Fast into the Night by Debbie Clarke Moderow

Book Review: Just what I needed. It was a snowy afternoon in Vermont and I was bored. I picked it up from the pile of books next to my bed. I started Fast into the Night and then put it down. Why? I knew I wanted to settle in to it, and have a chance to read a good chunk undisturbed.

Dogs walked and fed. Snacks on a plate. Pjs on. Glass of malbec. Back to the memoir.

And what an amazing memoir. What an amazing world she brought us into. Iditarod, the Alaskan landscape, the characters, the dogs, and her family’s support. Incredible. I pulled up the covers and kept reading.

Moderow is passionate and compassionate. Her focus was constantly on the comfort and health of her team of dogs, she was so in tune with the needs of their individual needs and personalities. She wouldn’t put them in danger just to finish Iditarod. That would have gone against her integrity and heart. You have to respect her for that. Her goal was simply–if it could be simple–to complete the course with happy and healthy dogs. She tried twice, once in 2003 and again two years later. She finished with a healthy team in 13 days, 19 hours, 10 minutes and 32 seconds.

Moderow captures the character so well, the four and two legged ones, that we see her all the more clearly too. Moderow, even when struggling so intensely, carried on. This is bravery in action. She is such a role model for following your dreams without hurting others. Incredible journey, her internal and external journey.

Fast into the Night is written in the present tense, which takes us into the challenges she faced, the preparation, the cold, the details and all the emotional side of running Iditarod as a rookie.

“Sixteen huskies donning crimson harnesses charge into the chute.”

The first chapters were so immersive: Moderow, before being sent on the way, spent time with each of her dogs, one by one, walking along the team and so introducing us to all sixteen of the family. “Kanga is a serious brown girl with a tan trim. She knows more about Iditarod than I do. Juliet is my playful Tinker Bell. She’s the whimsical cheerleader, my tiny grey spitfire who runs up front with a light-hearted disposition.”

Her first few hours set the pace for the next two weeks on the trail. “When the team scrambles up an icy bank and the sled ricochets around a tight, dark wooded corner, I exhale relief.”

Yes, so did I. Time for another glass of wine and a snack. The snow still fell outside my apartment in town. I had it easy. Moderow didn’t.

“I cover my nose with my neck gaiter, and my goggles fog up. To take them off would risk my eyes, so every few minutes I scrape ice from the lenses with the back of my arctic mittens.”

Oh boy. Details such as those kept my turning pages, her story just stunned me, and the level of cold and endurance was beyond impressive. “A granola bar – it’s frozen and the last thing I need is a broken tooth. So I stuff it into my armpit to thaw.”

As you do, nothing unusual, right? Right. Sheesh. I read on, huddled in my little bed with my two well-fed huskie mutts on the end of my bed. No, we’d not be trying this ourselves.

Iditarod is a challenge obviously, all of it, that is the physical conditions but also there are the emotional hurdles she faced. There were times when she had to make potentially life-altering decisions when so completely drained and exhausted that clear thought was not easily grasped. What was best for each of her dogs? When should she ‘scratch’ even if the volunteers showed no compassion for her place and experience? I wanted her to make it, I knew she did from the blurb on the back, but I wanted to know how, how did she do it? What kept her going?

“I stand alongside my dogs and everything is quiet. It’s the profound stillness that arrives in a flash, when everything changes.”

You’ll have to read it yourselves if you want to find out how. Please do.

9781597099769_FC

Red Hen Press

Memoir

$16.95, 288 pp.

ISBN 978-1-59709-976-9

Tentative publication date: 6/2018

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Bryan Hurt’s Everyone Wants to be Ambassador to France

Book Review: Wonderfully absurd and weird stories fill this collection by Bryan Hurt.

His characters range from astronaut-artists, a British aristocrat with his adopted girls, a goat and seagull questioning the after life on the edge of a cliff, and a run-down American writer panicking about the demands of his agents.

The opening lines are often so succinct and direct that Hurt pulls you in immediately: “Thomas Day was rich but very ugly.” Oh really? I wanted to know more, would he be an interesting man to know? I kept reading.

The simplicity of language is compelling, it’s concise and precise as short stories need to be, there are no wasted words. There is a great rhythm and Hurt comes across as a narrator to trust. We know where we are immediately upon starting a new story, he grounds us as readers yet there are such great turns and unexpected digressions and drifts that demand you pay attention. I did.

Panic Attack is one of the more touching stories for me with a great moment of tenderness. That’s all I’m saying. Look for it.

