Finally Out by Dr. Loren A. Olson

October 10, 2011 at 6:42 pm (ARC, book review, books, memoir, nonfiction, psychology, queer interest, queer studies, reading)

With Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight, Dr. Loren Olson delivers an all-in-one memoir, psychology, and self-help text about coming out of the closet in later life. Through discussion of key psychological concepts and personal stories Olson, who came out at forty, explains why the coming out process can be delayed for some men, and in doing so attempts to submarine the misconception that gay men who marry women and raise families are only using their wives and children to hide their sexuality. From deeply held religious beliefs and traditional gender norms to social expectations and fear of rejection Olson examines the numerous factors that contribute to the denial and repression of sexual identity. He also discusses the challenges unique to this particular demographic such as helping children understand and cope with their father’s sexuality, and reconciling the desire for a traditional family dynamic in a country that, by and large, does not allow gay couples the benefits of marriage.

Though it is good to see this largely ignored aspect of the gay experience given a thorough examination, Finally Out tries to be so many things at once that the text never really coalesces into cohesive narrative. The history lessons, psychological concepts, personal stories and advice contained in each chapter do not feel like parts of a larger whole, but a jumble of ideas thrown together at random. Transitions from one paragraph to the next are abrupt. When using personal stories to illustrate psychological concepts Olson often fails to explain exactly how the story relates to the concept or the overarching theme of the chapter. For example, in chapter four which focuses largely on the coming out process, Olson writes about the dissolution of his marriage. Though, yes, the break-up of Olson’s marriage certainly played a key role in his coming out process he does not actually write about how it did. He goes into detail about how and when everything went sour, and theorizes about how his wife and children felt during the divorce, but he does not frame the story within a context of coming out and that left me wondering why he chose to include this story in this particular chapter. This disconnect occurs throughout the book whenever Olson introduces a personal anecdote, and it made me feel like I was reading two separate and distinct books, not a unified text.

Finally Out contains a lot of useful information, but it is trying to do too much. Olson should have written a psychology book or a memoir, not both at the same time.

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After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography edited by Kate Sontag and David Graham

June 27, 2010 at 9:45 pm (book review, books, essays, literary criticism, literature, nonfiction, poetry, reading)

Being a poet who writes primarily confessional poetry I was stoked to come across After Confession, a collection of critical essays discussing the technical, aesthetic, and ethical considerations unique to confessional poetry. With essays by some of the biggest names in contemporary poetry including Alicia Ostricker, Billy Collins, and Louise Gluck, After Confession offers a remarkably well-rounded look at the possibilities and pit falls of the form.

The book is divided into four sections: “Staying News: Critical and Historical Perspectives” looks at autobiographical poetry from antiquity to the present. “Our Better Halves: Autobiographical Musings ” examines the self within confessional poetry. “Degrees of Fidelity: Ethical and Aesthetic Considerations” is self-explanatory. And “Codes of Silence: Women and Autobiography” shines a spotlight on women in confessional poetry.

Sontag’s and Graham’s arrangement of the essays is almost conversational, each one responding to arguments put forth in previous essays. This back and forth makes it feel as though you’re listening in on an active debate rather than reading a book.

Though the book as a whole is incredibly rich, I enjoyed part three, “Degrees of Fidelity: Ethical and Aesthetic Considerations” the most. Ted Kooser’s essay “Lying for the Sake of Making Poems” in which he lambastes autobiographical poets who stretch the truth and advocates the inclusion of some sort of note or clause at the start of poems indicating whether or not they are true, had me so furious I covered the margins in back talk. I didn’t need to though. In the following essay, “Self-Pity,” Carol Frost highlights the many subtle ways confessional poets use syntax, timing, innuendo, and word choice to indicate what is true and what is false, and basically makes Ted Kooser look like a lazy reader.

In his amusing essay “The Glass Anvil: The Lies of an Autobiographer” Andres Hudgins maps out ten different types of lies ranging from white to red hot, and points out where, why, and how he used each of them in his poetry book The Glass Hammer. And Kimiko Hahn’s “Blunt Instrument: a Zuihitsu” examines the intersection of truth, half-truth, and memory in confessional poetry as a whole through a poetic form that allows one to clearly view each fragment, each thought, by itself  and in relation to surrounding truths and untruths.

