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Friday
Oct162015

Book Reviews: I Meet Geronimo and Other Stories, The Wine and Chocolate Workout, Portland Beer Stories, Benchere in Wonderland, Cartographies of Scale (and Wing), Healing Waters Floating Lamps

“Then, You Run”

I Meet Geronimo and Other Stories,

by Charles Bane, Jr.

Reviewed by Randall Mawer

 

This very short collect of very very short stories is compelling. Whether Bane deliberately chooses to link the tales with significant themes or merely writes this way, each yarn focuses on an important historical episode or circumstance (I am reminded of Hamlin Garland and John Dos Passos.)

The title piece follows an adolescent farm boy to a Wild West show where he meets the aging, now harmless Geronimo. The boy recognizes the chief’s erstwhile heroism but not his own—he works hard on his father’s farm, and the old Indian, impressed by his steadiness, gives him a keepsake, and some advice: “tomorrow, you go to the field, and cut the heads from the wheat. Then you run.”

Much later, in “Daddy and Arnold,” the boy, now grown (is this the same character?”) hears how his older brother died in WWI. His larger lesson, though, comes in the confession of his father to the murder of the officer who ordered the attack in which his brother was killed. There are class differences here, which Americans don’t like to think about.

Colonialism is central to “The Man-Eater of Kotali,” in which an aging British lord stalks a savage leopard. (India is the setting.) His hunt succeeds, but the narrator regrets being on the side of the European hunters, not the native prey. “Zapata and the Pony” takes us to Mexico, where the revolutionary arrives in a rural village to the delight of the population. Again as in the title yarn, a boy’s hero worship is proved appropriate. “The Sabbath Bride” shows a New York Jew reacting rather guiltily but needfully to an anti-Semitic remark. His girlfriend endorses his action.

“Collier and the Hurricane” takes place in Puerto Rico, where an epileptic boy (third person here) and his father face down a hurricane. The father’s tyrannical behavior cannot hide his love for his son, but he looks far too scornfully down on the local population. In “The Meeting,” a climatologist warns his female president of Armageddon brought on by global warming. This tale simply ends, rather pointlessly.

“Summer of the Horseshoe Crab” glances at the first flicker of love in a young man. In “The Jewel Fish,” a local Amazonian tries to buy off invading loggers with jewels he finds in a fish he catches. “The Man-Eater of Kotali” is echoed.

“’Then, you run,’” says a defeated Indian, swilling beer but aware of courage and its importance. The third world, despised races, a threatened environment, all require our defense, but we must “run” until we are strong, and cherish other people of spirit in the meantime.

 

The Wine and Chocolate Workout by Greta Boris

Fitness Inside Out (2012);

Portland Beer Stories by Steve Shomler

American Palate (2015)

Reviewed by Casey Dorman

 

 I’ve never been a heavy drinker, but I’ve always enjoyed a cocktail, a glass of wine or a pint of beer to add to a social occasion. Over the last several years I’ve limited myself to wine or beer and, as I’ve gotten older, to less and less of either. That means that I have to be choosier about when and what I drink. And I have to think about how my drinking habits fit into my lifestyle, which, again as a function of my aging, has to include health benefits as well as enjoyment. I’ve recently read a couple of books which, each for different reasons, gave me new insight into my favorite alcoholic beverages.

The Wine and Chocolate Workout wins the prize for best recent book title.  The book is classified under health and fitness by Amazon and appropriately so. It’s really a self-help book about how to make  a realistic lifestyle change to eat and live healthier. As such, it’s a friendly, folksy set of instructions and instruments for recording progress, interspersed with  tidbits about health. The author, a fitness instructor herself, emphasizes activities that can be incorporated into a permanent lifestyle. These activities include a better diet, more exercise, rest, meditation and breaks. None of the prescriptions is meant to be difficult nor burdensome or even boring. In fact the emphasis is upon enjoying what one is doing so that he or she keeps doing it.

What about the wine and chocolate? Besides recommending either or both of these special treats as rewards or for enjoyment during the periodic breaks that the author recommends taking, throughout the book are gems of information about the health benefits of wine and chocolate. Did you know that dark chocolate contains oleoylethanolamide, which increases metabolism and satiety, helping you to lose weight?  Not only that, but “the antioxidant properties of chocolate  help lower LDL cholesterol, increase HDL cholesterol, lower blood sugar levels and increase blood flow to the brain and heart.” Dark chocolate has many advantages not found in milk chocolate and there is a section on “How to Choose Chocolate.”

