Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Cozying up to Leslie Meier, THE WICKED WITCH MURDER

Originally scheduled for October (understandable, in terms of Halloween!), Leslie Meier's new Lucy Stone mystery is now headed for an August 31 release -- just in time to be a helpful distraction as the working and school worlds gear up for cool-weather labors. In fact, "cozy" mysteries -- the ones where the sleuth's profession is almost anything other than detective, cop, or forensics, medical, or legal professional -- at their best, offer a brisk plot line, characters that you can picture living next door, and situations that seem completely understandable.

And that's the sort of situation where Lucy Stone finds herself at the opening of this thought-provoking and enjoyable novel. A small-town reporter on a weekly paper in the fictional town of Tinker's Cove, Maine, Lucy's a mom and a grandmom, and her two youngest daughters are still in high school, living at home. When Lucy's buddy Pam makes an appointment for the four friends (Lucy, Pam, Sue, Rachel) to get a psychic reading at the new business in town, Solstice, Lucy's adamantly skeptical. But, she figures, this is a chance to figure out how the fakery and trickery is done ... and maybe even get a good story for the Pennysaver, the paper she works for.
She was happily married, had four well-adjusted children and an adorable grandchild, and she wasn't at all interested in meeting a tall, dark stranger or going on a long trip. And so far, none of her dear, departed relatives had tried to contact her, and that was the way she liked it.
Although Lucy's common sense helps her keep Diana Ravenscroft's "Magick" in perspective, it can't make real evil disappear. All too soon after Diana's arrival in town, malice begins to crystallize around her and her business. In fact, it's Lucy who first discovers it:
A fire? wondered Lucy, stepping closer for a better look until she was practically overcome by a powerful stench of decay. There was no doubt, she realized with horror as she discovered whitened bones and bits of charred cloth, that she'd stumbled upon the burned body of a human being.
And that's just at the beginning of spring; this lively mystery goes clear through to Halloween. Threats, at least one more death, and risk to Lucy's family and to her are rising with the ripening year.

The first personal shock comes from Lucy's daughter Sara, who wants passionately to be able to study with the exotic and intelligent Diana Ravenscroft, casting minor spells, mixing potions, and in general saving the world, one person at a time. Sensibly, Lucy sees Sara's hunger for these activities as one way to feel powerful and in control, in a time when global warming and other environmental threats have made life seem scary. Compassionately, she agrees that Sara can go learn from Diana, as long as Lucy and her husband are kept informed.
"No more secrets, okay?"
"So I can join the coven?" exclaimed Sara, wiping her eyes and smiling.
Lucy's jaw dropped. "Coven? You said it was like Girl Scouts."
Oops. Girl Scouts, it's not. Nor is the town reaction -- which begins to demonize Lady Diana and her friends, as well as the new business in town.

Lucy's struggles to be open-minded while also insisting on reality, especially for her daughters, are heart-warming. She's also persistent, though, in prying into why bad things keep happening and who is provoking them. Is it the coven, with Lady Diana? Or is there a more specific source of malice and ill-will in town?

Meier is an accomplished author of a long string of Lucy Meier mysteries, and she's a good storyteller. As the conflicts of ordinary town life play out against the longings of teenage girls, Lucy exerts the best skills a journalist can summon: not just inquisitiveness and use of contacts, but reliance on friends for both perspective and backup.

This mystery will fit nicely on a shelf dedicated to New England, with its Maine setting; in a collection of determined women taking on challenges; and, of course, in any group of books organized around that holiday of magic, mystery, and fun, the American Halloween. And it's just plain fun to read. Bookmark the title for the end of the summer, when your beach reading is over and you need to balance that force of life that's drawing you back to work!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


A new press in northern Vermont, Radiant Hen, is bringing out a children's mystery this summer, available any day now ... and it's the third book by acclaimed Vermont author Marion Page, published posthumously. SEARCHING FOR HANNERESTER captures the sheltered rural life of the 1950s in the north woods, when hardscrabble farms provided a lean but honorable living to families who might never consider taking a trip to a city even in Vermont, let alone out of state. At age 14, Carrie Stafford has little idea of how town life operates, or even of her own past -- she lives with her father, her mother died long ago, and the "hired woman" who's been raising her, Hannah Esther Dunney, has vanished without explanation. Carrie's father isn't the sort to waste words on explaining anything to her, either; he has his hands full with caring for his animals and barn, and expects Carrie to shoulder "Hannerester's" former homemaking tasks, as well as barn help after school each day. Here's the opening of the first chapter:
When Carrie first realized Hannerester was gone, she was not scared, she was just plain mad. The scared part came later.
She’d gotten off the school bus at the turn-around and trudged home in swirling snow, thinking only of the fresh, warm bread she hoped Hannerester was baking. But the windows in the farmhouse were dark. The shadows gather early in Vermont in December, and Hannerester should have been in the kitchen with the lamp lit, starting supper.
Carrie went in, stamping snow from her feet. “Hannerester?” She called, but she could tell by the chill in the house that it was empty. She scraped ashes out of the firebox and laid a fire, banging the stove-lids and grumbling to herself. “Seems like I’m the hired girl around here instead of her. Serve her right if a bear eats her.”
As winter isolates the farm further, suspicion begins to fasten on Carrie's father. Could he have killed Hannerester, the way some people say he killed his wife? Does he abuse Carrie? She has bruises ... and who will people believe, one poor girl from a lame old farm, or the minister's manipulative daughter Naomi Ruth? Carrie gets trapped into covering for Naomi Ruth's misdeeds, as well as trying to figure out the truth about her family, in the midst of a blizzard of misinformation.

Marion Page, whose earlier books (also set in earlier days in Vermont) were Dirty Mary No More and The Printer's Devil, creates a quiet coming-of-age novel as Carrie presses beyond her limits in order to clear her father and rescue him from arrest. But can she find Hannerester? Is she even alive? What can Carrie do to cope with the threats of both the gathering rumors and the winter woods, and will anyone help her?

A fluidly written, richly dramatic, memorable novel with a delicious old-time flavor, SEARCHING FOR HANNERESTER will delight readers who "remember" life before the Internet, even before private phone lines and casually accepted indoor plumbing. And it will also be a very special adventure for young readers with the patience and curiosity to explore how different life was, only two generations back, in the most secluded and protected parts of New England.

Hearty thanks to Radiant Hen for bringing this nearly lost novel to press.

Calendar Alert: Poetry, Bock and Sharkey, July 1

On Thursday, July 1 at 7 p.m., poets Kristin Bock and Lee Sharkey will read work from their books as well as new poems, at the Collected Poets Series in western Massachusetts. (Entry is $2-5 sliding scale.) Mocha Maya's Coffee House, 47 Bridge Street, Shelburne Falls, MA 01370, 413-625-6292. Wheelchair accessible.  See for more information about this great series, and for directions..

Kristin Bock is the author of Cloisters, winner of Tupelo Press’s First Book Award and the da Vinci Eye Award.  She also holds an MFA from the University of Massachusetts where she currently teaches. Lee Sharkey’s poetry books include A Darker, Sweeter String, To A Vanished World, and farmwife. She is also the recipient of the 2010 Maine Arts Commission's Individual Artist Fellowship in Literary Arts.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Denise Mina, STILL MIDNIGHT -- A Couple of Thoughts

I enjoyed Marilyn Stasio's New York Times review of Denise Mina's 2010 book, STILL MIDNIGHT, but didn't rush to read the book -- Mina writes such strong and dark books that I saved my copy for a long quiet moment. I won't get into this one in depth, as it turns out to be hard to avoid "spoilers," but it's the first in a new series featuring the angry but aggressively effective Detective Alex Morrow, a woman with multiple chips on the shoulders. The action (and it is very active indeed!) revolves around a home invasion and kidnapping that seems to have randomly victimized a Muslim family. Morrow not only has to sort out the crime -- she has to find a way to hold onto the case, in the face of some nasty departmental politics. Prejudice and bigotry are key to both strands.

There's been some online discussion of the ending of this one, and I'd be interested to hear from anyone with an considered opinion on it, if you can frame it so as not to spoil the book for other readers. I found it a bit too sweet for Mina's form of noir -- but then again, this volume also has a huge amount of humor in it, so maybe it's best seen as a new medley of flavors in her dark version of Glasgow crime.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Roots of Kindness, in a Slow, Superb Vermont Novel by Laura C. Stevenson

It is almost "common knowledge" today that compassion is something that has to be taught -- that children need to hear, repeatedly, the deep concern in an adult's voice that comes with the urging to "see how sad Emily is when you hurt her like that" or "Peter wants to play with that, too, do you think you could let him have a turn so he'll be happy?" In the same way, many of the strengths of our favorite people are learned ones: vision, the capacity to take joy, serious valuing of life.

