Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Poetry Readings This Summer, New England

More poetry readings I hope to catch in New England this summer: Catherine Doty at the Frost Place (Franconia NH) on Thursday 6/29 (, funny and solid. And at the Frost Place in August, Tony Hoagland on 8/4, Jane Hirshfield on 8/5 (deep California poet, a must!). Here at Kingdom Books, Ron Padgett and Tom Veitch, legends of the New York School of Poetry, get provocative on July 17 (4 p.m.), and there's an author's tea with Rachel Hadas and her new collection on July 26, 4 p.m. Plus an unusual event on July 18 (4 p.m., Kingdom Books), when the fine press designer and engraver Brian Cohen of Bridge Press chats with poet Chard deNiord about their years of collaboration. E-mail me for more! There's no better reason to burn a little of that high-priced gasoline.

Woman, the Garden, Poetry: Anne Marie Macari

Last night's 250-mile drive (round trip) to hear poets Anne Marie Macari and Gerald Stern read was worth every minute of travel. Gerald Stern, amusing and somber in turns, is at the peak of his career and delighted in reading five poems at least 25 years old, and seven new ones, and earned a standing ovation from the crowd in Henniker, NH.
But it was Macari that stunned. Her recently released collection Gloryland (through Alice James Books) takes the drama of God and woman and childbirth/nurture into such deep, rich waters (see my review at that listening to her read the poems aloud, in her careful resonant voice, was the jewel of the night. But -- whoah! -- the follow-up collection she's giving birth to, from which she read "raw" month-old stanzas, is going to rock feminist poetry and theology and passion. It's no less than an entire re-visioning of the Garden. Wouldn't be fair to say more now, and she's clearly in early stages, but this is a good moment to snag a copy of Gloryland and drink up the foundation she pours in it. What a poet!
(Joan Larkin read; her poets are intimate and minimalist at once, and she announced publication of a "new and selected" for 2007. Upcoming New England readings to mark on the calendar -- see separate blog entry.)

Monday, June 26, 2006

Scott Smith, The Ruins: Creepy!

How close does Stephen King come to writing mysteries? Is a suspense novel with a sci-fi or fantasy twist ever considered a mystery?
I ask, because a few days ago I read an advance copy of The Ruins, by Scott Smith, and after the first 24 hours of shudders, "larger questions" came to mind ... some of them as follows.
Yes, it's terrifying; yes, it moves fast and has such horror to it that it merits another Stephen King comment, the way Scott Smith's earlier novel A Simple Plan did ("best suspense novel of this year"). And when I finished reading The Ruins, way too late at night, because I couldn't stop, I genuinely worried about what kind of nightmares I'd earned.
After all, the slow slip into horrifying consequences is something we all know about. And Smith's grim premise, that two young couples on vacation in Mexico could make just enough bad judgment calls to put them into danger, makes perfect sense. I could feel the potential for it happening to me, or to someone I love. If the phone had started ringing as I was reading, I'd expect the caller to be sobbing and saying, "You've got to help me!"
There's an edge of science fiction to what actually invades the lives of the four relatively nice people here. Yet again, the known reality edges close: Who would have guessed, a few years ago, that an ordinary mosquito bite could send viruses into your bloodstream that would give you West Nile Fever? Or that a tick bite suffered years earlier and maybe not even noticed would be the opening for a silent invasion of your nervous system, crushing you with Lyme Disease?
These are the things I dreaded before the book, and dreaded more as the emotions from reading it settled into my chest. But on the morning after, pondering how easy it is for Smith's people to fall into a danger that not only horrifies but can't ever be escaped once you've been close enough to see it, a deeper dread crept into me.
Because there really are things that, once you see them, cling inside you with their slime and appalling threat. Witness a bombing, or the Twin Towers on fire; endure a rape or re-live, with a friend, a rape or mugging that happened to them; listen to a stranger quietly threatening a child, that person's own child, and realize you're listening to the dreadful threats of a child abuser out in public.
The nightmare under the skin in The Ruins is no less real than all these. Reading this intense, never-lets-you-go suspense, you'll recognize two things: a master storyteller, and the danger of being human in an unpredictable and sometimes awful universe.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Donald Westlake: Worth Another Read

What makes a Donald Westlake book into such a good vacation from reality? I mean, gritty, New York based, urban -- but somehow fun. Well, I think it goes beyond the hilarity of the plots. I recently re-read Put a Lid On It (Warner Books, 2002) and I've got a notion. But first, the plot: When dedicated thief Francis Xavier Meehan, serving time in the Manhattan Correctional Center, hears he’s getting a visit from his lawyer, things smell fishy. For one thing, it isn’t his lawyer. For another, this urbane fellow turns out to be representing someone in Washington, DC, who wants Meehan to handle a political twist that he’s especially competent to undertake: burglary. And if you think that’s funny, just wait until you read the rest of this light-hearted caper, a classic Westlake page-turner in which the real sophisticates turn out to be the thieves – and their friends. Come to think of it, the reliably wacky friendships really make it a Westlake. Oh yeah, and the sticky situations that turn out to be solvable through a bit of underhanded plotting that outdoes the Washington crowd any way you like! Personal conclusion: Any mystery where the friends pull you through is going to have potential for re-reading. (That includes S. J. Rozan, Andrew Vachss, and I'm open to suggestions. Blog or e-mail.)

