Book Review: Throwing the house from the window by Joshua William Booth…

Poems that occasionally challenge readers…the “trigger warning” excuses can begin in 3…2…1….

Throwing the House From the Window by Joshua William Booth

A couple of things will become obvious quickly for readers of this review. The first is that the reviewer has the same last name as the author being reviewed. That would be because we are related. Put that aside. If writers from Sophocles to Turgenev to Steinbeck have taught us anything, it’s that father to son assessments should be read with…a critical mind, let’s say.

The second is that the author of this volume of poetry is a working poet as well as the poetry editor at Scholars & Rogues – where I am fiction editor. So I admit freely there’s a bit of insider trading going on here. But I challenge the reader to find a publication that does not tout works by its own staff. For those who’ve taken that challenge – well, they’ll be gone awhile, so let’s move on, shall we?

Throwing the house from the window is Booth’s third book and second book of poetry.  A brief look at his first two works is probably apropos to set this third work in context.

His second book, Danger! God Particles is a series of what would commonly be called “flash fictions” these days, though Booth, an admirer of Donald Barthelme (and arguer with this reviewer on multiple occasions about the author’s merits) would point the reader towards Sixty Stories as an influence.  Continue reading

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There is no “Greatest Short Story of All Time…”

There is no “greatest” short story. There are only great short stories and great writers…

Stephen Crane (image courtesy Wikimedia)

It’s wonderful to know literature. It’s great to have favorite writers. It’s even enjoyable to argue about who our best writers are, what their greatest works are.  And of course, we live in a “list culture” that thrives on creating arbitrary lists of “the greatest” in about every category of human endeavor – including cat videos.

Knowing the Internets as we all do, I’m not sure why I let myself get exercised by James Parker’s essay published at Slate a couple of days ago proclaiming “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” the greatest short story of all time. People are constantly arguing about what literature was, is, will be, or should be. Including this guy.

But there were a couple of points that Parker attempted to make (and that I, for one, didn’t buy) that piqued my interest – and that set my crap detector to clicking.

So let us begin….

Parker’s first point had to do with what makes a great short story. His context is that, above all, a story should capture the reader/listener’s attention, should draw in the audience and hold them with its power:

It’s what fiction should be, basically, what it should be aiming at: the death-grip, the ultimate concern. The naked lunch.

Continue reading

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Sinclair Lewis Imagines American Dictatorship: It Can’t Happen Here…Can It…?

“More and more, as I think about history…I am convinced that everything that is worthwhile in the world has been accomplished by the free, inquiring, critical spirit, and that the preservation of this spirit is more important than any social system, whatsoever.  But the men of ritual and the men of barbarism are capable of shutting up the men of science and of silencing them forever.” – Doremus Jessup in Sinclair Lewis’s, It Can’t Happen Here

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (image courtesy Goodreads)

It may seem strange that I choose to write about Sinclair Lewis’s dystopian satire, It Can’t Happen Here, for July 4th, the high holy day of the American ideal/experiment. Lewis’s novel is, after all, about the subversion of American democracy into a dictatorship. Worse, that dictatorship, is controlled by the leader of a political party called, presciently enough, The American Corporate State and Patriot Party. If ever someone seemed a political seer trying to warn us to consider the results of our actions, Lewis is that seer and It Can’t Happen Here is his warning. Published in 1935, the novel both reminds us of the complicated economic and political stresses of that time and, in an eerie way, reads (for anyone who has been paying attention over the last decade) like the playbook of – well, of both the “corporate citizen” and “patriot” movements within American politics.

