Why New Yorkers Smoke edited by Luis Ortiz

October 18, 2011 at 4:28 pm (book review, books, fiction, New York, reading, short stories)

This new collection of original short stories answers the question: “What is there to fear in New York City?”

If the writers who contributed to Why New Yorkers Smoke are to be believed there’s only one thing New Yorkers are, were, or ever will be afraid of: 9/11. Seven of the eleven stories included in this collection make mention of 9/11, with six of them using it as a major plot point.

As a life-long New Yorker – one of the few actually born and raised in Manhattan- I can tell you New Yorkers have way more to be afraid of than planes crashing into skyscrapers. Like mutant rats taking over the subway system and charging riders twice the current MTA going rate for a ride. Or a fleet of rogue taxi cabs going all “Christine” and hunting down pedestrians like a pack of hungry dogs. Or that chain pharmacies will come to constitute more than half of the City’s retail outlets.

Yes, 9/11 was a horror Stephen King couldn’t have even cooked up, but in answering the question “what is there to fear in New York City”, I wish the writers and editor of Why New Yorkers Smoke hadn’t gone for the most obvious and, let’s be honest, the most tired answer.

The strongest stories in the collection are those that don’t deal with 9/11 at all. The title story by Lawrence Greenberg is a slow burning and atmospheric piece of sci-fi that totally creeped me out. Don Webb’s “Sparrow” examines the sparkly lure of the city that never sleeps, and how quickly the shine can dull and even destroy. Scott Edelman’s “A Stranger Lying Alone” was the only 9/11 related story with any real emotional weight, told form the point of view of a man who loves the City so much he would rather die in the wreckage and become a part of history than continue to live in a world where this sort of tragedy can happen.

The rest of the collection is uneven. The opening story, Barry N. Malzberg’s “Why We Talk to Ourselves” is too esoteric to truly hook the reader. Paul Di Filippo’s “Candles in a Chianti Bottle…” is overwritten and ends without any satisfying resolution. And Carol Emschwiller’s “Bountiful City” though well written, is anti-climactic.

I wanted Why New Yorkers Smoke to upset my reality. I wanted it to take all the tiny fears city-dwellers walk around with all day long and blow them out of proportion. I wanted to see the mundane made extraordinary. And though a handful of the contributors managed to pull it off, most just offered me the same 9/11 re-hash I’ve been listening to for ten years.

Why New Yorkers Smoke boils the entire city experience down to a single, tragic event. But New York is not a one-note town. 9/11 does not define the City, its residents, or their personal fears, and I wish that was reflected in this collection.

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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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Best and Worst of 2010

December 31, 2010 at 8:50 pm (Best of, book review, books, Caitlin R. Kiernan, fantasy, fiction, horror, Kelley Armstrong, L. J. Smith, novels, reading, urban fantasy, vampires, Worst of)

It’s New Year’s Eve and that means it’s time to roll out the best and worst reads of the year.

I only read seventy books in 2010. That’s thirteen less than I read in 2009 and eleven less than I read in 2008. And even though I posted ten reviews this year, two more than I did last year, my output over the past six months has been pretty paltry. As usual I have my reasons, the most salient being that I spent the last six months orchestrating a move and finding a new job. Even though I’m all settled now I’m still trying to get into a comfortable routine, and for that reason reviews may be few and far between for several months to come.

But I do love a good year end wrap up. As regular readers know I split my year end top ten into two top five lists: the five best books I read and the five worst. The lists consist of books I read this year, not necessarily ones that were published this year.

The Best:

1) Feed by Mira Grant – This haunting tale follows a team of news bloggers covering the Presidential election in a zombie ravaged USA. The characters and relationships are strong, the world well conceived, and the consequences of living in a fear-based culture all too familiar and relatable. Feed was so good I couldn’t even write a review for it despite numerous tries. I was so in love, I couldn’t articulate all of the things I liked about it without sounding like a moronic fan girl. So, best advice? Go buy yourself a copy and see for yourself why I’m speechless.

2) Daughter of Hounds by Caitlin R. Kiernan – All the elements I’ve come to expect of a Kiernan yarn are present in this outstanding novel – the creative wordplay, the strong description and character development.  Kiernan creates a Lovecraft-ian world you can see, smell, taste, and touch from the very first page.

3) Men of the Otherworld by Kelley Armstrong – Comprised of one novella and three short stories, Men of the Otherworld is a delight from start to finish. Long time fans will find that the tales add texture and depth to the Otherworld series, and newcomers will find it an excellent introduction to series.

4) Psybermagick by Peter Carroll – Once upon a time I was a practicing pagan. This year I decided to weed my New Age book collection, and that included reading all the books I never got around to reading while I was still practicing. Although I know many pagans and ceremonial magicians who frown on chaos magick, they do themselves a great disservice by writing off Psybermagick. This extremely humorous look at magic and mysticism had me doubled over with laughter. A fine addition to any New Age library for the insider jokes alone.