In Laura C. Stevenson's newest novel, RETURN IN KIND (Separate Star Publishing,, long lessons that take generations are framed in the landscape of southern Vermont, among farms gradually giving way to ski villages and vacation homes. With the death of college trustee Letty Hendrickson, Mather College, not far south of Vermont in the hills of western Massachusetts, will at last be allowed to mature into the co-educational institution it should long ago have become. A beautiful but single-minded and often unfeeling person, Letty has held back more than the college in her final time of illness -- her grieving husband Joel, already warned by friends that "relief" will be human and understandable, finds most of the certainties of his life suddenly unbound, shredded, without form, in the absence of Letty's force of personality.

Perhaps most hurtful of all to Joel at this moment are the terms of Letty's will, which leaves all the treasures of her life -- at least, as far as Joel understands them -- to Mather College, and an odd old Vermont hillside farm to Joel. A farm, a landscape, that Joel never knew had a place in Letty's life, let alone in her will.
Oh, Letty, Letty, Letty.

Local gossip had it that her legacy was proof that she'd realized what she'd done to the college. But apparently his patience, his tolerance -- his love, damn it, his love -- had sheltered her from realizing what the legacy would do to him.

If she'd only thought, for God's sake! ..

But then thoughtfulness -- in any sense of the word -- had never been one of her virtues.
With this depressing defeat, Joel leaves behind his long-time home and all its lovely artwork, furnishings, books, memories, to face the mystery of his crippled legacy in rural Vermont.

I write "mystery" intentionally, for Stevenson provides one question after another, secrets folded into more secrets like rows of petals in an exotic flower. Joel, torn between grief and guilt and anger, finds a matching set of conditions in retired scholar Eleanor Randall Klimowski, whose progressive loss of hearing has cost her a career -- yet perhaps gained far more for her, gained her something that Joel is awestruck to observe and desperately afraid he'll never have.

Stevenson's exploration of this landscape of hunger and heart is serenely paced and underlaid with a foundation of wisdom. In baring the framework built of loss and small acts of courage, Stevenson reveals how kindness and larger acts of courage take form in the soul and in community.

I won't spoil the plot by saying what leads up to this passage of Eleanor's, but it captures the flavor of the book so well:
And what more could she ask for? She slipped off her clothes, watched only by the reproachful eyes of her banished animals, and pulled her nightgown over her head, looking out the window. Outside, the rain had stopped, and the moon lit up the side of a fast-blowing cloud, then, suddenly, the whole range of mountains. She watched the harrowed pasture across the road turn silver through the faint reflection of herself, still beautiful in the inconstant light. And what more could she ask for? What she could offer him was as unlike the self she'd once been as the bulldozed field was unlike the wall, the orchard, and the trees that had once been.
Stevenson draws the book to a deeply satisfying knotting together of the strands of discovery that pulse and glow throughout this carefully drawn portrait of life, love, and aging. From our losses, our loves mature and deepen. Stevenson reminds us of how tender this process can be, at its very best.

Is this a mystery? No, it's not a genre book -- no sleuth, no exhilaration of a puzzle solved. But in RETURN IN KIND, there's an answer to some of the deepest mysteries of our lives. Most delightful to me is a growing conviction that here is a complementary and much-needed other half for the way that John Gardner (October Light) and Nicholas Delbanco have portrayed southern Vermont and its families in their novels.

For the surprising twists of Stevenson's own life, prowl through her website, -- no magnifying glass or fingerprint kit needed, but a lovely look at how identity feeds her writing.

Why the Surge in Scandinavian Mysteries?

A book lover at Kingdom Books today asked, "Why do you think all these great mystery authors are suddenly writing in Scandinavia?"

My reply was quick: "Translation is finally catching up with them. They've been there all along, just like any other place."

But the real answer may be more complex than that. I found a web site and blog provided by Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota,, that suggest two factors: the caliber of crime fiction author Henning Mankell, and the 1986 assassination of Sweden's prime minister, with the cultural trauma this inflicted.

Discussion, anyone?

Signed Dave Zeltserman ARC: Caretaker of Lorne Field

Last weekend Kingdom Books hosted a reading by noir crime writer Dave Zeltserman, presenting his third "get out of prison" novel, KILLER. He also delivered a chapter from THE CARETAKER OF LORNE FIELD, his stunning horror novella being released in August by the Overlook Press.

So here's the great news: The Overlook Press generously provided some advance reader copies (ARCs) of CARETAKER and people attending the reading drew names from a basket to be able to take them home -- and we have TWO MORE SIGNED COPIES available, free, courtesy of the publisher and Dave Z.

How can you get one? Simple: Order any two signed Dave Zeltserman novels from us (the trilogy is Small Crimes, Pariah, and Killer, all of which we are selling signed at cover price -- but we would also be glad to count your purchase of another of the Zeltserman titles), and tell us you want the CARETAKER ARC when you order. We'll tuck it carefully into your package.

Glad to ride with the excitement around this remarkable author's work!

A special postscript: The cover art for The Caretaker of Lorne Field will be different when the first edition is published, so this ARC fits into that rare group of titles that experience a cover switch in the process. Makes it even more appealing to pick up the ARC now. 

Interested in knowing what else Zeltserman is writing? Check his blog:

Friday, June 25, 2010

Heads Up: Saturday Treat, Check Here in the Morning

Big announcement tomorrow (Saturday) about advance copies of Dave Zeltserman's THE CARETAKER OF LORNE FIELD.

Olen Steinhauer, THE NEAREST EXIT

This is a great summer for espionage. Olen Steinhauer's second in his "Tourist" series, THE NEAREST EXIT, was so satisfying that the images and characters clung to me for two or three days -- I kept feeling that I wanted to be back "in" the book.

The "Tourist" series answers the awful question of global information: Who will spy on the spies? It appears that Milo Weaver may be involved -- but is he a journalist, a killer-for-hire, an employee of The Company? Hungary's complex levels of politics and crime are the perfect field for Milo's reappearance.

As he struggles to discover just what test hurdles he's being pushed over (and to make some personal choices about how much evil he can stand to collaborate with), Milo Weaver is also in the midst of trying to regain his marriage and daughter. Does espionage ruin his chances of being a loving, honest husband and father? Or does having a daughter ruin him as a chaos-working obedient servant of the hidden?

Each twist of this volume provokes a new view for Milo, a new set of questions, and more danger and risk. A wicked sense of humor crops up often, too, without distracting (thank goodness!) from the intense movement of the plot and the grimness of the situations.

You're sure to see comparisons of Steinhauer with Alan Furst, because of the Hungarian setting here -- but this is an entirely different flavor of writing, fresh, modern, clearly intended to savor the now (as opposed to Furst's deliberate and delightful decision to write as if speaking from the 1930s and 1940s). The pace is sharp and quick enough to distract all but the most careful reader from the threads that Milo will later realize have significance. Believable, vivid, and first-rate entertainment, THE NEAREST EXIT is one of my favorites already.

Oh, and that title? Check the epigraph to the book, which quotes the usual airplane advice about looking for the closest emergency exit and ends, "Please note that, in some cases, the nearest exit may be behind you."


Friday, June 18, 2010

A Civilized Work of Espionage: Alan Furst, SPIES OF THE BALKANS

Alan Furst has said that he wants his books to feel as though they were written in the 1930s and 1940s, in the pre-war and early war days in Europe. This willingness to adopt a measured, quietly curious tone and pace deepens his novels and allows the characters to speak from their time, rather than with today's passions and impressions. It takes enormous research and immersion in a place and time that have almost vanished. And Furst does it brilliantly.

So I was eager this week to read SPIES OF THE BALKANS, just released by Random House. As expected, I found myself slowing to the book's generous storytelling rhythm. The novel is broken in to chunks, and the first one, "Dying in Byzantium," opens with what will surely become a classic first sentence: "In autumn, the rains came to Macedonia."