Wine, as a healthy addition to your diet gets even more attention than chocolate. The author reminds us that several studies have shown that drinking wine is associated with longer life spans, lower cholesterol, less risk of stroke and heart disease and even decreased risk of dementia. In addition,  “the average wine drinker, when compared to the rest of the population, has a smaller waistline, less belly fat, and lower body mass.” And of course wine makes you feel better. It also may make you look better. The polyphenols contained in wine “help to maintain the skin’s elasticity by promoting collagen production.”  And, according to the author, wine can protect against the sun’s UV rays, lowering the risk of skin cancer.

Reading this book I not only took a second look at my eating and exercise habits to assess whether I was living as healthy a lifestyle as I could, but I reassessed my prohibitions against wine, which had been in effect because I had twice endured mild episodes of gout (which might or might not be related to wine intake and probably is related to beer intake, not to mention red meat, shellfish and even mushrooms and spinach!). Perhaps the health benefits of wine outweighed the risks. With regard to chocolate, the only risk appears to be overindulgence. Despite this, because of all of its health benefits, I may actually increase my intake of chocolate.

This book is an easy to read, truly helpful recipe for honest, permanent lifestyle change with as little pain as possible, sweetened by its recommendations for the pleasures and benefits of wine and chocolate.

 

Portland Beer Stories is a glimpse at a good number of the eighty or so breweries and brewpubs in Portland Oregon and the surrounding area. Portland likes to think of itself as America’s craft beer capital and it may well be. Travel and Leisure Magazine thinks so and ranked Portland number 1 in its 2015 list of “American’s 20 best cities for beer lovers.” In this fascinating book, Steve Shomler, the author, has focused upon about  twenty breweries and another fifteen or so individuals who are central to the Portland beer scene. It’s a book that tells a history, gives a picture of the present and the most likely future, and, surprisingly for me, has an inspirational message.

Portland is not just a good place to drink beer, it’s also a good place to brew beer, to learn how to brew beer and to go into the beer brewing or selling business. The reason, according to Steve Shomler, is that in Portland, the craft beer brewing community is just that—a community. Newcomers are invited in, most of those in who now are entrepreneurs in one of the beer related businesses worked their way up from interning to helping out, to becoming assistant brewers to finally moving out on their own to establish their own brand and their own style of beer. And all along the way they were taught, encouraged, and supported by those who had gone ahead of them. There is a camaraderie  within the community that seems unusual for people in businesses that compete with each other. I guess Portlanders figure that there are plenty of customers to go around, that the thirst for beer is unquenchable.

The inspiring aspect of the book is its description of this vibrant, supportive community in an atmosphere that might easily foster cutthroat competition. There’s a message here for other communities of entrepreneurs—independent authors and small presses (my community) for instance.

Most of the stories are interesting, some are remarkable. John Harris, “a truly legendary Oregon brewer” was the founding brewer at Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon, a small town which itself has been called the best craft beer town in America on more than one occasion and Deschutes Brewery is the main reason for this distinction (have you tried their Mirror Pond Pale Ale or their Cinder Cone Red Ale?). After leaving Deschutes, John came to Portland and was the founding brewer at the famous Red Sail Brewery. In 2012, John took the big step of starting his own brewery and restaurant, calling it Ecliptic named after planets’ orbit around the sun and in honor of the seasonal beers and food he offers. A brewery owned and run by someone with John’s background is something special in the field of craft beer.

James Neumeister was an award-winning home brewer who had a friend with celiac disease, which required a gluten-free diet. James decided to take the bull by the horns and in 2011 he teamed up with brewmaster, Tim Barr and founded the  gluten-free Ground Breaker Brewery, then two years later he brought in chef Neil Davidson and opened Ground Breaker Gastropub, which offers gluten-free food to go along with the gluten-free beer

The stories are not all about brewers and breweries. One of the most fascinating tales focuses upon  Ashley Rose Salvitti, a former server  at brewpubs in both North Carolina and Portland. In 2009, Ashley decided that there were so many breweries and pubs in Portland that the time was ripe for a brewery tour. She started Brewvana, which opened with a single bus in 2011 and now has three. Brewvana offers both bus and walking tours and it’s a chance to get “an insider’s tour” of the Portland beer scene.

There is a generous quality to Portland Beer Stories, a quality of wanting to give everyone his or her due, of sharing the glory of the Portland beer scene equally among its participants. There are even guest writers within the book—beer writers from local newspapers, radio stations, and of other beer-oriented books. An appendix lists other Northwest beer books. The book is a good representation of the community spirit it celebrates. The author, Steve Shomler, has also written Portland Food Cart Stories and is now working on a book on Oregon Wines. He is the host of Tasty Tuesday radio show on Portland Radio Project.