Hurt plays with the form of these short stories, more so in the second half of the collection, as if he’s trusting us to come along with him however it now looks. The Contract follows a CEO’s own contract with life and relationships, and yes, form follows content. There are more pieces in the remainder of the book where form changes to suit each story, such as lists in some places, or when some paragraphs have their own titles and other paragraphs are seperated with numbers. Titles are evocative although mostly in hindsight, you read the chapter and then the title will pop out at you again, such as the last chapter, Good With Words. Here is our struggling writer overcome with the demands of an agent hungry for more words. He turns to his toddler once back home. There he is reminded of the power of language. He asks his child, “tell me something about love.”

“Mama.”

Red Hen

978-59709-077-0

168 pp $15.95

Tentative pub date: 6/28/2018

Book Review: Melissa Febos’ Abandon Me

Abandon Me (Memoirs) by Melissa Febos

Raw. Vulnerable. Intelligent. Insightful.

Didn’t I use these same words for her first book Whip Smart? Yes, and Febos has built upon that first book by offering us another look into her life in a way that is just as honest. Her gift with words and stories takes us into the darkness of an obsessive love. In Abandon Me, Febos creates a work that we can relate on one level or another. Who hasn’t lost/ found something magical through such an absorbing love? I’ve drowned and learned to breath underwater for another’s attentions even as my friends were throwing me a lifeline.

Febos has a fearless look at herself and it’s done with insight and intimacy. At times, it makes me want to put the book down and say, hush, hush, it’s okay. (Yes, my reviews are personal responses, not academic studies: I’m okay with that.)

The line between love and obsession here is woven within a framework taken from many sources. She writes about her struggles using psychology, historic and current culture, literature, music, and other influences such as Bowie, Jung, and Borges to understand her actions within a broader context. So well read she is that it comes naturally and it is easy to understand her references. There is fluency to her thoughts and how she expresses these links and echoes. The layers bring out universal truths lying within a complex lover relationship, her childhood, and a birth father that she builds a connection with throughout the book. As such, her essays are poetic and intelligent.
They are also heartfelt.

“If we break up,” I said slowly, “Everything you’ve give me will be ruined, transformed into shrouds of miserly.” I smiled.

Of her birth father: I was a curious child but I was never curious about Jon. Jon was Jon. She had known of him, her mother had spoken of him, yet they had never met.

Febos writes of finding him, her first impressions and how over time, she came to know or at least accept him as a flawed man and was okay with that. She developed a genuine compassion for him in her essays.

Mostly though, Abandon Me describes the stages of Febos’ flawed obsession with a lover. One that asked of her to make peace with a temper and mind that subtly controlled her: I didn’t care if I was right or wrong. I’m sorry, I whispered.

In this memoir, Febos once again takes us deep into her emotional struggles, seeing how desperately she wanted that love and how she was willing, or rather for a long time, unable, to say anything but yes to her lover, needing that connection, woken up by it in ways she’d not known. It’s addictive that love, that obsessive need and intense connection, especially for those who’d not yet known any other like it. The sensuality, the raw emotion, the incredible highs and lows, it’s all part of it. And when Febos writes, looking can by the truest kind of love, I thought of how she has looked so keenly at her own actions and emotions. I sense a deepest kind of love of self: She’s taken us with her, into dark times, compulsions, anger, loss, fire, passion, and come out the other side with a hard-won love for her own flawed vulnerable and heartfelt self. It’s quite a gift.

 

COVER-abandon-me

Review: Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane by Nin Andrews

Wandering through the basement of the college library, I was looking for prose poetry collections. I didn’t know who or what exactly but I wanted to see what others were doing with the form. The title Midlife Crisis grabbed me and I smiled. Took it out and opened it. Yes. This was a funny book.

The Truth about Penis Envy was the first title I came to. “If Dick really wanted to know, Jane didn’t like his penis. And she sure didn’t want one of her own.”

Yes, the are many Dick jokes, such as the introduction that there was a “Dick sleeping in her bed, a Dick in the White House, and the god of all Dicks was in the heavens above.”

Oh, yes, such a great start. Andrews isn’t afraid to tackle politics, religions, and gender stereotypes of America’s suburbia. She is exactly what I needed in my search for quirky prose poems. This collection is a wonderfully absurd look at the lives of Dick and Jane in bland white Middle American suburbia. It’s not my background but I get it enough to find it hilarious and also moving, pretty touching really.

She’s written a memoir in a sense, a life story expanded from the first grade books of See Spot Run.