And with these ancient geographic labels, the long reach of history begins to unfold around the disturbing events in the live of Costa Zannis, "a senior police official" dedicated to cleaning up politically charge crises, whether the petty criminality of diplomats or the sweet revenge of the mayor's offended girlfriend, whose attempt to humiliate involved a small firearm and a large target -- the mayor's behind. Zannis clearly enjoys his work. Shielded by his mentor, easily funded, happy with his team, in this autumn of 1940 in the modest city of Salonika in northern Greece (the Balkan mountains range north from here), Zannis's life isn't exactly shallow -- but it has little risk, and the joys are modest and routine. Even his lover, Roxanne, an Englishwoman who matches his taste in sexual hedonism, holds a little distance and leaves Zannis free.

But war is on the horizon: "with much of Europe occupied by Nazi Germany, and Mussolini's armies in Albania, on the Greek frontier, one wasn't sure what came next." For Zannis, a basically kind man with a sense of humor and an equal sense of justice, what comes next are Jews: fleeing for their lives, and desperate to escape the lengthening reach of the Reich. With remarkably little fuss, Zannis lines up support of several kinds, and in a matter of days becomes the mastermind of an established escape route from northern Europe to Turkey, a nation unlikely to be invaded by the Wehrmacht.

Furst conveys more than just the ongoing sense of threat (and of course we readers know that Germany will indeed invade Greece, muting this aspect of the suspense); beyond this wide force of history, Furst paints delicately the balance of life for Greeks, Yugoslavians, Albanians. Here is the Europe that Americans are prone to neglect in a World War II image of Germany, France, England, and Russia -- the smaller nations with ancient back-stories. Reading this novel, I found a first-time longing to see the mountains of these lands, to connect across the globe to other peoples whose lives are shaped by a relationship with a hard land and bitter winters, as much as by the blue summer waters of the seas.

When I finished the book, I was still in that quiet, civilized place where people of good will do their best to help strangers as well as family, and where love is satisfying and tender, rather than erratic and maddening. Small dangers, heart-deep losses, and the predictable approach of the chaos of war are braided with the pleasures of comradeship and making love. It's an old-fashioned story, then -- no ghosts, few horrors, no ghastly unexpected betrayals.

But good. Very good.

How does this measure up against other espionage novels? It's so much quieter, so much more deliberate, that I think it will disappoint some who expect crashing ammunition, vicious Germans, bombs and fire -- all of which are present in SPIES OF WARSAW but modified by time-tested friendships and a sense of honor. The book isn't as dramatic or exotic as many of its peers. But it matches the real lives of the people I've known who lived in Europe at the better edge of life during the 1930s and 1940s. It is, perhaps, La Vie en Rose -- as sweet and sad and valuable as a classical work of art or music.

For another slow, thoughtful look at the book, try Janet Maslin's New York Times review; and for a longer excerpt from the opening chapter, click here.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Cozy Night: Tim Myers, Pepperoni Pizza Can Be Murder

I've been up to my eyebrows in dark and violent characters and plots, as I ponder the phenomenon of the Steig Larsson books and some similar series. So it's a huge relief to take time off and enjoy a "cozy" for a change. Chris Cavender's second book featuring Eleanor Swift and her sister Maddy, and their pizzeria, A Slice of Delight, is warm, delightful, and well plotted -- PEPPERONI PIZZA CAN BE MURDER tosses a sturdy crust of small-town community, adds a sauce of the way personal connections get in the way of crime-solving, and tops the recipe with a golden bubbling pleasure of sisters who rub each other wrong sometimes but who laugh together, grieve for and with each other, and have each other's backs without question.

Author Chris Cavender may be relatively new to pizzeria as a business, but good food comes readily to this seasoned writer of American hometown mystery series. It's not a big secret that Cavender is one of the pen names of Tim Myers, who also writes as Elizabeth Bright and Melissa Glazer (and I ran across mention of two more names with books to follow!). With the same embrace of restaurant food prep that applied to innkeeping, candlemaking, soapmaking, and card-making in earlier books, Cavender's details offer a friendly look behind the counter and into the kitchen. (There are even a few recipes at the end of the book.)

Wearing her widowhood with grace is business owner Eleanor Swift, who needs to stay calm with her kitchen suddenly a middle-of-the-night crime scene. Chief of police Kevin Hurley doesn't suspect her, but he's ready to accuse her delivery man of murder -- let's see, there's motive (money that brothers Wayne and Greg have been fighting over), means (the rolling pin used to bash in Wayne's head), and opportunity (of course Greg knew where to find the key to the building -- but then again, so did at least a dozen people).

But Eleanor's defense of Greg isn't cutting much cheese with Chief Hurley. She admits right off the bat that "he might have believed me -- or even listened to my argument -- if I hadn't dumped him back in high school nearly twenty years ago. It was a long time for someone to hold a grudge, but he clutched it like a starving man grabbed for the last donut in the box."

At least this particular murder can't be about the money at the pizzeria. Eleanor, her sister Maddy, and Greg had worked so hard the day before, with a crowd of Elvis impersonators taking a bus break at the restaurant -- and then somebody stuck a gun in Eleanor's face on her way from the kitchen to the bank and took all the money. And when Eleanor needs to show up at the crime scene, it's to identify the murder weapon. Luckily, Maddy is available to go with her, and by the next day, the sisters are in full sleuth mode. After all, if nobody else believes their delivery man is innocent, they'll have to find the real criminal, won't they?

Don't count on Eleanor resolving anything romantic here -- she's still very much missing her husband Joe. But it's clear that Maddy is able to manage a dating life while also working at the solution to the crime. Cavender does a dandy job of keeping the action going and moving the pieces around, so that when the murderer is finally identified, there's a perfect mix of surprise and "ah, of course!"

This tasty bit of beach reading is scheduled for a July 27 release -- which is just far enough from now, if you like, to also put in an order for Cavender's earlier book, A Slice of Murder, in order to munch your way through the two books in sequence.

PS: Dave just said "let's go out for pizza." Don't mind if I do!

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Fierce and Terrible Strains of War: PHANTOM NOISE by Brian Turner

When Brian Turner's first collection of poems, HERE, BULLET, took the Beatrice Hawley Award in 2005 and was published by Alice James Press, it shot onto bestseller lists the way poetry rarely does -- but exactly the way that good war reporting and vivid war novels do. And that's what it was: a haunting portrait of Turner's service in the US Army in Iraq as an infantry team leader, where his master's degree in fine arts and his small notebook of poems needed to stay carefully hidden from his men. Their belief in his capacity to take them through gunfire and explosions could have been sabotaged by any doubts about Turner's own masculinity. Writing poems wasn't going to give the men the confidence that they desperately needed.

Turner already knew himself as a military leader, after a season in Bosnia-Herzegovina with the 10th Mountain Division. What his service in Iraq (3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team and Infantry Division) did was fill him with images, moments, and emotions that had to find a discharge route, like lightning drawn to ground. Now his second collection, PHANTOM NOISE, opens with "VA Hospital Confessional":
Each night is different. Each night is the same.
Sometimes I pull the trigger. Sometimes I don't.

When I pull the trigger, he often just stands there,
gesturing, as if saying, Aren't you ashamed?

When I don't, he douses himself
in gasoline, drowns himself in fire.
Don't we all know these dreams, in smaller measure? The ones in which the telephone won't dial, the trigger won't move, the car refuses to start, and terror rises up to take our breath, force our hearts to pound. And when we send our "boys" and our "men" and now our women also to war, or even to the warlike rigors of basic training, we know we've sentenced them to this permanent tattoo of the brain and spirit. The ink never rubs off.

The rare gift that Turner offers us is a clear voice and the discipline to use it, to take the experiences and place them on paper so that we can share or at least witness what he sees, feels, lives with. PHANTOM NOISE braids into the combat life the devastating experience of being "safe at home" afterward: where sharp sounds make the body convulse in preparation for shrapnel and bullets, where sleep is a time seized by corpses and mistakes, where guilt and horror and the quiet satisfaction of work well done, of comrades treasured, rise up more real at times than the table and chair and person in the room.

After the prefatory poem, this collection pounds out an awareness of that chimeric life of memory and body recall with an amazing piece, "At Lowe's Home Improvement Center." Turner names detail upon detail, naming tools and nails and soldiers, as the sound of a cascade of nails from a broken box evokes the firing pins of machine guns and their shells falling on the floor:
Bosch walks down aisle 16 now, in full combat gear,
improbable, worn out from fatigue, a rifle
slung at his side, his left hand guiding
a ten-year-old boy who sees what war is
and will never clear it from his head.