For those who don’t know the work of Lewis (and, sadly, that will be far too many), his stock in trade as a novelist was the closely detailed, wittily sarcastic satirization of American life and culture. His masterpiece, Main Street, looks at the smug conservatism of American small towns; Babbitt is an indictment of bourgeois conformity and the practice of “boosterism” (called by another name today, but as rampant now as when Lewis wrote his novel); Arrowsmith, an inquiry into how science, specifically the practice of medicine, is affected by “expected” definitions of success; Elmer Gantry, his attempt to expose the hypocrisy of too many “big time” religious evangelists;  and Dodsworth, a critique of the wealthy (whom Lewis found intellectually empty and self-absorbed). For this body of work Lewis became America’s first Nobel Prize winner in literature in 1930.

It Can’t Happen Here began life as an intended indictment of political demagoguery – in particular, Lewis intended to satirize “The Kingfish,” Louisiana governor and senator (and would-be US President) Huey Long.  Long’s assassination in Baton Rouge, as well as Lewis’s growing concern as he learned more and more about fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany changed the course of his novel – and It Can’t Happen Here was the result. Continue reading

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Making the Familiar Strange: Is This the Key to Artistic Nirvana…?

…when damn near everything presents itself as familiar — it’s not a surprise that some of today’s most ambitious art is going about trying to make the familiar strange. In so doing, in re-imagining what human life might truly be like over there across the chasms of illusion, mediation, demographics, marketing, imago, and appearance, artists are paradoxically trying to restore what’s taken for “real” to three whole dimensions, to reconstruct a univocally round world out of disparate streams of flat sights. – Jonathan Lenthem

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (image courtesy Goodreads)

Sam Smith and I had this email conversation last week (we have such conversations fairly regularly) about writing. I had just reviewed another highly successful genre novel, Hugh Howey’s Wool, and was mewling and puking as I often do about a primary complaint I have about some of the most popular – and revered – authors of the current boom in genre lit of one form or another: their tendency to spend the endings of their novels setting up the next book in their series.  But we also got into talking about pacing and other writerly matters. We were conversing about a friend who’s currently shopping a couple of excellent manuscripts – both compelling storytelling, both genre related (but not genres currently considered “hot” by the publishing industry). In one message Sam had advised our friend to consider writing a work of  fantasy, speculative, or dystopian fiction. I read that advice with a mixture of appreciation and wistful envy and offered my take on my chances of ever writing anything genre based:

I looked at your comments to [friend's name redacted] about writing sci-fi/fantasy/speculative fiction and thought, “Yep. He could do that.”  Then I thought “Why can’t I?” But I know the answer. It’s just not stuff I could care enough about to want to write. Wish to hell I could.
But no, I’ll just putz along with my silly lit fic and sell maybe a few hundred copies of something and think I’ve had a great run. Of course I also think, “Should writing simply be about making money?” And Samuel Johnson’s words come up and kick me in the ass: “No man, except a blockhead, ever wrote, except for money.”
Say hello to the king of the blockheads….

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Dave Davies’ Kink: Rock Star Same as He Ever Was…

“There is part of that little boy that has remained with me…. He’s always there to remind me of the endless possibilities that exist in the world, all that life has to offer….” – Dave Davies

Kink by Dave Davies (image courtesy Goodreads)

I bought Dave Davies’ “autobiography,” (it’s really a highly discursive memoir with plenty of digressions) Kink about a year ago at my favorite used book store. I’d just read a couple of rock books, including a lovely memoir about meeting John and Yoko at the height of their “bed-in for peace” period and earlier I’d waded through a typical “rock bio” book about the Rolling Stones: you know the type, lots of pictures, very little reported that a serious fan wouldn’t already know – or know more about than the author.

Prior to taking up this yearly quest to write essays about all the books I read in a particular year (and, in the process, getting myself lots of recommendations from friends and pleas from fellow writers for book inclusions), I’d read a number of rock biographies and autobiographies, including biographies of The BeatlesElvis, and Bob Dylan and the recent autobiographies of Eric Clapton and Keith Richards. In the queue for this year I have Dylan’s memoirPattie Boyd’s book about her marriages to George Harrison and Eric Clapton, and Pete Townshend’s autobiography.