Under Creation Stories, she wrote; “of course Dick knows his story. How once upon a time there was an American Dream, and as part of the dram, Dick was created.” The second paragraph on the same page turns darkly funny though. “Each night, while he slept, Jane’s breasts turned into laboratory rats and gnawed tiny homes in Dick’s heart.”

Midlife Crisis has three sections with a hundred compelling and telling titles for each one-page piece. Instructions for a Little Dick on how to Become a Big Dick gives a list of fifteen actions to take, such as Beat Things, Kick Things, Suck Things, Fuck Things, and Kill Things. On the opposite page, we read how Jane also likes things, “especially new things” and that “her therapist suggested Jane was trying to buy a new Jane. But who would new Jane be?”

Midlife Crisis is full of short paragraphs, or list-like questions, some written like an interview, as well the prose of dreams, nightmares, and descriptions of incidents like visiting that therapist. The pages flow easily and effortlessly building a insightful look into what if Dick and Jane had lived into middle age. Yes, there are many plays on words, on sexual double entendres and although the language is simple and straightforward, that light touch builds into a collection quite heart breaking.

I found it silly, laughing out loud, and also certain pieces made me catch my breath, striking home. Andrews combined forms, tone and language with depth – and beautifully. The story of a regular couple of kids from Ohio and look at them now. I felt for them both, even knowing this is a story of the characters from a children’s’ book, yes, it was that insightful. Hilarious, engaging, and striking.

What do I take from this as a writer and reader? The playful use of titles, sections, and form kept the flow of the story moving in a compelling way. It built a tension and depth while making me laugh and think. The thematic narrative arc set the tempo and held all the thoughts and what-if scenarios together. Andrew’s use of simple and witty language, playful, inventive, creative came across as light but she wrote with poignancy.

Midlife Crisis is a wonderful collection of funny, moving stories of Dick and Jane in a unique snapshot rapid-fire format. I’m glad I found it.

Midlife Crisis by Nin Andrews

Del Sol Press, 2005. Short fiction/ Prose poetry/ poetry. $15.95

Midlife Crisis

 

Book Review: The Collected Works of Billy The Kid by Michael Ondaatje

What is it about this book that is so timeless? The Collected Works of Billy The Kid takes us inside the life, thoughts, desires, rationalisations and memories of this iconic character from the American West on the 1880s.

It’s called a novel on the cover but Ondaatje plays with structure by mixing poetry, prose, photographs and historical accounts. Ondaatje flows between forms to create an in-depth collection. Ondaatje does this so easily, so beautifully that I kept turning pages, and on my second cup of coffee, I was still in bed reading while it rained outside.

Ondaatje researched The Collected Works of Billy The Kid, turned to photographs, dime novels, contemporary newspapers and accounts from all those who came across him. What he gives us is a narrative, a memoir in a sense, one that shifts perspectives and forms, interior and exterior worlds, and all in a concise precise lyrical language. It’s amazing. I loved how each page took me to a new experience or incidence. Part myth, fiction, history and storytelling, The Collected Works of Billy The Kid is restrained but energetic.

He captures the language of the 1880s in the syntax and choice of words. Poems are often short and immersive.

MMMMMMMM mm thinking

moving across the world on horses

body split at the edge of their necks

neck sweat eating at my jeans

moving across the world on horses

 

Each poem or prose stands alone on the page. There is a lot of white space. They are tidily written, aligned at the top and left. He adds photographs. The style of a dime novel. Newspaper cuttings. He plays within the poems, one echoes nicely from the first stanza to the last one that is written in reverse of the first and is as stirring in both.

Garrett was “the ideal assassin. Public figure, the mind of a Doctor, his hands hairy, scarred, burned by rope” and “everything equiped to be that rare thing” Ondaatje finished the two page portrait the writing sane assassin five times with no punctuation and ending with sane.

Is it possible to understand the violence of Billy the Kid, one so young, and where did the need or ability to kill come from. “A motive? some reasoning we can give to explain all this violence. Was there a source for all this? yup – ” Billy and Brewer watched a friend murdered horrifically from a nearby hillside, one that stuck with the boy of eighteen.

Or so says Billy half way into the collection.

With the gentle yet graphic build up of Billy’s story in part written from his perspective and at other times from the women and friends around, I’m there. I trust Ondaatje completely. He writes with such empathy and the internal worlds are fascinating and lyrical. It’s an addictive journey. I couldn’t put the book down. The pauses between moments build up the tension and the desire to know more kept me there. The bite-sized stories, the form, isn’t just a recent invention, which is what I’d thought, it’s timeless. This book is from 1970. So what is it that carries so well? Ondaatje plays with form to suit the needs of each piece. It makes sense to write in broken and disjointed poems for Billy’s emotions as when he takes a woman to bed in the middle of a storm, or to write a simple shorter prose piece about the setting of the barn at the Chissums’ while waiting out a fever with the farm animals and rats.