Monday, June 19, 2006

Because Donald Westlake's Coming to Vermont

The most curious pen name that Donald Westlake uses, to my mind, is Richard Stark. Did he intend to have the name echo the voice? This is a reportorial storyteller who outlines "stark facts," and who doesn't add any frills to the plot -- not even (oh famous detail!) the first name of the character, labeled only as "Parker." Yes, I've been reading Richard Stark, this time The Outfit, 1963 (reprinted by Mysterious Press, 1998).
The Outfit has got to be the ultimate “caper” book. Parker, annoyed that a crime syndicate known as The Outfit won’t settle financially with him in a fair way, arranges for the Big Guys to feel his pain. Except, as I said, it’s a caper book – and pain, suffering, frustration, they’re all pretty abstract and absent, really. All that matters is how each puzzle piece of confronting the organized group comes to life and fits into the next one. Men get shot dead; women more or less dodge the bullets; and Parker, with a grinning friend or three, gets his way. Read this one when you’re sick of complications. You can ride with the plot, like an extra rider in the caper car, and despite the grim tone to the tale, get a dose of entertaining satisfaction from the way it wraps up. One more reason for reading this one: It's the entry into Westlake's film career. More on that later.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Joe Brainard (left) and Ron Padgett

Joe: A Memoir of Joe Brainard, by Ron Padgett

Reviewing a book already in press for two years only happens when there's a hook, and here it is: One day, in a little restaurant in Plainfield, the poet Ron Padgett said to me, "I can't get -- to sponsor an event to focus on Joe Brainard, and I'm frustrated."
I knew a little about Brainard's art and life, just enough to say "Hey, I'll find you a venue." And that, in turn, led to Kingdom Books deciding to sponsor a Joe Brainard event at Catamount Arts in St. Johnsbury, where Ron can show both the classic Brainard art flick "I Remember" and some movie footage that's never gone public before. It's scheduled for June 24, at 3 p.m.
The thing is, the more I read about Brainard and his life, the more I wondered why we don't all know more about this side of Vermont. Raised in Oklahoma, like his biographer, poet, and friend Ron Padgett, Brainard became a significant New York artist and poet, creating "C Comics" and collaborating with-- are you ready? -- John Ashbery, Kenward Elmslie, Bill Berkson, Anne Waldman, Ted Berrigan, Alcie Notley. And add to these the circle of poets that Brainard socialized with, including Frank Bidart, James Schuyler, Joanne Kyger, Darragh Park, Lewis Warsh, Aram Saroyan. Many more are listed in the opening of Padgett's book, as he mentions the people who shared information about Joe's life and in some cases copies of correspondence.

In other words, Brainard's life threaded directly through the heart of the great New York poets and their work.
What ties all this to Vermont is that, like others of the time (weÕre talking 1965 to 1993; Brainard was born in 1942 and died in 1994), this extremely creative person discovered that summering in Vermont could bring balance to an edgy and sometimes risky life. A long-term, although not always monogamous, partnership with the performance poet and opera librettist Kenward Elmslie, who lived (and still lives) in Calais, Vermont, gave Brainard this potent new set of roots.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Kingdom Books, Mysteries & Poetry

So I'm getting ready to meet Donald Westlake when he and his author wife Abby Adams come here in August, and in the meantime I'm reading as many of his books as I can fit in. Sometimes it's re-reading; more often, as with this Kind of Love, Kinds of Death, written under his early pen name Tucker Coe (1966, reprinted by Five Star, 2000), I'm making fresh discoveries. And this warm voice is amazingly different from the crisp funny one of Westlake's John Dortmunder series.
Westlake's introduction to this reprint, the first in his Mitch Tobin series, warns that there are only five in the series – because the whole point of it is the woundedness of Tobin, and as an author you can't go on with that wound forever, but if you heal it, you've lost the point to the series. So each book is a gem, a polished treasure of deceptively simple writing that packs a huge punch. In this first one, Tobin – a disgraced cop with a broken heart and a serious case of depression – takes on a job for a mob figure. He does this without seriously compromising his ethics and solves the case. But the struggle involves love, loyalties, and violence, and I couldn't put the book down. Lucky it's only 200 pages, or there would have been serious long-term disruptions in meal prep for my household…

New U.S. Poet Laureate: Donald Hall

New England poetry fans rejoiced with this June’s announcement that New Hampshire poet Donald Hall will be the next U.S. Poet Laureate. But we weren’t surprised. The 77-year-old poet just issued a “selected works” volume, White Apples and the Taste of Stone, that draws from fifty years of published work, 1946 to 2006. Warmly reviewed upon publication by another storytelling poet, Billy Collins, the collection gives perspective to a lifetime of writing, at a critical moment.
In May, presenting the collection to fans at the Eagle Pond Series at Plymouth State University (Eagle Pond is at his farm), Hall acknowledged other roots to his writing, roots that deepen it beyond a simple response to a landscape and heritage. “Two things I always want to pitch,” he confided, “one of which is reading the older poets – no, I don’t mean me, I mean older than that!” And he plunged into admiration of 17th-century poets like Andrew Marvell as well as Thomas Hardy.
“The other thing that I always take very occasion to talk about is revision,” he continued. He keeps poems “close to the chest” for months before allowing other people to see them. And he often goes to a hundred drafts, although some endure “only fifty.” He explained, “They take a long time, and I think they need to for many people.”
[Read more at our web site,]

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Donald Westlake Coming to Vermont

Donald Westlake, with his author wife Abby Adams, will be at Kingdom Books in Vermont on Sunday August 13 for a limited edition dinner with readers. See for details.

Donald Westlake in Vermont