Nature in Focus: Sharp Eyes by William Hamilton Gibson

Once upon a time readers actually wanted to learn from books…

Sharp Eyes by William Hamilton Gibson (image courtesy Goodreads)

After a spate of book reviews for new found writer friends, this essay takes a look at a book from the 2014 reading list.  Sharp Eyes: A Rambler’s Calendar of Fifty-two Weeks Among Insects, Birds, and Flowers  is a series of descriptions and discussions of weekly nature walks. It’s one of those wonderful late 19th century “educational” works that does its best to disguise itself as entertainment.

The book is an interesting relic of the late 19th century’s “naturalist” movement inspired, in part at least, by Henry David Thoreau. Naturalist, illustrator, and writer William Hamilton Gibson offers his observations of the New England woods around his Connecticut home. Sharp Eyes is heavy with mini-lectures in botany and entomology (one wishes for more about birds since those are for this reader the most interesting chapters) but Gibson writes in the literary journalist style of late 19th century American magazine work, so even the most tedious science lessons are larded with references to poetry and philosophy that leaven the scientific descriptions and explanations…. Continue reading

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Review: Alligator Stew by C.D. Mitchell

C.D. Mitchell understands the “Dirty South” better than many who trumpet their knowledge of it…

Alligator Stew by C.D. Mitchell (image courtesy Goodreads)

In my recent essay on Richard Ford as an influence on my own writing I wrote about  dirty realism, a style associated with a group of authors, several of them Southern. Besides Ford, I mentioned Ann Beattie and Tobias Wolff. (One might also include Jayne Anne Phillips, though her West Virginia roots might lead some to question her Southern bonafides.) The characteristics that distinguish writers who work this side of the literary street (including this guy, though his interest seems to incline to turning the style of dirty realism on rather different sorts of characters) are also characteristics of C.D. Mitchell’s work. In Alligator Stew, however, Mitchell, like any good artist, takes the dirty realistic style and runs with it, making it his own and linking it to classic Southern storytelling. Continue reading

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Richard Ford’s Rock Springs and the Light it Provides…

“We have to keep civilization alive somehow.” – Richard Ford, “Communist”

Rock Springs by Richard Ford (image courtesy Goodreads)

Aspiring writers choose role models for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes, as with those who’d emulate Byron or Baudelaire, it’s the attraction of the daring or Bohemian (or both) lifestyle as much as (in most cases, more than) the work. Sometimes, as with Hemingway or Salinger or Vonnegut, it’s the self-delusion that one can write (stylistically) as they do  easily. If an aspiring writer sticks with it and develops a personal voice, the role model takes on another role: that of fondly remembered (and, perhaps, regularly returned to) mentor.

That is how it is for me with Richard Ford. I first encountered his work shortly after I’d completed my doctoral studies in writing. That was through his “breakout” work (as Wikipedia terms it) The Sportswriter. While that book was wonderful and led me to seek out more of Ford’s work, its most important function in my life was that it led me to the Ford book that I treasure most, his collection of stories called Rock Springs. Continue reading

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Book Review: Dismal Key by Mitch Doxsee

A thriller with a serious message that is also a model of what YA fiction can be…

Dismal Key by Mitch Doxsee (image courtesy Goodreads)

Mitch Doxsee’s thriller Dismal Key walks an interesting line.It certainly can meet the criteria for Young Adult (YA) literature; its protagonist, McCluskey Harvey, is 16 and in the course of the novel develops his first serious romantic relationship. And, as in any good coming-of-age story, the protagonist learns powerful life lessons about himself and what he will/will not do, no matter how evil the opponent he faces.

But Dismal Key is also a powerful tale about a sinister and under-reported crime; the kidnapping of adolescent girls for the sex slave trade. How Doxsee manages to weave together a story about a teenager’s annual summer visit with his grandparents with a riveting (and frightening) thriller about human trafficking and a serial killer that doesn’t feel contrived (unlike some popular YA works) is a credit to the author’s seriousness of purpose. Continue reading

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S— Rock Stars Say…

“I was always wondering did they like me or did they like my songs.” – Neil Young

The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Quote Book by Merrit Molloy (image courtesy Goodreads)

Had some errands this week that took me close – too close – to my favorite used bookstore. My wife had a doctor’s appointment later that day and since I had come away without anything to read, I, of course, bought a couple more books.

Hi, My name is Jim and I have a problem with books….

Anyway, I ran across the marvelous waste of time, The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Quote Book by Merrit Molloy. This slight volume (you can finish it in a couple of hours tops with breaks for whatever you need to take breaks for) is larded with quotes ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. And as you read you can guess which musicians will say which types of things.

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Book Review: The View from Inside the Mirror by Louis L. Gibbs

To be a good writer, be a good student of your genre…this is especially true for poets….

The View from Inside the Mirror by Louis L. Gibbs (image courtesy Goodreads)

Louis L. Gibbs’s book of poetry, The View from Inside the Mirror,  surprised me. I never know what to expect from a poet whose work I do not know, especially a “newbie” to the genre, and even though this is Gibbs’s second book, his first was a novel, so I was not sure what to expect. Often when self-taught writers move from, say, prose to poetry, their early work suffers from what one might call the “curse of the learning curve”: even if they have developed a solid level of proficiency in one genre that does not guarantee that they have done the spade work necessary to move to another genre successfully.

Luckily for readers, Gibbs has done his homework. The poems in this book show us a writer who has not only taught himself about poetic technique (he plays with both poetic forms and with typography), we discover a still developing poet who has immersed himself in reading poetry that technically, thematically, and philosophically gives him the sorts of influences and models that he needs to grow as an artist. That in itself is refreshing.

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Book Review: The Honduran Plot by Horton Prather

Sometimes heroism is an act of faith…

The Honduran Plot by Horton Prather (image courtesy Goodreads)

Horton Prather’s The Honduran Plot is a political thriller that violates many of the conventions of the genre. The hero, Jake Grayson, is a college kid, a computer geek who has none of the usual “tough guy/superhuman killing machine” characteristics of the typical protagonist of this kind of thriller. The motivations for the plot’s action are those that one might associate more with a work such as the classic Costa-Gavras film Missing: idealistic young man disappears in a Latin American country and friend tries to find him. And the elements of the story that are reminiscent of political thrillers – corrupt politicians and military leaders in a Central American country attempting a coup designed to allow them to enrich themselves by using their country’s geography and facilities as a conduit for powerful drug cartels – lead not only to fast paced action and thrills, but to insights into self and belief for several of the characters.

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