Here, Bosch says,  Take care of him.
I'm going back in for more.
And that's the moment, maybe a fifth of the way into this unforgettable poem, when Turner reminds us of what is, in both collections, his personal mix of shock and tenderness, of courage and grief.

One of my nephews is determined to serve in the military, and I know he'll lead well. I'd like to give him Turner as an example, but not yet ... he will have his own full-color memories that burn, ache, turn to horror or compassion. May be be as fortunate someday in his loving partner as Brian Turner portrays in "Illumination Rounds," where the poet evokes a lover who sleeps while the veteran struggles up from a dream of burning parachutes -- a lover who wakes to find that Turner has gone to the backyard to dig a grave for the war dead, and who generously touches his hand and accepts the presence of the dead: "We should invite them into our home," she says in the poem. Here is the companionship at home that matches the comradeship of well-conducted combat.

Yet Turner also dares to write the beauty of the occupied landscape and its people, whether it's captured in assisting a childbirth in the midst of war ("Helping Her Breathe") or the "cuneiform, papyrus, stone" of Iraq's long, rich history.

There are a few poems in this new collection that walk away from the war -- that write gently about life "after" without mention of that other life that continues, that never departs because it's part of the brain, soul, and muscles. These poems are soft, and they breathe quietly, almost escaping notice. It's hard to choose which route I'd wish for my nephew, say, or a brother -- is it better to be able to write about "life away from all that" or to continue to name the presence and mark of wartime in the rest of one's life? I've listened to veterans of World War II, only recently starting to talk about the beaches of Normandy and the bodies, the catastrophes, the nightmares. Was it better for them to wait to speak, to raise their families in a silence that blocked out combat, and only to release the words from creased faces under white hair? I'm not sure.

But a friend of mine, after listening to me talk about the power and glory of this book, mingled with regret that a writer and person as fine as Turner carries the burdens of being our eyes and voice, wrote this to me a few days later:
Perhaps you can say that his strength still lies in his war imagery and/or references (or whatever words you use)...   As to how long he can continue to use the war in his poetry…my thought would be that as long as it speaks to him he HAS to use it…on and on until it is used up.  You are the poet but that is what I have always thought about poets.
Thanks, Joanne, for those thoughts.
And that, perhaps, is the finest gift of this extraordinary collection of powerful and beautifully written poems: It keeps me thinking. PHANTOM NOISE gives the scenes, the people, the emotion to become a haunting that I welcome.

Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys: Better Yet, CITY OF SPIES!

How long has it been since you read the Hardy Boys books? (Or if you were a Nancy Drew reader, did you ever cross the line to the earlier series?) It's easy to forget that this classic "boys' mystery series" included at least three titles that involved cracking espionage rings, "spy rings," and that both series include grave doubts about people who speak with a "foreign" accent -- especially German.

Now Susan Kim and Laurence Klavan have out-scooped both series with CITY OF SPIES, a graphic novel drawn by Pascal Dizin. Set in 1942 New York, it features an almost abandoned young girl named Evelyn, sent there to live for the summer with her aunt Lia. Lia is an artist whose drawings, paintings, and parties are far more important to her than the lonely girl who's been dumped in the fancy apartment with her, and Evelyn's sole consolation is her own drawings ... that is, the comics that she's creating. They feature Zirconium Man and his intrepid girl assistant Scooter.

Dark disasters reinforce the misery that Evelyn's in, but she does find one friend, a boy her age in the posh building. The failures of their first adventures together somehow don't deter them from finding a real Nazi plot in progress. How can they convince the adults that they're serious?

Dizon's drawings catch the atmosphere of 1940s comic books, updated to today's standards of crisp outlines and brilliant color, and with clever twists of the pen to suggest the jazzy hairstyles, clothing, even boozy get-togethers of the era. And the dialogue and plot shifts crafted by Kim and Klavan work smoothly, even with the shift of language needed to call up the war era.

Remember how you've kicked yourself for not keeping your old Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys books? And the zillions of dollars you think that they'd be worth today?

Now's your chance to make up for that juvenile lack of foresight. "First Second," and imprint of New York's Roaring Brook Press, have brought out this great 171-page book through all the usual outlets and bookstores. Grab or order your copy now. Inside the back cover, there's even an order page for "Hey Kids -- Real Spy Gadgets from WWII!!!" (Be sure to read the fine print.)

Gotta love it. I'm going to need a lot of copies for the kids and grown kids that need this fresh taste of heroic action and brightly determined crime-solving kids.

Real and Surreal: Poetry of Donald Revell and Jonathan Aaron

What makes a novel -- a mystery, an espionage thriller, even a courtroom drama -- unforgettable? I propose three factors: the uniqueness of the characters (let's list Lisbeth Salander from the Steig Larsson Millenium trilogy, Mallory from Carol O'Connell's books, Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch with his Vietnam tunnels baggage; and from the classics, Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple); the intensity of the emotions (the despair of the newly accessible Scandinavian mysteries; the frustration and fear that come with the American military role in the Korean DMZ in the 1970s in Martin Limón's series); and the ability of the book's language to evoke a particular place, time, conflict (although it's a lame mystery, Paul Theroux's evocative Calcutta novel A Dead Hand; the despair of post-World War I England in Charles Todd's series; the grim gray menace of the oncoming Second World War in anything by Alan Furst).

Actively wrestling with language and its capacity to frame the big issues -- love, loss, life, death, afterlife (if any), faith, hope -- forms the underlay of many such books. And poetry shows us the most condensed, intense ways to do this. So today, I offer two selections for warming up for either writing or valuing these summer days and nights.

Donald Revell is such an established poet that his insistence on innovative language comes as a bright surprise in each new volume. THE BITTER WITHY (Alice James Books, 2009) comes wrapped in classical pastoral imagery, with European medieval garb, mother and child, rabbit and fields. So this is a good example of not judging a book by its cover: Revell's poem "Flight," for example, holds no white-winged cherubs, but rather the passenger down the aisle of the plane:
The enormous man selling
Over the airplane telephone while below us
An emptiness made of tell million stones
Of mist (or is it the sun haze,
The exhalation of a star in every stone?)
Prepares his sould and my sould
For heaven and for heavens.
Revell goes on to add, "We are killing / Everyone not here." He rhymes "heaven" with "giving in" and with "given." There's an embedded dare -- so that I leap to wondering, what on earth are we doing in two wars at once?

Revell also channels the surreal, the power of dream and vision:
My dog is chasing a lizard.
In a dream, where the lizard isn't real,
He's screaming.
In the long way back out of sadness,
In new dark passages,
He accepts miter and tonsure.
That's not right.
The dog's really killed him.
Hasn't the sky a sky above it too?
When God prays, the sky turns blue.
Later in the volume, Revell writes that "The dawn is a branch in my right eye" and that "Duty is horror" -- so that when the poems slice at the fabric of existence, they do so with sharp edges.

Jonathan Aaron, who teaches in Massachusetts, drives into the surreal at high speed as he opens the collection JOURNEY TO THE LOST CITY (title of an old horror film; Ausable, 2006, now available through Copper Canyon). In "Expletives," he treats words as rats scurrying away from semantics, into darkness:
But I've always been certain of you --
how quickly you pointed out
the difference between the onion
I thought I was chopping
and the sudden bloody head of my left thumb,
the face in the window
and the backlit leaves flinching in the wind.
When he probes old films, he comes up with, "I could be five and just waking up from another nightmare. / Half the world is lying in ruins." And the Lone Ranger, the squire and knight in The Seventh Seal (Bergman's early film classic), and his wife "snoring into her pillow" arrive together in "Anxious Dreams," where horses "lower their heads to the nervous, undrinkable water."

And I like in particular the opening to "Certain Stories":
Certain stories live in the air like ancestral spirits
or weather phenomena. You acquire them
from people who spread the word like proselytizers
of the latest true religion. Carried away, ignoring

whoever is urging you to act your age
or at least think of the children, you set out
on a mission to share your inheritance.
Talking dogs and kangaroos then mingle with mothers-in-law, the pig with the wooden leg, more of the imaginative hilarity that gives relief to our lives.