He has promised to give me a guided tour of the Portland beer scene. I can hardly wait.

 

Crownfeathers and Effigies

by Jerry Bradley.

Lamar University Press (2015)

Reviewed by Anne Britting Oleson

 

Of the many delights of Jerry Bradley's third collection, Crownfeathers and Effigies, two stand out:  Bradley's constant play with structure and mechanics, and his wry—yet warm—tone, especially when he writers of the characters of his poetic world.  His poetry appeals to both the reader's intellect and her emotional intelligence.

While Bradley varies his poems' stanza length, he frequently combines short, tight stanzas with the choice to write without capitals nor end punctuation.  This construction emphasizes the importance of line and stanza breaks, while at the same time stresses a kind of stream-of-consciousness, where all thoughts are interconnected, but where the reader is forced to take a mental breath before crossing the white space into the next stanza.  For example, in “My Grandmother's Song,” he writes 

 

            my grandmother got up early

            and sang to the well pump's crank

            the water sang too 

 

            the clothes she washed

            came clean and hung

            joyfully on the slack line 

 

The poem moves on from there, the line and stanza breaks acting as punctuation, providing visual clues  to the reader where a more traditional structure would provide capital letters, periods, or commas.

That same poem follows the speaker's grandmother further through her day, as she kills a chicken that makes a wash-flavored soup.  The tone recognizes the hardships of that life, the small failures, but honors them as well.  There are family members traipsing through this collection, lovers, ex-wives, friends, and all are viewed wryly, though not unkindly.  Take the unnamed woman of “This Close,” who is not faring well in love:


            She is this close to killing him,

            seconds away from handing him

            his hat or his head,

            from aiming a glass or a plate 

 

or, in “Pictures from London,” another woman who mis-identifies or mangles names of the places she's visited, such as “the Tim's River,” “Buckminster Cathedral” and “Pig Pen, the clock,” and the speaker tells us playfully, 

 

            You say you wish I were there.  I wish

            so too.  Better to see with my own eyes

            what you have failed to hear with yours. 

 

There are many treasures in Bradley's collection.  It is difficult to choose representative pieces, as these poems are obviously the work of a poet with a wide-ranging intellect and emotional sensitivity.  Crownfeathers and Effigies is a strong offering from a strong writer, and a pleasure to explore. 

 

Vox Clamantis in Deserto 

Benchere in Wonderland by Steven Gillis

Portland, OR: Hawthorne Books (2015)

Reviewed by Conrad Geller

 

 

Steven Gillis' sixth novel, Benchere in Wonderland, begins with a failed attempt at masturbation and ends with the triumph of pure art over the evils of the mundane world.  In between is an expertly told story of loss, love and conflict that ranges from Rhode Island to Africa and finally beyond to the whole world. That should be enough scope to satisfy any reader.

This writer clearly knows how to tell a complex story, in a way no one can learn in a writing workshop. His narrative involves more than a dozen major characters and a span of some thirty years. There are sudden leaps back and forward in time, probes into several minds, even some sudden switches from past to present in the telling, yet the reader never needs to be in doubt about where he is or what is happening.

Michael Benchere is a sculptor in Rhode Island whose career is just slogging along. He teaches at the local Backwater Arts Academy—that's its real name—and sells one of his pieces now and then. Suddenly, without training or intention, he becomes a world-famous architect whose works are avidly sought and handsomely paid. Now a wealthy celebrity, he gives up architecture and returns to the purer art of sculpture, deciding, on the death of his wife, to erect a three-hundred-foot abstract statue in Botswana, in the middle of the Kalihari desert. What happens during his struggles with that project, with his adversaries private and governmental, and with his own feelings of grief and renewal, is the main business of the book.

The story involves intriguing parallels and contrasts. As Benchere builds his monumental structure with the help of friends, assorted volunteers, and paying guests, his son is working to create a housing project back home, with an advanced design that includes a yoga studio.