5) Living with Ghosts by Kari Sperring – This atmospheric fantasy novel was such a pleasure to read. Another book with strong characters and believable relationships, not to mentions loads of political intrigue and personal sacrifice, this story stayed in my head for weeks after I finished it.

The Worst:

1) Hell Hollow by Ronald Kelly – This ho-hum horror novel is full of extraneous words and adverbs, unrealistic and unnecessary dialogue, and clunky sentences that make the book a nightmare to read. Craft considerations aside, the story itself is neither scary nor particularly original.

2) The Vampire Diaries: The Return: Shadow Souls by L.J. Smith – Like Hell Hollow this novel is overflowing with needless scenes, dialogue, and characters that slow the pace of the narrative and add nothing to the readers’ understanding of the primary characters or plot points. Worst of all Smith killed all of the character growth her heroine Elena Gilbert underwent in the previous five books in the series, leaving nothing but a shallow, self-absorbed, and completely unsympathetic main character.

3) Sensual Celibacy by Donna Marie Williams – This book presented itself as an examination of celibacy within the realm of women’s studies, and turned out to be a study in false advertising. Despite the claims made on the jacket what I found was a book mired in stereotypically sexist assumptions about women’s sexuality, fanatical Christian declarations about the sinfulness of sex out of marriage, and out right lies about the effectiveness of birth control and sex education in schools.

4) The Path Through the Labyrinth by Marian Green – There’s a reason this beginner level book on magic and witchcraft is out of print. The advice and resources listed inside are dated and of little use to most modern day pagans.

5) Confessions of a Demon by S.L. Wright – I picked up Confessions of a Demon hoping for a detailed urban fantasy romp through my home town, but all I got was a predictable paranormal romance that treated New York as a backdrop rather than an integral part of the story.

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Rivers of Gold by Adam Dunn

October 25, 2010 at 12:17 pm (ARC, book review, books, fiction, mystery & suspense, New York, novels, reading, suspense/thriller)

It’s 2013 and the Big Apple has finally rotted to the core. Besieged by mass unemployment, race riots, declining property values, and a thriving criminal underground, New York City is no longer the land of opportunity. The only jobs that offer any kind of security are illegal, and the crime lords have new immigrants and recent college graduates lined up around the corner looking to get in on the action. Luckily, Renny got in on the ground floor. A fashion photographer by day and drug dealer by night, Renny moves contraband through the underground party circuit using a network of taxi cabs as his cover. But little does he know Officer Santiago of the NYPD,  working undercover as a cab driver, is hot on Renny’s tail. But Santiago isn’t interested in a little fish like Renny. He’s looking to bust Renny’s boss, Reza, before his criminal enterprise takes over the entire City.

Though the blurb on the cover promises “a mile a minute, kick-ass blast of tech noir,” that isn’t what first time novelist Adam Dunn delivers in Rivers of Gold. While he’s got the noir part down, Dunn still has a lot to learn about pacing and character development.

The first two-thirds of the novel flow like molasses. Full of unnecessary back story, and multiple information dumps that take the form of extended monologues that sound completely unnatural coming from the mouths of dope heads and police officers, Dunn saves all the high-octane action for the final third of Rivers of Gold. Unfortunately, all the tension he builds in the last few chapters of the book only lead to an average pay off.

Neither of the two main characters are strong enough to carry a novel. They reminded me of the cookie cutter characters present in most post-Jerry Orbach episodes of “Law & Order”. Renny is a dealer who thinks he’s hot shit but isn’t half as smart or cunning as he believes himself to be, and Santiago is a gruff but fair cop whose entire goal in life is to make detective. Neither of them are fleshed out any fuller than that, and because of it (cue broken record), I couldn’t bring myself to care about what happened to either of them.

Dunn is also very self-conscious in his writing. Rivers of Gold is full of sentences such as this one found on page 107, “His epiphany came in a climactic expectoration of enlightenment that nearly asphyxiated his cokehead consort.” As you can see, Dunn is so busy showcasing his ability to employ fifty cent words and alliteration he fails to deliver any actual meaning. Rivers of Gold is overrun by sentences like this.

Though I think Dunn might have been better off leaving Rivers of Gold in the proverbial trunk, there were aspects of the narrative that I found engaging. Though Renny himself is a flat character, Dunn imbued him with a very distinctive voice that was always interesting to read. I also noticed that the pace and overall tone of individual scenes improved the more characters Dunn introduced into them. Obviously, there’s something there. With a little more time and practice, Dunn probably could write the kind of pulsing narrative Rivers of Gold wanted, but failed, to be.

The verdict: Leave Rivers of Gold on the shelf; check in with Adam Dunn when his second or third novel comes out.

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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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