If you have time for no other poetry this week, you still might want a chance to read Aaron's "Lady With Wheelbarrow, Or: Reading a Mail Order Catalogue" and "Night of the Demon" (named for another film). Whether we linger on a hillside or laugh ourselves silly in a backyard get-together, Revell and Aaron capture the reality and the memorableness of our moments. Line up enough of them, like stanzas, and life's unforgettable outlines emerge.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Murder's Long Shadow: Nancy Pickard, THE SCENT OF RAIN AND LIGHTNING

It's not true that you have to live in the country to appreciate a good thunderstorm -- I've seen some glorious ones that illuminate the soul of a cityscape, and I've savored them from suburbs where you can't even tell for sure which direction the storm is heading in, because the houses block the sky.

But for power and drama, watching a storm outdoors where open fields or jagged peaks interact with all that sound and flash is hard to beat.

Twenty-six-year-old Jody Linder's family members mostly find that storms mean work: animals to gather together, the ranch to care for, maybe trucks sliding off slick roads. Her grandmother Annabelle Linder, matriarch to the Kansas ranching family, loves a good storm, though, and her grandfather, Hugh Senior, can savor the break that he gets when there's too much weather to do anything about.

But not Jody. A powerful thunderstorm marked the night when her father was murdered, her mother vanished, and her grandparents took her into their home. She was only three years old, and her instant terror of storms nearly defeated her family's efforts to bring her out from the shadow of the killing.

As THE SCENT OF RAIN AND LIGHTNING opens, Jody's almost having fun, with a job nailed down, a friendly lover, and well established on her own in the home that she still calls her parents' house. But the unannounced -- and unprecedented -- arrival of her three uncles at her doorstep shatters her fragile happiness with terrifying news: The man arrested and jailed for her father's murder has just been released from prison. Violent, brutal, crude, he's almost surely coming her way.
At the table her mother had painted yellow, in the room where Laurie had cooked meals for her and her daddy, Jody sat with her shoulders hunched and her hands clasped between her thighs, waiting for somebody, any one of them, to start making sense.

"It's weird," she said, sniffling, taking stuttering breaths. "Don't you think this is a weird coincidence? I move back to town for the first time -- and he gets out of jail and moves back, too?" Her shoulders lifted in a shudder and more tears escaped before she trapped them with a tissue. "I don't understand this. When did all this happen? How could it happen? Why did they let him go? You're going to have to explain this to me."
Kansas has long been home to Nancy Pickard, a crime novelist who has won about every award possible for her work. She now also spends time in Florida, and she grew up in Missouri. But it's Kansas that comes to life here, with its wide spaces, hard-rock interjections, and communities where everyone knows a bit about you, whether true or exaggerated. In the town of Rose, Kansas, the bartender even knows how to handle you when you drink too much.

And the town, or most of it, is already gathering to protect Jody. But Billy Crosby is a killer born and bred, and nothing's going to be easy -- including the uncomfortable fact that if there's anyone beyond her family with whom Jody has ever bonded, it's that murderer's son, Collin, and for sure, that's a star-crossed attraction that has withered long since.

Worse yet, it appears that a few people in town have always thought Billy Crosby was rushed through court and to prison.  Is there really a chance that justice failed? Did Jody's powerful ranching family seize the wrong killer?

In Pickard's hands, Jody struggles to understand why so many secrets have been kept around her, and wrestles with both her conscience and the real dangers around her, to find a way to pierce the darkness of the storm.

Smoothly written, intense, evocative, this is more than a crime novel -- it's an exploration of the power of families for good and bad, and the kinds of courage involved in leaving behind childhood and easy answers. At times gentle, often suspenseful, always firmly grounded in place and season and weather, this book deserves to become a classic of American writing. I couldn't put it down.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Poetry with Mystery Embedded -- C. S. Carrier, AFTER DAYTON

It's been one of those years. I just donned my archaeological khakis and dug through a frighteningly layered corner of the office. Reward: a 2008 copy of C. S. Carrier's AFTER DAYTON that escaped me when it arrived here. Surreal, playful, questioning, dark -- this intense collection of 54 pages poses mysteries, quandaries, peculiarities. Dancing through the poems in the presence (or absence) of Slovenian poet Tomaž Šalamun, somehow an alter ego to either Carrier (born in Dayton OH, grew up in North Carolina, now in Northampton, Mass.) -- or to his actual birth, odd though that sounds. There are eight poems titled "Tomaž Šalamun (If You Exist)" scattered through the volume, and each one allows room for another set of questions.
Here's a short sample of Carrier's playful yet edgy propositions, from "Azalea":
I don't speak until spoken to,
until an azalea's strapped to my back. Where I coalesce
I butcher the Spanish azaleas of tongues.
I take pictures of barns and rockformations
along the azalea.
And this title too reappears later in the volume, a recurring madness of the mouth and page.

Although many of the forms are straightforward frameworks for Carrier's quizzical narratives, some -- as for "The Mind's Ordinary Task" and "When to Rest" -- explore placement on the page, balanced with ample open spaces.

Amazingly, after all this bold experimentation, the collection ends with a gentle narrative inquiry called "Lyric," of which I provide here the final three lines:
The ashtray blooms, smoke burns my chest,
chokes the moth. When the moth flies away,
will it take intimacy in its coatpocket?

At the Ear: Listening to and Reading Poet Betsy Sholl

"From the Fishouse" is "an audio archive of emerging poets." Although the phrase conjures an image of a sun-warmed turtle slowing extending from its shell to test for safety, poets emerge in varied ways and at multiple speeds. Betsy Sholl, a founding member of Alice James Books, is the author of seven exquisite collections of poetry, each one more compelling than the one before, so I'd hardly call her "emerging" in a casual sense, but since many readers aren't aware of her work, let's say she's appearing now on a wider stage.

And thanks to the Fishouse, we can hear eight of her poems and some interviews at the Fishouse website, I'm hooked on her 2009 volume, ROUGH CRADLE (Alice James Books). There are mellow reflections like the opening poem, "The Sea Itself," which fingers the old wounds of the teen years; and "Sparrow Farming," evocative of that fine old New York haunt, Gotham Book Mart. I like the shifts in form among Sholl's poems, from finely crafted triplet stanzas to longer ones of six lines each, with plenty of embedded alliteration to delight the ear and tongue.

Most of Sholl's poems are personal narratives laced with questions. "Doing Time" (with an explanatory line "Prison poetry workshop") opens with:
They call me "Babe" and make a kissing noise
from inside their bars and inside their rage.
Most of them are men, though they act like boys

who've played too hard and broken all their toys.
Now they're trying to break their metal cage.
They yell out "Babe," make that loud kissing noise

as if their catcalls mean they have a voice
routines and bells can't break.
Separating the pressed petals of mother, stepdad, the  shapes and hauntings of the 20th century, Sholl's fingers invite long moments of contemplation. And when she dips into multiple levels of pain and loss and beauty, as in "Noche Oscura," she tests the premise that the dark night may be sweeter than dawn.

Mystery Reviews Coming Next

All read, contemplated, and on my list for later this week: Nancy Pickard, The Scent of Rain and Lightning; Chris Cavender, Pepperoni Pizza Can Be Murder; and Leslie Meier, Wicked Witch Murder. I won't be providing a review of the The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest -- there are plenty of reviews out there already. And yes, I'm buying a copy of Alan Furst's new Spies of the Balkans when it releases next week.

Letters to/from Home: W. S. Merwin, PRESENT COMPANY

In a pond or small lake, you can let your boat drift -- the ripples are small, the currents gentle, and a breath of wind moves you idly across the bay toward waterlilies or along the nesting grounds of families of ducks or geese. It's the essence of a summer dream, and I recall being desperate to escape my younger siblings so that I could take the rowboat out on Lake Gerard and just linger in this way, without their eagerly splashing oars.

There are still such places within literature, especially within the poetry of established authors. And they are rich with image, with thought, with the scented wine of long mulling. For today, let the rivers of change wait for us -- W. S. Merwin's 2005 collection, PRESENT COMPANY, flutters its ribbons of poems in the soft breeze.

Each title in this collection begins with "To" and Merwin even allows a bit of humor with one title, "To ---." But for the most part these are thick, resonant ribbons of meditative discourse, of assertion from the pinnacle. And though the first entry is "To This May," the second asserts the terrain: "To the Soul":
Is anyone there
if so
are you real
There is no answer embedded in the rest of the poem, only a wave of the hand in dismissal even of the large question. And this is significant, because it is the smaller questions and notes, the niggling ones, that erupt in detail here. "To the Face in the Mirror" speaks to "you" -- "you with the white hair / now who still surprise me /day after day / staring back at me /out of nowhere."