I dig rock and roll music, as the song says….

There are two matters to take up in writing about Dave Davies’ look back at his time as the lead guitarist (and creator of one of rock’s most memorable sonic  experiences, that overloaded guitar riff that kicks of “You Really Got Me”) for one of one of  the bands who stand head and shoulders above all others as the giants of the British Invasion - The Kinks.  The first matter is the story Davies tells about himself and his life as a rock star. The second is about criticism, just and unjust, Davies has received for his honesty and openness in telling that story. Continue reading

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Hugh Howey’s Wool: Utopia for the lovers of Dystopia…

Wool is a smart, interesting take on the dystopian novel. It’s also kind of frustrating in that “wait for the next book to find out” way….

Wool by Hugh Howey (image courtesy Goodreads)

My local library, a vibrant place of reading, thinking and culture in my community, which I support wholeheartedly in spite of reassurances from the likes of the Google boys and Jeff Bezos that such places are no longer necessary, has been having its annual community read during the month of June. This year’s read has been the bestselling dystopian epic Wool by Hugh Howey.  (Yep, I’m off the 2014 reading list - and its revision - again, though I keep adding the books that come across my desk to that ever expanding list so that’s not strictly true, I guess.) One of the neat things associated with this community read has been community “read-alouds“; groups have been meeting in different spots across the area to read from the novel and discuss the action. I participated in a read-aloud last evening. The nicest thing about the group was the age range – from middle schoolers to a crusty old writer/professor. We had a great time doing a  dramatic reading of the events from one section of this sprawling work. This is wonderful stuff in a rural community like ours and the mix of younger and older readers both sparks hope for the future in this particular reader and, I hope, provides those younger readers with role models and will encourage them to develop a life-long love of reading.

And that, I suppose, covers the Utopian vision part of this program. As I mentioned in my most recent essay, the first decade and a half of the current millennium has been characterized by a powerful – and not completely explicable for this writer – reader fascination with dystopias and apocalypsesWool is certainly a beneficiary of this interest, and it is in some ways a classic example of this genre. It is also, as best I can determine, the first in a series of works Howey plans to offer readers about this dystopian world where people live in underground silos that are both physical and metaphorical.  Continue reading

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Why the Fascination with Sci-Fi and Fantasy Dystopias and Apocalypses…?

Is the explanation for the current deluge of dystopian and apocalyptic books as simple as Millienial anxiety? Maybe. Maybe not….

Aldous Huxley, author of “Brave New World,” one of the most famous dystopian tales (image courtesy Wikimedia)

(XPOST: Scholars and Rogues)

In one of my typical “here’s what I’m writing for S&R this time” email conversations with “Chief Scrogue-in-Charge of Herding the Cats Who are the Scrogue Team” Sam Smith a couple of days ago, I mentioned that since I’m only part of the way through my latest reading endeavor (I’m trying to get through one of the most recent darling texts of the “sci-fi/fantasy dystopia/apocalypse” craze, Hugh Howey’s plodding – for me, anyway – dystopian epic called, aptly enough, Wool - and if you’re too young and ill read to get the metaphor reference, I’m too old and past being patient to explain it), so I told Sam that for S&R’s ArtSunday feature this week I’d write a piece on the current fascination of a large swath of the reading public for anything  that represents – in either sci-fi or fantasy terms - a dystopian or apocalyptic view of our future on Planet Earth.

Sam’s reply, as usual was to the point:

I think that’s a dissertation. Have you noticed the explosion of sci-fi, fantasy, speculative, and supernatural in TV and film in the past few years? Something is going on and I haven’t gotten my head around it yet.

My response was my typical carefully considered and profoundly pondered – waggery:

 I agree wholeheartedly that a number of dissertations could be written on this as a cultural bellwether of some sort. I’m just going to yammer for several hundred words and throw out a few wildly unsupported speculations. This is the Internet, after all…

You have been warned.  Continue reading

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