Savage Gardening (Or, “Feed Me, Seymour!”)

Don’t forget to enter the Just Write Summer Reading Contest!

Like a lot of kids, especially kids who were geeks with an interest in science, I had a venus flytrap. It grew in my windowsill. It didn’t just grow, it thrived, feeding on lots of insects, and then it died. Aside from science fiction movies like Little Shop of Horrors, Day of the Triffids, and, well, Little Shop of Horrors (the musical), I forgot about carnivorous plants until my wife found a copy of Carnivorous Plants by Paul Temple (Royal Horticultural Society, 1988) in a used bookstore. Carnivorous Plants by Paul Temple Continue Reading

Constructive Criticism.

Don’t forget to enter the Just Write Summer Reading Contest!

“The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” –Oscar Wilde

Recently writer Michael Connolly, who’s written, among other things, the mystery The Overlook (Little, Brown and Company, coming May 22nd, 2007), and The Lincoln Lawyer (Little, Brown and Company, 2005) published the opinion piece “The folly of downsizing book reviews” in the Los Angeles Times. As he explains, newspapers around the country, including the Los Angeles Times, as well as the Chicago Tribune, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the Orlando Sentinel, are cutting back on the space devoted to book reviews. At the Raleigh News & Observer the book critic position was simply eliminated. Fortunately the Washington Post Book World is still around, as is the Times Literary Supplement, although I worry about their futures.

Good reviews of Connelly’s first novel, The Black Echo (Little, Brown and Company, 1992) gave a big boost to his career as an author. Reviews helped sell it and subsequent books. By cutting book reviews newspapers are hurting authors, but they’re also shooting themselves in the foot.

In a world where today’s bottom line–not tomorrow’s–is all that matters the long-term consequences of cutting the book section aren’t something a newspaper’s accountants aren’t ever going to consider. This is surprising, especially since publishers and film studios obviously recognize the value of reviews. Back in 2001 Sony invented a film critic, named David Manning, to give good reviews to Sony Films. There are even more books published every year than there are movies produced, and newspapers actually need to encourage reading. As Connelly explains, “People who read books also read newspapers. From that basic tenet came a philosophy: If you foster books, you foster reading. If you foster reading, you foster newspapers.”

What Connelly doesn’t mention, although I think it’s implied in his argument, is that no one writes in a vacuum. Writers are, by necessity, also readers. Encouraging reading, especially critical, thoughtful reading, is helping to train the next generation of journalists. Newspapers depend on readers, but they depend on writers as well.

It may seem ironic that I, an author of a blog (albeit one about books), would come to the defense of newspapers, but I believe the more individual voices get added to the conversation the better. The Internet is a wonderful tool, and I love visiting sites like Bookslut, Book Sense, and, before it became defunct, MobyLives, to get my book news. I found Connelly’s article in Arts & Letters Daily. But newspapers are, or at least used to be, the voice of a city or region. They help create a sense of community. By cutting book reviews newspapers are sending the message that reading doesn’t matter to the community. Even if they’re published both in print and on the Internet or, if things go the way they seem to be going, solely on the Internet, a newspaper should be a way to keep up with and learn about your neighbors and your neighborhood. If an author lives down the street from you and writes books about your city, wouldn’t you at least like to know about it? As Connelly mentions, newspapers that are cutting their book critics but keeping some book reviews rely on a wire service. This is more than cost-cutting; it’s eliminating a unique, local voice. Local authors, who might not get national exposure, will disappear because their books won’t be reviewed in the one place they should be: the local newspaper. And rather than having a multitude of opinions (one critic might hate a book while another loves it) there will be homogenization as all papers carry one view pumped out of the same spigot. This is bad for publishers as well. While it means there will be fewer bad reviews it also means fewer good reviews, and possibly even simple bland, neutral plot summaries aimed at niche markets like horror, mystery, or romance. A good review might prompt us to pick up a book we wouldn’t even notice in the bookstore, or that we might skip over because we don’t normally read horror books, mysteries, or romance novels. Publishers can’t attract new readers if they don’t aim beyond the core customers who are already buying books.

Newspapers, fearing ever-increasing drops in circulation, are welcome to stop publishing book reviews to save a few dollars here and there. Ultimately, though, they’re just giving us readers one less reason to pick up newspapers, which will cause more drops in circulation. Readers matter because readers are the bottom line.