This ribbon of aging, of surprised discovery, threads through the collection. I like "To the Grass of Autumn," where:
now you are as the fog
that sifts among you
gray in the chill daybreak
the voles scratch the dry earth
around your roots
hoping to find something
before winter
and when the white air stirs
you whisper to yourselves
without expectation
or the need to know.
For those of us marveling at what time has done, is doing, here is a poet and set of poems, rarely formal but always as measured as a long stride, to capture the colors and chills, the soft and hard, of these years. 

Of course, it's tempting to pick up a "new and selected" of Merwin's work, but this is a volume I'd recommend in its fullness -- all 100+ missives out to the universe and in to the heart.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

World Universe Poetry Tour: Sam Taylor, Tung-Hui Hu, and Khaled Mattawa

One of the pleasures of poetry, unlike, say, the latest topical novel or political treatise, is that there's no "expiration date." Here are three slender volumes, not newest but delicious, that make up a world tour, without leaving the back porch.

1. BODY OF THE WORLD by Sam Taylor

Here's a debut collection from a poet whose East Coast beginnings and Texas/New Mexico existence are nearly invisible, as he probes love, strangers, and the resonance of form and line. Consider this portion of the poem "Arc":
And soon
you have forgotten that the world is new.

And in the middle, you will be a two piece suit
between traffic signals,
but in the end, the underside of ambrosia
and the breath of green tea.
In the middle, women will come to you naked

with hair clips given to them by their grandmothers,
a sari from the Indian coast,
a limp from when they fell running through the park.
2. MINE by Tung-Hui Hu

This 2007 collection won the Eisner Prize and is blurbed by Mark Doty; Hu lives in San Francisco and had an earlier career as a computer scientist working on Internet architecture. The poems tremble on the edge between blocks of free verse and chunks of prose, and they swirl above a sense of "where" to sample instead the sense of coming to know life and love. Here is the first portion of "On Power Outages":
Knowing someone by touch is like being able to move around a dark city without power or signs. And even when it is easy to move around it is always awful to be inside. One man proposed during the blackout, it was reported on the news. Another is inside, sitting quietly -- everybody can hear him thinking to himself, trying not to move, waiting for the morning to rise.
3. ZODIAC OF ECHOES by Khaled Mattawa

Dreams and not dreams, home and distance, the South and also North Africa: Mattawa's second collection also follows his translation of three volumes of Arabic poetry. Born in Libya, he arrived in the United States in his teens. I like especially when his poems dip into his childhood, as in "Home Front," which concludes:
Aisha's baby will not sleep
and I am a monkey and I am good.
A cat meows. Ibrahim barks.
Who did the zebra bray?
Please trumpet like an elephant.
Please, please the owl's hoot.
And to satisfy that longing for a journey, here is the start of "Echo & Elixir 7":
The stories you believe are the stories you make.

So one enters a room alone.
People there and they see the dust
and they hear the echo of travel.

They remember distances and songs,
they read a script that befuddles the page:
trains, airports, short-term leases,

hawkers and dingy bars.
Last and perhaps best, surely most amazing in this volume, is the long "Dark Anthem" that concludes it. I quote here just one triplet of lines, one sequence that rings in me tonight: "my fingers loose but firm, / picking the air's locks, / unchaining a miracle from the dark."


Poetry in translation is one of the "hot" topics for conferences and anthologies now. But it's always been a great route for exploring words and structure: taking something in another language and trying to draw it home, or expressing lines with a tongue that's not rooted in childhood but rather in passion for the differences and dreams of another language.

For Chase Twichell, long-time publisher of Ausable and now an editor at Copper Canyon, the publication of DOG LANGUAGE in 2005 plumbed not the woofs and barks of her four-legged companions, but more the sense of herself as she ran with them or considered them from the poignant distance of friendship across species. In the opening poem, "Skeleton," her dogs dig in the snow for relics of what once was -- and the poem expands in a final stanza:
I asked Truth what to worship,
and Truth said Death,
looking up from licking
the caviar of moments
from Death's hand.
So here are the bones
in the exploded view,
pelvis and vertebrae,
thrown dice of hands.
Look at the skull.
I'm its voice.
Ah! Not only are we translating each other's languages, but the poet can become the voice of the skull. Twichell follows up on this promise with "Sorry" as she details the sensations of using both hands to break the skeleton of a trout; and with "Auld Lang Syne," when the grown-ups at the gathering rise from their cocktail-blurred selves to remove porcupine quills from a dog:
They use pliers, and afterward
the dog wags in apology
and the drinking resumes.
Twichell explores childhood and drug use and especially the distance a child is from a parent, naming the hesitant touch "animal caution" as she reaches toward stones "marking the summit of one of my parents." I like particularly the poem "Dog Biscuits" that tongues the gap in the inner teeth left by the loss of a father to death, ending:
It'll be just us, the three inheritors,
on a raw windy day in Death's kingdom,
lifting our eyes from the hole
to the mountains hazed with sping,
saying, In perpetuum ave atque vale,
minor god of our father.
Let's each of us drop a few
dog biscuits into his grave.
This year, a new collection from Twichell gathers selections from this and four other earlier collections, in HORSES WHERE THE ANSWERS SHOULD HAVE BEEN (Copper Canyon, 2010). These poems reach back to 1981, well before her marriage to novelist Russell Banks. And they extend to fresh animal forms: horse, mule, pony, centaur.  From "The Long Bony Faces of the Mules":
I knew nothing of the fences words make
in the mind, or that I would devote
the first half of my life to building them
and the second half to tearing them down.
Twichell tongues her Zen Buddhist practice in the final poems, sampling silence while speaking, so to speak. She tests the nature of meditation, concluding, "I must not want to be fully enlightened, / since I do not devote myself entirely to it. / I like distraction."

And at last she takes us back to her animal languages, as she writes in "From a Distance,"
Of all the selves I've invented,
the ones most fixed in memory
are the horse-child startling
the dog-child sniffing the still-warm ashes
where the smell of food has almost been erased.
And with the gentle sombre probing that is more and more present in her work, she wraps up this poem with: "Death will come / and take me to them, and a new self will begin / to ask these questions as if for the first time."

If this is what the second half of Twichell's poetry will continue to bring to us, as it "tears down" the fences of words, then another answered question becomes: What can the second half of life bring, besides the inevitable loss of aging pets, loss of friends, loss of parents? And the answer is: Grace.

Poetry Worth Reading, Now in Softcover: James Richardson, INTERGLACIAL; Adrian Blevins, THE BRASS GIRL BROUHAHA

Summer has arrived (in spite of some wild weather here in Vermont); the strawberries are ripening, the birds feed nestlings, thunderstorms erupt in glory.

And because these two striking collections are now available in softcover, they're ideal for taking to the beach or up the mountain:

INTERGLACIAL by James Richardson is subtitled "New and Selected Poems & Aphorisms." The hardcover came out in 2004 through Ausable, now part of Copper Canyon Press.  Selections from five earlier books by this award-winning Princeton poet range from narrative work like "In Touch" -- burying a cat-killed bird and digging toward death -- toward the rhymes and rhythms of "A Measure," which opens with:
Now that my hands are full, the world, anyway, on the fly,
and there is not time enough even to know what I know,
I take the heft of things by eye.
Richardson opens an "us" that extends well beyond the persona of the poem and its beloved, to the wide sense of being human that we all share. He tastes life as if it were his calling, and calls forth its savor and shivers.

New work makes up the final quarter of the volume, for which "Spellbound" gives a satisfying example:
And what of the child Bad Magic,
clanged shut in a bluebird,
who sat half-lit in the re-leafing arbor,
listening for his old name in the family hubbub,
who meant to cry out ...
With this hint of summer family, the bluebird becomes one of us, trembling among the familiar evening sounds of the back yard, "coffee on the lawn, / their voices lowering and slowed" -- until his thoughts are ours also:
and he meant . . . but too-swift heart,
flit like forget and South like a soft downstairs
and something sang him something flew him away . . .
This startling blend of familiar and luminous lays the ground for the second subsection of "Interglacial," called "Half-Measures" -- and these intricate puzzles of six to ten or a dozen lines each become crystals in formation, like this second half of "Paused":
I was rounding the marshy point
when I confused
sinewy wind in reeds
and froze,
snakeshy. All these years.
When the third subsection, "Vectors 2.0: More Aphorisms and Ten-Second Essays," offers 150 pithy composites of language and twisting thoughts, they blossom like wildflowers. Here's number 28, one of my favorites: "28. When it's clear on Saturday, who notices? When it rains, it always does."