Each section has its stand out essays. In section four’s  “The Voices We Carry” Kimberly Blaeser talks about the social construction of individuality, and how our sense of self is cobbled together through membership to various groups, and relationships to other people.  In section two Stanley Plumly’s remarkable “Autobiography and Archetype” makes the argument that archetype is what connects autobiography to something larger than itself, and autobiography is the medium through which archetypes are continually renewed.

No matter how you feel about confessional poetry – whether you love it, hate it, write it, or sneer at it – After Confession should be on your bookshelf. The essays offer ammunition to anyone looking for a way to explain why confessional poetry is awesome or why it sucks, and contains loads of food for thought along the way.

More than anything, the critical ideas and personal views expressed in After Confession reminded me of the possibilities inherent in the poetic form; that a poet can never learn enough, can never stop trying new things, and must never stop pushing the boundaries of poetic expression.

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Best and Worst of 2009

December 31, 2009 at 2:14 pm (Best of, fantasy, fiction, horror, nonfiction, romance, urban fantasy, Worst of)

It’s that time of the year again. Time to call out the five best and five worst books of the year. Though I only posted  eight reviews in 2009, I actually read eighty-three books. My excuse for my low output is the same as last year: I spent more time working on my own personal writing projects than blogging. Even so, that eight is five more than I wrote in 2008  so I am improving, and hope to post more reviews in the coming year.

Despite my low output reader response was much louder this year. I received more thank you emails from authors whose books I’ve positively reviewed, and that’s quite gratifying. There’s nothing like hearing someone you admire say that you’ve made their day. This is the first year I received threats of physical violence from enraged readers who disagreed with me. The post that seems to draw the most ire is a negative review I wrote on a book about bullying. Ah, the irony. Though I originally felt obligated to publish and respond to abusive comments and emails, I eventually realized that, not only do I not have to tolerate such abuse, I don’t have to give abusive individuals their own forum. I’ve since stopped publishing comments containing profanity, personal attacks, threats of violence, rants that have nothing to do with the content of the book in question, or any other form of harassment.

Returning to the topic at hand, the reason I split my year end top ten into a five best and five worst list is because normally I only end up reading five outstandingly good books and five unbearably awful ones. But, this year I read a truck load of books by authors with a talent for storytelling, world building, and character creation, and it made assembling my best of  list really difficult. Thankfully, I didn’t have the same problem with the worst of list. As in previous years I only read five cringe-worthy books in 2009.

In the past I’ve been more inclined to review books I enjoyed. This year, however, I was more inclined to write about books I did not like. I only wrote two positive reviews this year. For the first time ever it became more important to me to keep people away from bad books as oppose to attracting them to good ones. Because I did read so many good books in 2009 I think the bad ones stood out in my mind, and I tend to write reviews about books that stand out in one way or another.

All right, enough year end babble. Here are the five best and worst books of 2009.  As usual, the lists consist of books I read this year, not necessarily ones that were published this year.

The Best:

1) Heal Pelvic Pain by Amy Stein – In Heal Pelvic Pain Stein lays out the benefits of physical therapy to those living with pelvic pain syndromes. She offers laymen a clear and comprehensible lesson in pelvic anatomy, as well as exercises designed to stretch and loosen the muscles of the pelvic floor.  I suffer from a chronic pelvic pain syndrome. I was so amazed by the immediate relief I experienced after using the stretches suggested in the book, I went and got myself a physical therapist the next week. I didn’t really need to though. Stein’s recommendations would have served just fine on their own. But here I am, seven months later living almost entirely pain free and I’ve Amy Stein to thank for it. I can say that Heal Pelvic Pain literally changed my life and that’s why it tops the list this year.

2) Dirty by Megan Hart – I’m not a fan of romance novels, the work of Megan Hart being an exception. Hart is deft at creating realistic relationships, and no other book showcases her talent better than Dirty. Elle is a deeply withdrawn woman, and it isn’t until Dan starts picking at the emotional scars she has ignored for years that the secrets from her past begin bleeding out. Everything about this book is perfect: the characterization is flawless, it is beautifully paced, the romance between Elle and Dan is completely earned, and the sex scenes actually *gasp* advance the plot!