The more significant parallel is deeper and less obvious. Benchere is mourning the death of his wife Marti at the same time he is creating his masterwork. Grief has been well described biographically, by Joan Didion a while ago and more recently by Sheryl Sandberg, but here the male version is imaginatively explored in what may be Gillis' best writing.  I wish there were more of that lyricism in telling, but maybe it's in the story of Marti that the deepest feelings surface:

 

On the shelf above the sink were Marti’s pills, the anastrozole and clonazepam, tamoxifen, pain meds and digestive aids, homeopathies and hardcore pharmaceuticals; a potpourri of would-be curatives. Benchere left the meds as they were, left Marti’s clothes and books, notes handwritten and hanging from a magnet on the fridge, her slippers and soaps, magazines and voice on the message machine. “ We’re not here to take your call ... ”

 

The dominant theme in the novel, however, involves not Benchere's inner life but the nature and purpose of art. Benchere insists categorically that true art should have no purpose, that if it means to effect a social good it is mere propaganda, akin to Stalinist realism. Even Guernica, he argues, stands apart from its political purpose. The great irony here is that his imposing desert sculpture, which he says will be art even if no one ever sees it, becomes a focus of revolution, inciting war-ravaged refugees in South Sudan to sing and dance around a replica of Benchere's work as a symbol of their aspirations. It even becomes the focus of an international movement for peace and freedom:

 

In Kadugli a new sculpture has been built from the scraps  gathered after the blast. In the Kalahari, too, the shards of metal are reused. In Zambia, Angola and Zaire, in Syria and Sierra Leone, the Nuba Mountains, Mali and Darfur, in Mali and Senegal, Gaborone, Makhado and Francistown, in Spain and England, France and America, Russia and China, North Korea and Cyprus, the effort gains momentum.

 

In the course of his telling, the author manages to sound echoes of some of the best fiction of the last century or so. Benchere's daughter is named Zooie, and Salinger's shadow looms  saliently in the description of his place back home, “. . . the roof beams raised high.” The African venue recalls Hemingway, and the novel's title goes all the way back to suggest Lewis Carroll.  But the most significant intertextuality of all is to Saul Bellow, specifically to Henderson the Rain King. Both Henderson and Benchere are large men physically, both hear an incessant voice crying I want!, both must go to Africa to accomplish their dreams, and both become icons to the natives and a kind of kings. The richness of those interactions help give the story an additional substance and meaning .

In a few places, unfortunately, the narrative drags. With the introduction of each important character there is a long  and mostly unnecessary exposition. There is some fussy descriptive detail, often involving the brand names of objects used.  Most intrusive of all are the moments when the author pauses to make a point by having characters debate at length. Benchere sees himself as a pure artist, and his wife is an engineer, so their discussions extend weightily about imagination and practicality. Of their two children Zooie takes after her father, becoming a performance artist and assistant in the desert enterprise, while Kyle, the son, becomes a social activist involved in the practical matter of building public housing. Other long interludes, with abundant references to people and works familiar and obscure, are about the need for social action, the role of free capitalism in the betterment of downtrodden peoples (this between Benchere and the stereotypical villain Mund, so we know where the author's sympathies lie), and between Benchere and his soon-to-be lover Deyna (not much of a spoiler-alert here), about purpose and reconciliation in life.

These cavils aside, Benchere in Wonderland  is a large book, a meaningful book, its story told by a masterful storyteller. Too often I agree with the nineteenth-century wit and poet Samuel Rogers, who said, “When a new book comes out, I read an old one.” I did read, for example, only the first book of the Harry Potter series, loved it, but didn't go on to the others. Fifty Shades of Grey is as unknown to me as the Anabasis.  Nevertheless, I'm happy to have made an exception this time.

 

Cartographies of Scale (and Wing)

By Anca Vlasopolos

Reviewed by Randall Mawer

 

This poetic homage to things natural takes its thematic frame from the work of Gerardus Mercator and Nathaniel Bowditch, whose maps made detailed navigation possible for ordinary seamen. Vlasopolos is more impressed by the instinctive way-finding of birds, insects, fish, and whales, now so often endangered by works of men. Her favorite (but hardly her only) setting is a landscape all but ruined by technology—a modern urban university, a busy freeway—where close observation reveals sparrows, finches, starlings, and wrens surviving, if with difficulty, while most people, Vlasopolos and her binoculars excepted, “teeter…toward” a far more “certain crash.”

The book’s final poem, which repeatedly quotes William Carlos Williams’ “So Much Depends,” finds glory in the commonplace—baby birds feeding, milkweed perfuming the air. Elsewhere chickadees adapt a householder’s misbuilt birdhouse, swans gather to migrate. And mankind? Even our pets (“the stupid dog / who couldn’t find a bone if he tripped on it”) add to the total of “drab small quiet deaths” in the bushes by our doors.