What am I left with? As with all these reviews of mine, they are more of a personal response. Think of me as a hungry reader and writer looking for permission to write as my instinct demands, always reading as much as possible to find others who have played and experimented in ways, tones, forms and language. This book then is perfect for me right now. Why?

The Collected Works of Billy The Kid is immersive. The language is lyrical, poetic, and detailed and not just for understanding that era. Mixing up structure and form gives an added depth to the content and is not just for show. The emotional strength of the poetry is fed by those changes in form, rhythms and syntax. The combination of styles here works so well that the story affected me deeply. Ondaatje is such a master with words. There is no doubting him. The Collected Works of Billy The Kid kept me turning pages, taking notes, pausing to breathe in an image. I was invested, engaged, and curious. At times I had to put the book down and stare out the window. What more could I ask for as a writer or reader?

 The Collected Works of Billy The Kid

Michael Ondaatje

(Vintage Books, 1970. $11)

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Review: (Not that You Asked: rants, exploits, and obsessions) by Steve Almond

(Not that You Asked) is a collection of essays written over a couple of years. Many of them had been previously published in a wide number of literary journals. It’s pretty amazing to read how many were snapped up within 2005 alone. Almond had been busy. He’d been appreciated. It’s no wonder then that there was a call to put those essays and more into this collection. I’m surprised that I only came across him last week.

Steve Almond is such a lad, and so good at writing us back into his teenage anxious inexperienced self with humour and insight. I can’t say I liked those teenage boys much, but I get it, the focus and embarrassment, the developing crushes and a basic horniness that doesn’t fade. The subtitle sums it up as those exploits could be called sexploits.

Sex is an undercurrent throughout, the tone is self-deprecating at times, and he is honest, bitingly so at times. (Not that You Asked) is divided up into sections and isn’t chronological but within each section, there is a linked theme to the rants, a specific theme or question. Titles such as Chestfro Agoniste catch your attention, especially since then he describes how he and his girlfriend, not a very nice one by the sounds of it, a bit of a sadist when he didn’t want her to be, well, they try to wax his chest hair. It doesn’t go well. The idea, the fantasy, was cruelly absent, instead he’s funny and blunt and in a list, he set up the hope. Then he says, “I don’t suppose I have to tell you that my expectations were a bit on the high side.” I like how he used different forms, going from a simple introduction, a list, then a set of disclaimers and explanations before getting down to the nitty gritty of wax, hair, blood, and tears. Yes, he cried. I like this about him, he tells us when he’s a wimp, even if it’s written with that tone of irony, you know that he sees himself clearly and finds it funny from this perspective as a dad in his forties even as parts are written in the present tense. Confusing? No. We trust him, enjoy this conversational feel to his essays in (Not that You Asked). I did anyway.

He mixed up style wise and it gives me permission to play with form. Almond used lists, the acts of a playwright, and even step-by-step instructions. Yes, those instructions, a lesson on how to write sex scenes, it’s one I want to share with friends and keep for myself, with some good advice for writers. Like the rest of his book, he combines a light touch with insightful comments. Step 5, “real people say all kinds of weird, funny things during sex, such as ‘I’m think I’m losing circulation’ and ‘I’ve got a cramp in my foot.’ In other words, be true to what really happens, the awkwardness, stickiness, and laughable moments. Noted.

Topics in (Not that You Asked) ranged from Red Sox (my least favourite chapter), to the legacy of Vonnegut, integrity in literature, the risks and responsibilities of critical bloggers, the sight of fake tits, roles of popular media, and becoming a dad. If there is a common thread here it’s hard to name directly. I can’t see it. Yet although I’m not sure how or why, I gladly went along with him, back and forth time wise. He pulls it together with a consistent style and voice that is smart and heartfilled, ironic and forgiving. I imagine sitting down at the kitchen table with him is just as full of silly anecdotes and insightful observations. It’s almost like we glimpse beyond the public wit of Almond and he undresses to explore this softer, thoughtful side.

The essay about Vonnegut ends with this after the death of the writer he’d admired for so long. “He leaves us his books, his pleas for kindness, his foolish hope for our salvation.”