3) Silk by Caitlin R. Kiernan – Kiernan has an unbelievable way with words. Her use of  language is so evocative  it’s practically a form of teleportation. From the very first sentence I felt like I was in this dark fantasy about how fear shapes our perception of reality.

4) Unclean Spirits by H. L. N. Hanover – How refreshing to read an urban fantasy in which the heroine does not have all her shit together, doesn’t always have the answer, and isn’t always a strong leader. The  joy of this novel is in watching the heroine, Jayne,  grow into herself. She  is a different woman at the beginning of the book than she is at the end, and that character growth is what distinguishes Unclean Spirits from the rest of the urban fantasy herd.

5) Succubus Blues by Richelle Mead – The first book in the Georgina Kincaid series is a perfect combination of all the preceding books. It’s urban fantasy with strong characters, crisp writing, an intricate story, and a believable romance.

The Worst:

1) Key to Conspiracy (Gillian Key, book 1) by Talia Gryphon

2) Key to Redemption (Gillian Key, book 3) by Talia Gryphon

3) Key to Conspiracy (Gillian Key, book 2) by Talia Gryphon

In my review of Key to Conflict I said I would not continue on to the next book in the series. However, the Gillian Key series turned out to be a train wreck I could not look away from. Key to Conspiracy was so atrocious I had to find out if the series could get any worse. The second and third books may not be worse, but they’re not much better either.  All three are poorly plotted, contain sloppy writing, and revolve around a completely unlikable heroine.

4) Norse Code by Greg Van Eekhout – This modern day re-telling of the Norse myth of Ragnarok should have been interesting, but a plodding pace, mediocre writing, and hollow characters make it a real snooze fest.

5) Eve of Darkness by S. J. Day -This lackluster debut contains every bad urban fantasy cliche imaginable. Let’s go down the check-list: Generic sassy, sarcastic, caffeine addicted female protagonist? Check. Not just one, but two romances that turn into true love within 24 hours? Check. A “kick ass” heroine who spends more time sleeping with the heroes than actually kicking ass? Check.

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Ordering the Storm edited by Susan Grimm

August 25, 2009 at 3:03 pm (chapbooks, essays, nonfiction, poetry, publishing)

I don’t think it’s too far out to say that most emerging poets have no idea what to take into consideration when putting  together a full length or chapbook sized collection of poetry. It’s not a topic most undergraduate or graduate creative writing programs cover. By the time a young poet has enough material to constitute a first collection chances are he or she will still have never met anyone who has published a book. They themselves may have only a vague concept of what they want to say, how they want to say it, or how to draw a particular response out of a reader. Sensing the need for direction in these matters, Susan Grimm asked a number of published poets to write about their experiences putting together collections of poetry. The result, Ordering the Storm: How to Put Together a Book of Poems, offers insight, suggestions, direction, and the shared camaraderie poets so desperately need when trying to assemble a book.

Ordering the Stormis a quick read. At 97 pages I was able to breeze through it in a day. The eleven essays range from the esoteric to the practical. In the opening essay, “Best Foot Forward: Arranging a Poetry Manuscript,” Bonnie Jacobson examines the themes and structures used to organize books by Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, and John Donoghue among others, and how those structures maximize the emotional impact of the manuscript. In “It’s Simple Really: Just Sit Down at the Desk…” Jeff Gundy describes his own circuitous process of putting together a book.

All of the contributors toss out ideas on how to go about arranging a book of poetry. There’s the classic method of fanning all your poems out on the floor, and crawling around on your hands and knees until the pattern of the book begins to take shape. Some suggest grouping poems with similar themes, subjects, images, or turns of phrase into individual sections. Others suggest weaving poems with seemingly disparate tones or subjects together throughout the book. Above all, they remind the reader that no size fits all. Each manuscript is its own entity and will require its own individual tending. What worked for your first book may not work for your second.

What really struck me was how many of the contributors spoke of creating a dramatic arc, building tension, and moving the action along; terms more often heard when speaking of prose. But it makes sense that a poet would have to take those things into consideration when assembling a book. After all you want to keep the reader riveted and you want them to walk away from the book having gained something. It goes to show how green I am that I’d never thought of a book of poetry in those terms before.

