m not the only one. Both writers find a way to treat these well-traveled topics in a fresh way, while still managing to keep an ease and simplicity in the work itself.

Lesson #2 –  Simplicity Does Not Mean Shallow

OK, I’ll admit it. As a fiction writer and poet, I got a bit jealous by how easy The Art of Fielding and Life on Mars were to read. The “effortless” prose and poetry felt very much like watching an athlete like Kobe Bryant gliding to the rim.

Neither writer adorned their works with words that called attention to themselves. Chad used the very familiar setting of college life to paint vibrant scenes without a lot of additional prose that took away from the sharp dialogue. Tracy often used simple metaphors (e.g. The Universe Is a House Party) to build her poems around.

While each author occasionally annoyed me – The POV charecterizations in The Art of Fielding were sometimes too shallow and there were a couple of clunkers (very bad poems) near the end of Life on Mars – I found myself excited and engaged with both works.

Lesson #3 – Ignore the Reviews and Make Up Your Own Mind

There were plenty of reviews available online and friends who wanted to share their opinions about each book. It’s always this way with books that have “buzz” and I needed to work hard to avoid finding out too much about them in advance. Of course, if you are reading this blog, it’s OK – no spoilers here!

– Martin Ott

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Recycled Reads – Revolutionary Road

I live less than a block from my neighborhood Goodwill in Los Feliz, the same one I’ve donated used books to for years. Recently, for the first time, I decided to browse the selection of books there, and found a treasure trove of authors and titles that had been jettisoned from book shelves. Many of the offerings had been popular in past decades,  and I became interested in whether some of these books withstood the test of time.

For my first Recycled Read, I’d like to review Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. I had high expectations from the blurbs by Kurt Vonnegut and Tennessee Williams on the back cover. Revolutionary Road was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1962, and Richard Yates has been attributed to be an influence on writers such as Raymond Carver and Andres Dubus.

So how did Revolutionary Road hold up nearly 50 years after first being published? For me, it was a mixed bag. It was a novel that did not seem to know itself. The doomed relationship of a dysfunctional couple that relocates to the suburbs is undercut by the author’s insistence to veer away from its most powerful scenes. Yates alternated between the close third-person perspective of his main protagonists Frank and April Wheeler to a confusing mix of minor characters. The title Revolutionary Road also seems to suggest it is a novel of place, but it barely scratches the surface of the dynamics within its Connecticut suburban neighborhood.

The novel is at its best in the tense, active and sometimes volatile scenes starring Frank and April. At their core, they are two people who do not seem to know themselves or each other, lonelier in each other’s company than they would be otherwise as they try to fit themselves into some idyllic world that does not exist. WW2 hovers  in Frank’s oft-repeated war stories, but his defining characteristic is fear in himself, his family and his vision of how to be a man. April’s only joy is in acting for the local neighborhood theater company, but she slowly comes to realize that she has been acting every day for years, and poorly at that. Both Frank and April are burdened by the illusion that they are special, different from their neighbors as they plan an exodus to Europe so that Frank can find himself.

The author intrudes, however, with an additional layer of commentary, alternating between sometimes very short scenes with minor characters, an opening salvo in third person plural, and an ending with a minor character turning off his hearing aid to close the curtains. There is also a heavy-handed catalyst in the form of a man who has been deemed crazy, and asks the questions the couple is afraid to ask each other.

The plot veers between the domestic and business worlds of wife and husband with marital affairs, poor decisions, and a remarkable lack of focus on the couple’s two kids. Without a dramatic engine propelling us forward, we are unprepared for April’s unwanted pregnancy and the decisions that drive the novel to its tragic conclusion, told in many voices.

Perhaps it is the author’s intent to keep the main characters at arm’s distance and there may well be others who feel differently about this book, and its place in the literary cannon (on more than one best 100 book list). Regardless of how the story was told, Yates was one of the first to focus the novel on the everyday plight of suburban families, and this subject matter has since spurred many great stories and books.

Feel free to agree, disagree, or to add to the conversation.

Martin Ott

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