This summer would be a good time to let all of this volume slide down the throat or into the ear. It's almost time for a sequel; "By the Numbers: Poems and Aphorisms" is scheduled for publication this fall.

In 2009, Wesleyan brought out a new Adrian Blevins collection, "Live from the Homesick Jamboree," that braids her Southern background into her recent arrival in Maine, where she now teaches at Colby College. I like in particular this list of her "areas of expertise" from the college web page:
  • Writing Poems, Writing Stories, and Writing Essays
  • Contemporary American Poetry and Fiction
  • Teaching Creative Writing
  • The Comic Vision (in contemporary American poetry and fiction)
  • Southern Literature

Her preceding volume, THE BRASS GIRL BROUHAHA (2003), was another Ausable pick and is now in softcover. For an example of how Blevins spins those "areas of expertise" into poetry, consider this opening from "Life History":
I got this nose-shaped bruise on my left arm from falling into a rack of dolls at Wal-Mart.
The scar on my ring finger came from when I put my hand into a beehive when I was two,
a calamity about which I wept into Daddy's lissome clavicle for three and a half months.

As for the stretchmarks, don't ask about the stretchmarks. There are men who like them,
but men are liars making lairs, body-shaped soul-boats of stretchmark-making  liquids
and big ideas about the beauty of women.
Other titles include "Hansel on the High Road," "Failing the Republic," and "Mid-Divorce Weather Report." There is so much fun embedded in the life and losses here that if you read these on the beach, people will keep staring at you as they wonder why you're snickering. (Well, at least that's what happened to me, more or less.) And yet the depth and sorrow resonate in these also, sometimes simultaneous with comedy. A long piece that reaches for life's redeeming threads, while also plunging into what "America" feels like, is "Channel 88" where
Thinking about Sodom and Gomorrah
does remind me of the 1960's,
when people were just trying to get their sorry hearts

or wake up somehow somehow somehow
though from a certain child perspective (meaning mine)
it looked like the drug overdoses and psychedelic orgy
that it was.
Reading this before the "current" Blevins collection offers roots from which to savor "Jamboree" -- and reading it afterward is just as good. Hurrah for softcover editions!

Dave Zeltserman Does Horror: THE CARETAKER OF LORNE FIELD

With the recent release of KILLER, the third book in his "out of prison" series, Dave Zeltserman is gathering enormous praise -- "Spare prose and assured pacing place this above most other contemporary noirs," said Publisher's WeeklyWe praised KILLER, too, and we're excited to see the attention this darkly funny (and twisted!) Boston-area novelist is getting nationally and internationally.

KILLER follows SMALL CRIMES and PARIAH, and the three pack a good dose of nightmare as well as darkness. But it's wise to reserve the word "horror" for the next Dave Zeltserman novel, THE CARETAKER OF LORNE FIELD,  his true horror offering of the year. If you're putting in a garden or have ever been awestruck and a little creeped out by how rapidly and voraciously the weeds can grow -- think rainforest, think Scott Smith's THE RUINS -- then THE CARETAKER OF LORNE FIELD is going to ride those images right into your subconscious. At least, it has for me, as well as for Publisher's Weekly and Booklist, both of which call the new work "superb."

The novel starts as a classic New England piece: Jack Durkin is complaining about breakfast, which is corn flakes for the twenty-third day in a row. His wife Lydia is trying to make a point: "Get a job that pays money," she nags, and then maybe you'll earn a good breakfast.

Actually Durkin is being paid a modest stipend plus free rent on his home, and Lydia isn't nearly as broke in terms of groceries as she's pretending ... but it's true that the honorarium for Jack's work looks pretty small after inflation, since it was established generations ago and the town isn't interested in raising the payment. In fact, most of the town, like Jack's wife Lydia, has forgotten what exactly Jack is being paid for. He says, "I spend every day saving the world, and don't you forget it!"

But what's the truth about Jack's work? He's been pulling weeds called Aukowies from Lorne Field, and burning them, for the sake of saving the planet, literally. To hear Jack tell it, those weeds can think -- and they hunger for human flesh and their chance to take over. Just a few days of neglect from the weeding, and the ultimate disaster could erupt for the world. Jack mulls it over:
He could teach them all a lesson. If he bought a bus ticket, he could be in California in three days. Probably take eight, maybe nine days for the Aukowies to mature, another week or so for them to ravage the land and make their way to the west coast. That's give him more than two weeks of peace and quiet. Two weeks without some raisin-faced shrew picking the flesh off his tired old carcass. Two weeks without his ungrateful boys rolling their eyes and smirking at him. Best of all, two weeks without any condescending looks from those townsfolk as he walked past them. Oh boy, would that teach them! Let them see how funny their jokes were when Aukowies shred them into mincemeat! Of course the Aukowies would get his wife and boys first, not only because they were closest but 'cause of the grudge they held against him. They'd make 'em suffer. Probably take their time too, at least as much as an Aukowie could.
Bottom line, though, is that Jack does care about his wife and sons, and even more, he cares about the family honor and obligation to keep on deferring the end of the world through this painful daily labor in the field. And when the town's powerful newcomers, who have no reason to believe in Jack's mythically crucial assignment, decide to undo the "covenant" binding them to respect his work, it's a terrible shock to him.

Zeltserman excels in telling the tale from Jack's point of view, just as he does when he's inside the screwed up brains of a serial killer. It's clear what Jack sees and believes. But the haunting suspicion that maybe Jack is crazy can't be avoided. And the only way to know for sure seems to be if Jack fails in his daily efforts to kill the growing, hungry, malicious weeds. They may even be smart enough to fool others who confront them. Or is it that Jack himself is a menace?

Comparisons with Stephen King's horror novels are inevitable, and this fine writer is surely as good.  Zeltserman packs his tale densely, though, so that instead of a massive volume, THE CARETAKER OF LORNE FIELD is a novella, where each paragraph bites more deeply into the New England ethos of hard work and caring for the community's future -- as well as into Jack's personality and the raw mockery of the townspeople. Are there no allies for Jack in all this? Will his own sons add to the menace attacking him?

Readers of other books by this wonderfully twisted author know there's going to be a moment that turns Jack's inner and outer worlds upside-down. CARETAKER provides a blackly funny bite that's irresistible. And it may send you out to weed your garden, more determinedly than ever -- and with an edge of uneasiness in whether that little patch of heaven might have an inner core that's not so pretty after all. Is green the best color after all??

Thanks, Dave, for another wild ride and great read.

SPECIAL NOTE FOR NEW ENGLAND FOLKS: Dave Zeltserman visits Kingdom Books at 2 p.m. on Saturday June 19. He'll introduce both KILLER and THE CARETAKER OF LORNE FIELD. And we have plenty of copies of KILLER and of its two predecessors, SMALL CRIMES and PARIAH. But because CARETAKER won't yet be available -- it comes out in hardcover in August -- its publisher, Overlook, has generously agreed to provide some "advance reading copies" for people attending this event. We'll draw names to determine who receives these free copies. Let us know if you're coming!

Friday, June 04, 2010

In the Midst of Love, Horror: Mihaela Moscaliuc, FATHER DIRT

New from Alice James Books is the first collection from Romanian-born Mihaela Moscaliuc, and life will never be the same.

FATHER DIRT captures a stunning amount of the differences in cultures, languages, literally in tongues, as Moscaliuc binds together a childhood embedded in myth, Cold War, and richly historied families. Opening with "How to Ask for My Hand at My Grandmother's Grave," this poet makes it clear that the narrower life of her beloved, presumably a Western (American?) one, would be seen through her grandmother's eyes as deprived:
Don't tell her about ashes thrown to winds, don't say
you've never spilled red wine onto the earth
to quench your father's thirst, or that you never read him
the Sunday paper.
Then, by braiding bleach-slaughtered kittens, teen pregnancy and suicide, racist attitudes toward a gypsy boy in school, and more, Moscaliuc summons the scent and sounds of another life in another world. It is the Old World, in multiple ways. Yet it is also the seedbed of the new.