Though reading about each contributors individual process gave me ideas of how I might want to approach the puzzle of assembling a collection one day, the essays themselves, their organization and presentation also provided insight into my own preferences. For instance, I found the essays presented in a straight forward and linear fashion the most helpful. I also preferred the essays where contributors talked specifically about their own process to those in which the contributors discussed the process of poets other than themselves. I like personal stories and I like writing that follows a linear path. As I was reading it occurred to me that if I were to assemble a collection of poetry the work would have to be intensely personal and it would have to flow in a linear manner, poem to poem in a kind of narrative that was no interrupted by sections. That would be my preference.

Ordering the Storm is a must have for any poet with aspirations of putting together a book of poetry. It offers poets a number of ways to look at and approach the task of assembling a book; of disassembling, re-arranging, and rebuilding a problematic manuscript. Most of all it provides new poets with a sense of comfort. Knowing that there are other poets in the world, even highly successful ones, who are just as confounded by the task of writing a book as you are makes the green poet feel a little less alone in the struggle.

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One Red Paperclip by Kyle Macdonald

January 29, 2008 at 9:31 pm (humor, memoir, nonfiction)

You don’t buy One Red Paperclip for the writing. Full of choppy prose, this book is definitely not great literature. No, you buy One Red Paperclip for the story.

Back in 2005 Macdonald decided to see if he could barter his way from one red paperclip up to a house. He started his own website and posted items for trade, fielded offers, and documented his progress. First he traded his paperclip for a pen that looked like a fish, further down the line he traded a recording contract for one year of free rent in Phoenix, and one year later he was finally able to trade one role in a Hollywood movie for a house in Saskatchewan.

I’m not giving anything away here. Around about the time Macdonald got his hands on the recording contract international media caught wind of his venture. He appeared on numerous television and radio programs and when he finally traded for the house the One Red Paperclip by Kyle Macdonaldnews was broadcast all across the world.

In fact, you really don’t even need to buy the book. The entire story can be read online on his original One Red Paperclip blog. But, being a hopeless bibliophile I take hard copy over digital almost any day of the week.

I really love enterprising bloggers who manage to come up with an idea so very fabulous it garners international attention, and ultimately changes their lives. People like Karyn Bosnak who asked strangers on the internet to help her pay off 20K in credit card debt on, an experiment that not only helped her pay off the debt, but helped her land a book deal as well. And Angela Nissel whose site chronicled her experiences as a young adult with no money. She too managed to land a book deal, and went on to write for the hit TV show “Scrubs,” eventually working her way up to consulting producer. I love that these ordinary people were able to change their lives by coming up with one awesome idea and sharing with with the world.

Ruth Limkin said it well in an article written for the Brisbane Courier Mail that is reprinted in Macdonald’s book:

Could the reason the red paperclip story has captivated so many people be that we resonate with daring greatly? We may have grown weary but we still want to lead significant lives. It’s here that our celebrated Western individualism has tripped us up. Thinking we have to go it alone and just be strong, we have forgotten one vital component. Macdonald could never have got that house without people who were willing to be part of his journey and cheer him on. Like Macdonald, each of us needs people who can be a source of strength and encouragement. Similarly, we have the privilege of being that for others.

Limkin hit it dead on. The reason Macdonald’s story is so appealing is because it champions both individualism and community.

Stories like Macdonald’s also counter the widespread belief that the internet isolates us from one another; that the more we interact with our keyboards and monitors the less we engage with people in real life. What such naysayers don’t seem to consider is that we don’t actually interact with our hardware. We interact with people who are just like us and the the computer is just a means to do so. It is a tool no different then a telephone. We can engage individuals over the internet with just as much authenticity as if they were sitting right next to us. And as Macdonald demonstrates, those connections can lead to real world friendships and alliances.

So check out One Red Paperclip either in print or online. One way or the other you are guarenteed a great story.