And I see a similarity in Almond’s collection here. The book ends with a story about raising his baby daughter in Judaism even as if his family didn’t share that with him. “What we actually lacked was belief” he says of his own childhood. This essay is one of the most grown up, most vulnerable in the way he talks of faith, his wishes for his daughter and the pain his dad felt for not knowing the “possibility of some great spiritual bosom into which he might nestle and rest his weary bones.” Yes, even when he writes of deep feelings, his language keeps it grounded in a light way, funny, and a lad after all.

And for his daughter? “She will know where and who she came from. She will be loved, unreasonably. The rest is hers to determine.”

A sweet ending indeed.

You’d almost believe Almond grew up overnight. Gone is that sense of detached wit, and a gentle dad speaks directly to us of his hopes for her.

Almond’s (Not that You Asked) has a distinctive voice, horny, messy, honest, and smart. He’s got a big heart. This collection gave me permission to play with form, not to feel constricted to chronology and to trust the connections within the essays themselves. We all have stories that we write, a theme to our words, and a voice of our own making. It’s inspiring for me as an emerging writer.

(Not that You Asked) makes me want to read more of his work, to appreciate and see how he does it in his short stories. Off to the library then.

 

Random House, 2007

288 pp  $14.00

quote-we-need-books-because-we-are-all-in-the-private-kingdoms-of-our-hearts-desperate-for-steve-almond-49-21-45

Review: Baby Geisha by Trinie Dalton

“Underwear has nothing to do with sociological barriers,” says the narrator in the opening chapter in Baby Geisha, a collection of stories and monologues told with Dalton’s usual wordplay, vivid language, and unexpected images. Readers will fall deeply into these sketches of charmingly messed up characters inhabiting often ignored subcultures and dreams.

Trinie Dalton has created another evocative world all of her own. As described on the cover, it’s like a travelogue with each chapter being set in completely different states and countries and yet the collection hangs together with skill and whimsy. Each story has a unique narrators voice and setting that reflects the narrator’s interior monologue, so convincing it’s blurs the sense of fiction and biography. We wonder. In Wet Look, Iggy has gone looking for a spiritual awakening, Be Here Now, but unfortunately only makes it from California to Missouri. He talks to himself not to judge even as he’s busy judging, speaking outloud even though “he realized this was an unpopular view.” He finds himself at a firework display in the Ozarks, and “he caught himself making assumptions and aimed to halt this.” This is the narrator who struggles in his tent to put on clean boxers before going out because his dad taught him to be prepared for a possible trip to the hospital. The contrasts of what he’s looking for and how he experiences this trip is revealing, funny, and poignant.

Dalton has a unique way with words as we expect after publishing five other books. She adds such unexpected details and in one story the old cheese “has a doll head flavor,” and we all know what she means. The language is often sensual, sexual and wonderfully silly so that the tales come across as charming, light, whimsical, and you almost don’t notice how she writes about loss, loneliness, grief and even death. The mix of magical and mundane made me laugh outloud repeatedly as I read the collection. “It was moronic instead of ironic,” she writes at one point and I nod, knowing the feeling.

Her world is bizarre, a fantasy made of grounded descriptions within ridiculous settings and with memorable characters: Pandora. Zane. The Perverted Hobo. A Husky called Bob. And Rita.

The first lines nearly always stand out, grabbing my attention, and I want to read more. “Sloths, I’m in.” “I’m the kind of snowflake who likes to be the last one clinging.” And, “The trail to the escalator is lined with pigeon entrails, from diseased city birds that were gutted by Bengali tigers.” Well, of course. What else would I expect from Dalton?

The last lines work a similar magic for me. In context this line becomes something more poignant, sad even, “But will I always be a dog eating kibble?” ends the tale of a shell-shocked father back from Vietnam.

In Word Salad, the unexpected once again says hello, popping up at times to make me grin, laugh, and carry on reading. Delighted, I was constantly delighted by the mischievous in the sensual, the different actions told with such a straight face. A road ends in a lake for one narrator searching for wildflowers. There was “nowhere to go but in. I plunge, my engine dies,” and then climbs out as if it’s the most natural response to drive into the pond.
Trinie Dalton’s flights of imagination are simply beautiful, extraordinary, sexual and sensual in ways that kept me reading and left me wanting to sit down and talk with her over a cuppa tea. The funny lines, the language, a careful study of people and tender insights fill these pages: I’m inspired.

Reading Baby Geisha is like hearing a familiar voice in a crowded pub. You have to listen for more. You linger, you pay attention, and yes, you will laugh. Pure mischief.

trinie

photo by Blake Z Rong 2017

BABY GEISHA (stories) by Trinie Dalton

Two Dollar Radio

$16 trade paper (146p)

ISBN 978-0-9832471-0-4