Moscaliuc doesn't hesitate to pair moments from the two worlds: a pregnant friend bathing with delight and caressing her beautifully swollen body, and the round golden shape of her own small son's belly as he bathes and discovers his "pupa," his penis. Or the insight of an immigrant adult, with the memory of an orphanage. The sting and venom of bees, with their honey. This is intense craft from a person who knits garments out of her own spinnings, a warm and colorful fabric that doesn't shrink from displaying either love or cruelty. Rape of a puppy; treatment of pinworms; the thoughtless malice of untaught children -- these poems, in their fierce ragged forms, form a cage of muscle and nerve to hold the strange sacrifices of life.

One of the last poems is called "You Ask Where These Poems Come From" and begins:
my motherland's hunger lines and secret
lairs, shepherd coats and Russian hats

on deer hooks, abandoned flesh
propped against ravaged trash bunkers

vaguely familiar graves which I feed
fresh daisies and pickled rain
And here is the heart of this marvelous book: the notion that rain itself can be pickled, sharp, salted, so that all the memories and insights here have flavor and sting, as well as grief and grimness and the exaltation of survival.

FATHER DIRT allows us to see what happens when we choose to keep the doors to our past open, and gaze on our selves and our worlds, and then open the pathways to our tongues. How fortunate we are that Moscaliuc brings us hers.

Lee Child, 61 HOURS -- Well Worth the Read

When an author reaches his or her 14th book, there's always a risk that the protagonist will have gone to cardboard or the plot devices will be way too familiar. Thank goodness, Lee Child avoids those pitfalls and has crafted an intense thriller in 61 HOURS. Since Janet Maslin's review of the book is so darned good, I'll just add a couple of points:

1. What grips me the most in this book (I live in the far north, so it isn't the South Dakota winter details) is Jack Reacher's struggle between his desire to "move on" and the commitment he finds growing from his respect for two or three of the people he meets here. I keep running through the scenes in my mind's eye. And yes, they are that vivid.

2. When, oh when, will US jacket art capture the intensity of UK versions? I'm pasting both of them here; see for yourself.

The next Lee Child book is following quickly, this fall; I think I'll pre-order a copy. At least the wait won't be as grueling as the time between the Stieg Larsson books.

Maine Crime Fiction: Paul Doiron, THE POACHER'S SON

Mike Bowditch is a good game warden -- and a bitter disappointment to his father Jack, whose scratched-together forest-based life in the Maine North Woods never amounted to much, often included some out-of-season hunting (yes, that's poaching), and always stood in opposition to the forces of law. Especially the wardens.

So when it looks like Jack's violent ways have erupted in killing Deputy Bill Brodeur, a county police officer whom Mike knows and respects, everyone accepts Jack's guilt at first, even Mike. Yet there are some pieces that don't fit. Most powerfully of all, Mike's father, after all these years, asks his grown son for help. The policeman's slaying is secondary to another death, that of a corporate rep whose company is about to unseat all the hardscrabble woodsmen: That landscape of loggers and hunters will be worth a lot more when it's scheduled for some kinds of development. Squatters and casual lease-holders won't be allowed to stay in place. No wonder Mike's dad would have resented the company.

But Mike quickly finds others with far more significant motives than his father's. And his father's girlfriend says Jack is innocent of this crime.

Paul Doiron is writing what he knows in THE POACHER'S SON: A Maine native and editor of the state's established publication Down East: A Magazine of Maine, Doiron is also a Registered Maine Guide. Whether it's gutting a deer, being eaten by black flies in the summer woods, or chasing down a bear that's become dependent on suburban handouts, Doiron nails the details.
After a few steps, I was through the green wall of bushes and saplings at the edge of the wood. Beneath the trees the air was still and heavy with the smell of growing things -- as humid as a hothouse. I made an arc with the bull's-eyed flashlight beam along the forest floor, looking for drag marks. But the soft carpet of moss and pine needles had absorbed all traces of the bear's passing, and I saw no more blood drops.

I found the pig a hundred yards in.

It lay on its side in a puddle of congealing blood. Its throat had been torn out, and its haunches had been chewed into a red pulp. The bear had not attempted to bury the carcass or cover it with leaves. It was possible it had heard me coming.
He also proves to have a tight sense of plot and twists, so that this novel can hardly be set down while Mike is still chasing his father and the truth.
My greatest fear was that the searchers would corner my father in the woods and there would be a standoff ending in gunfire. In a few hours the case might be closed forever and I would live the rest of my life knowing I did nothing to save him.
Even more significantly, Doiron carves out what a father-son relationship can look and feel like at its worst and at its best. For Mike Bowditch, dealing with the brutality of his father Jack's life becomes even darker when contrasted with what retired warden Charley Stevens offers -- if Mike can manage to see Charley straight, considering that this is the same warden who despised his father way back when.

There's evil in here, and there's violence, as well as betrayal. But THE POACHER'S SON also offers a realistic glimpse of what goodness and strength can turn out to be. And it's a compelling read, well written, tautly paced, and making every page count.

Paul Doiron's author tour so far includes only stops in Maine. If you go to meet him, let him know the rest of northern New England -- and other places that offer conflict between rural life and oncoming change -- could use a visit from this author, too.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Next Chief Inspector Gamache Title from Louise Penny: BURY YOUR DEAD

We're hooked on this dark and complex series from Canadian author Louise Penny, so I want to give a heads-up that Penny's latest e-newsletter talks about the plot of her fall 2010 title, BURY YOUR DEAD. I recommend signing up for the e-news. The image here is the Canadian cover, from Penny's website. Check back later for more.

Walk on the Wild Side: A Poet's Garden

Can you guess which Vermont-resident poet hosted a young bear for a birdseed snack earlier this season? Hint: The bear's nickname is Mishka.

Writing for Stage and Screen: Registration Opens Today

[Chestnut Hill, MA]  The Solstice Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program of Pine Manor College is pleased to announce open registrations for “Writing for Stage & Screen,” a Solstice Seminar, beginning June 1, 2010. Designed to build upon and expand the concentrations of the Solstice MFA Program, the Solstice Seminars are two-day intensives that offer writers the opportunity to explore and deepen their knowledge of craft.

“Writing for Stage & Screen” will take place on the Pine Manor College campus from October 29–30, 2010. Participants will learn playwriting or screenwriting basics, generate new material, and revise newly created scenes for a staged reading. In addition, participants will attend a play in nearby Boston, and enjoy a screening of a film with commentary by special guest Richard Wesley.

Playwriting faculty member Anne-Marie Oomen has written and produced seven plays, including the award-winning “Northern Belles.” Her most recent, “Whaddaya Give,” a play with music, continues her dramatic series inspired by Michigan’s history. Anne-Marie is also author of a new collection of essays, An American Map, as well as two memoirs and a collection of poetry..

Screenwriting Faculty member Lesley Alicia Tye’s film and television credits range from Costume Designer for the feature Two Coyotes to Casting Assistant with Apryl Prose Casting and Below-the-Line Agent with Casala, Ltd.  She has written several feature length screenplays, was co-writer for the television pilot Devin’s Chronicles for Caspian Sea Entertainment, and was the recipient of the Stephen C. Gentry Award for Excellence in Screenwriting.

Guest Director Bob Owczarek has taught theatre at Pine Manor College, Dean College, the Boston Conservatory, and Boston University. He has appeared on stage, film, radio, and television.  He is a member of the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists, the Screen Actors’ Guild, and Actors’ Equity Association.

Special Guest Richard Wesley, Associate Professor in Playwriting and Screenwriting at New York University, is currently the Chair of NYU’s Department of Dramatic Writing. He is author of the plays The Black Terror and The Mighty Gents, and his big screen credits include Uptown Saturday Night, Let's Do It Again, Native Son, and Fast Forward. He has written extensively for television, most recently as the co-writer (with Jacqueline Woodson) of the teleplay for Miracle’s Boys, directed by Spike Lee.

As an undergraduate institution consistently ranked among the most diverse in the country, Pine Manor College emphasizes an inclusive, community-building approach to liberal arts education. The Solstice MFA in Creative Writing reflects the College’s overall mission by creating a supportive, welcoming environment in which writers of all backgrounds are encouraged to take creative risks. We strive to instill in our students an appreciation for the value of community-building and community service, and see engagement with the literary arts not only as a means to personal fulfillment but also as an instrument for real cultural change.

For  more information, go to