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How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead by Ariel Gore

August 22, 2007 at 12:09 am (nonfiction, publishing, reference, writing)

I generally avoid all reference books on the subject of writing because they make me feel like a slouch. They say you must write every single day in order to hone your craft, never submit a piece of work until it is absolutely perfect, and you must find yourself an agent before you can hope to achieve any degree of success. As someone who doesn’t write everyday, rarely comes up with anything perfect, and does not have an agent, I usually walk away from these books convinced that I don’t have an infant’s chance in the Mississippi of becoming a successful writer. What made me pick up Gore’s book was the title. Bold and brazen, it made me curious to see if she could actually carry through on its promise of seeing my words in print and my name in lights.

How to Become a Famous Writer Before You're DeadA far cry form the many disciplinary texts on writing, the pages of How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead are filled with humor, compassion, empathy, and understanding. Grouped into five sections, each dealing with an essential aspect of writing, Gore lays out seventy-eight steps to becoming a literary star. She covers everything from how to deal with large publishing companies to how to keep writing when you’ve hit a wall.

The tone is what really sets this book apart from others on the subject. Gore’s voice isn’t the least bit authoritarian. She addresses the reader as an equal, cracking jokes and making fun of herself the way one might do around a trusted friend. This is particularly powerful in the first section of the book which deals with issues of motivation and confidence. Gore adopts the role of cheerleader rather than mentor, willingly telling her readers what they need to hear in addition to what they need to know. Writers need to know that they will face loads of rejection. They need to know how to market themselves to an agent, publishing house, and the general public. But, writers, particularly struggling ones, need to hear that they are genuinely talented, and their work down right genius. They need to hear that the people smart enough to publish their work will be doing themselves a favor. Gore wants to cultivate the sort of confidence and determination absolutely essential to literary success and she succeeds beautifully.

Gore also deviates from the norm by encouraging writers to utilize alternative forms of publication. If you can’t get an agent or a book deal, says Gore, then self-publish. Start a zine or a blog, or utilize print-on-demand services. So many publishing insiders turn up their noses at these methods. It’s nice to find an established writer who sees them for what they are, an effective way of getting your writing out to a wider audience. Similarly, she encourages writers to publish before they are ready, maintaining that every writer is embarrassed by their first publication and it is more important to get a mediocre piece of writing read than to sit at home tooling a piece to perfection before letting others read it.

I found How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead so motivating that after finishing it I wrote my first original essay in several years, and after some light revision, submitted it to a literary blog I admire. Of course, it was rejected, but that’s okay because, according to Ariel Gore, I am a literary genius and my rejection is their loss.

Every struggling writer I know will be getting this book for Christmas this year. And while I’m on the topic of gifts, why don’t you treat yourself to a copy? It’s worth every penny. And just think, the price of a paperback will look like chump change once you’ve received your first six figure advance. You can have a sneak peek at the first chapter on Ariel Gore’s official website.

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Forgiveness by Dr. Sidney B. Simon and Suzanne Simon

July 18, 2007 at 8:58 pm (nonfiction, psychology, self-help)

Believe it or not, I am a big self-helper. Whenever I’m faced with a problem I don’t have an immediate solution to, the Forgivenessfirst thing I do is locate a book on the subject. So, a couple weeks back when an old flame who I’d thought I was totally over suddenly popped back into my life, sparking a host of negative feelings I was convinced I’d dealt with many moons ago, I went looking for a book that could tell me how to process those emotions. An Amazon search pointed me to Sidney B. and Suzanne Simon’s, Forgiveness.

This book attempts to clear a path through the many difficult emotions and behaviors that prevent individuals from fogiving those who have hurt them. The Simons’ ask and answer the questions of what forgiveness actually is and what it isn’t. They look at how anger in the forms of denial, self-blame, victimhood, and indignation can be dealt with and released. The writing is straight forward, all terms and concepts clearly defined.

Of course, the real test of a self-help book is whether it actually helps. I can say with total confidence, yes, Forgiveness helps. Peppered with lengthy writing exercises designed to help the reader clarify his or her own feelings, this book offers insight to those willing and ready to work for it. I finished this book two weeks ago and am still in the process of working through the writing exercises. They are forcing me to examine my feeling regarding long discarded relationships and my own negative and destructive ways of dealing with hurt. The Simons have presented a set of tools anyone can use to find their own way to forgiveness for a fraction of a fraction of the cost of therapy. I would say this volume is a must have for any avid self-helper.

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