Nature is not idealized, though. Hawks hunt here, and vultures have their natural diet. Rats and coyotes spread across the landscape. But human nouns ring stronger—Chernobyl, Bangladesh.

Technically, Vlasopolos likes broken lines, radically mixed levels of diction, low-ish humor. (“How smart is a smart phone when it’s dropped into an aquarium?”)

Her verse is all control in a world where control is in very short supply.

 

 

Journey with the Self

 

Healing Waters Floating Lamps 

by Kiriti Sengupta

Ahmedabad: Moments Publication (2015)

Reviewed by Sharmila Ray

 

 

Going through Healing Waters Floating Lamps, a selection of poems by Kiriti Sengupta made me remember few lines of Tocqueville (1835):

"In democracies it is by no means the case that all who cultivate literature have received a literary education, and most of those who have some belles-lettres are engaged in professions that only allow them to taste occasionally and by stealth the pleasures of the mind. Accustomed to the struggle, the crosses, and the monotony of practical life, poets require strong and rapid emotions, startling passages, truths or errors brilliant enough to rouse them up and to plunge them at once, as if by violence, into the midst of the subject."

 

Why have I entertained these sentences is because the poet is a doctor by profession and going through his poems there is a feeling of well balanced liberation from the clutches of the laws of poetry. What emerges are encounters with the self, prodding the self to respond and contemplate.

This sleek volume conveys small poems, which are double-layered. First there is the observation with the five senses, the reality, we are comfortable with and then a second reading leads to another reality beyond words and sounds, smell and touch, where the ‘I’ withers to be at one with all.

The first poem in the volume, “Beyond The Eyes” (mark the title) prepares the reader for other words, other lines on the next pages of the book. It prepares us for an unknown universe, a space of different representations where the smell of infinity lingers.

 

I reach the sky

While I draw a circle in the water

Looking at the image

I take a dip

 

These lines invite the reader to take a dip in the water to create a world of his or her own. Water flows and so each pattern is replaced by another circle or oblong. In fact, transient. So is our material world. 

As the poems progress the feeling of awareness snowballs into an all pervasive consciousness, an inner knowledge, attaining harmony with the outer world. Kiriti pushes us, prods us in each of his poems to listen, observe and be attentive to ourselves. The poet believes in living here and now, in enjoying the world that encircles us and participating in the experience of the present. This is very much reflected in his poem titled “Celluloid.”

 

…I was hesitant, you know,

 I never said goodbye

Signs are private, and I keep my eyes open.

Round the clock.

 

As the collection winds its way down the  path of aloneness, a journey with the self,  a certain certitude emerge—like putting faith in ordinary things and not accepting old mental program and rejecting external manipulation.

 

…The word “denser” does not

Necessarily mean thicker… (“Secure A River”)

 

Also in “Color Code”:

They said you were black

They knew they were white

And I said

This has been the Nelson Mandela patch.

 

The poems in Healing Waters Floating Lamps are to be read slowly, to ponder and think. Take for instance the poem on Varanasi. The title is the key. Here the poet does not name the poem Evening in Varanasi. He writes “Evening Varanasi”—as if Varanasi is a being, a symbol of spirituality, the mystic soul of India,  its body the meditating ground for those in search of oneness.

 

Have you seen the floating lamps in the river?

Water here is not the fire-extinguisher, but

The flames ascend through water

Prayers reach the meditating Lord

 

Both Bhagirath and Prometheus bought down river Ganga and Fire, respectively, from the heavens to bless mankind. So they are both images of life and all that is divine in the human. They are life-givers and mind-openers. The floating lamps are a reminder of this ephemeral world, which is floating and changing. Only mindfulness is real and that opens the door of super consciousness or God (Prayers reach the meditating Lord).

Again the poet very subtly plays with the theme of eternity in his poem “Memorandum Of Understanding.” Age is a human perception and we cannot bottle air in ancient and medieval, modern and post-modern bottles.

 

…I know

Air and age are linked

Since eternity…

 

Kiriti’s poems are a montage of responses to the everyday philosophy that runs subterranean in the orient.  These experiences are common to all men. But the poet remembers them and gives them form through words without frills. The poems are short and deeply suggestive, unlocking hidden areas of the self and not simply illustrating an object or an event. What is interesting is that there are many ways of reading his poems. They are not restricted. They are like one long abstract painting, inviting the readers to come up with their own meaning, thereby making them participate in the poem. So as readers they are also writing. Perhaps, after reading Kiriti’s poetry the reader would turn to love and compassion in these days of online shopping, virtual friends and emotions in the shapes of smilies. 

 

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