Summer Reading: The Just Write Contest.

Every summer I like to pull out an old favorite book and re-read it. This year it’s A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain.

Do you have a favorite summer book? Are you reading anything special this summer? Heck, what’s on your nightstand right now? Just Write wants to know! Submit your Summer Reading book and be entered in a random drawing for a free copy of Blood Ties by Lori G. Armstrong, a book that will give you some chills on those hot summer nights. All books submitted will be listed in a special article on June 1st. Just e-mail your submission to (Copy and paste this address into your e-mail.)

Here are the contest rules, provisos, exceptions, codicils, and quid pro quos:

  • Please have all your submissions in by midnight (Central Daylight Time), May 24th, 2007. Submissions received after this time may or may not be included because, hey, I’m only human.
  • The drawing will be completely random. You will not be judged by what you read, because taste is a personal matter. Books are like ice cream: there’s a reason they make chocolate and vanilla, not to mention brownie nut mocha caramel fudge (with a rasberry ribbon). And when it comes to judging other peoples’ tastes, Mark Twain said it best when he said, “One mustn’t criticize others on grounds where he can’t stand perpendicular himself.”
  • If you want to write an explanation for why you like a particular book please let me know if you would like it published and/or credit given. If you don’t want to be named, your explanation will be attributed to “Anonymous”.
  • Entries for the drawing must include an address so I know where to send the book. Address or other contact information will be kept strictly confidential and will not be shared with anyone. This information will also be destroyed after the drawing is over.
  • And finally, you are welcome to submit as many books as you wish, but your name will be entered in the drawing only once. Some are more voracious readers than others (I’ve been known to have five books going at the same time) but fairness trumps quantity. This is an equal opportunity contest.

The Hunter And The Hunted.

Most evenings at this time of year I can stand on my front porch and look up at the constellation Orion hanging over the horizon, conspicuous because of the brightness of its stars Betelgeuse (the shoulder), Rigel (in his left leg), Bellatrix, many other bright stars, as well as the Orion nebula. In mythology Orion was a demigod and hunter who fell in love with Merope, daughter of the king of Chios. The king disapproved of Orion and had him blinded. He went to live with Artemis, and when he died he was placed among the stars.

Here’s a poem by Adrienne Rich from her book Collected Early Poems: 1950-1970 (W.W. Norton, 1995).


Far back when I went zig-zagging
through tamarack pastures
you were my genius, you
my cast-iron Viking, my helmed
lion-heart king in prison.
Years later now you’re young

my fierce half-brother, staring
down from that simplified west
your breast open, your belt dragged down
by an oldfashioned thing, a sword
the last bravado you won’t give over
though it weighs you sown as you stride

and the stars in it are dim
and maybe have stopped burning.
But you burn, and I know it;
as I throw back my head to take you in
an old transfusion happens again:
divine astronomy is nothing to it.

Indoors I bruise and blunder,
break faith, leave ill enough
alone, a dead child born in the dark.
Night cracks up over the chimney,
pieces of time, frozen geodes
come showering down in the grate.

A man reaches behind my eyes
and finds them empty
a woman’s head turns away
from my head in the mirror
children are dying my death
and eating crumbs of my life.

Pity is not your forte.
Calmly you ache up there
pinned aloft in your crow’s nest,
my speechless pirate!
You take it all for granted
and when I look you back

it’s with a starlike eye
shooting its cold and egotistical spear
where it can so least damage.
Breathe deep! No hurt, no pardon
out here in the cold with you
you with your back to the wall.

All Jazzed Up: Yusef Komunyakaa (Part 2)

Yusef Komunyakaa’s own personal history, particularly his childhood, which is the subject of his book Magic City (University Press of New England, 1992), is very important to him. He’s imagined his great-grandparents’ entry into this country in his poem Mismatched Shoes, and wrote an incredible poem, originally appearing in Neon Vernacular, titled, Songs For My Father. His father, who was a carpenter and never considered poetry a real profession, asked Komunyakaa to write him a poem. This is perhaps the hardest request anyone can make of an artist, especially when the relationship is as close as the one between father and son. The desire is always to produce something worthy of the relationship, but the risk of failure is so great because of the emotional connection. Komunyakaa never completed the poem in his father’s lifetime, but in one of the “songs” he sums up the contradictions of his father’s personality:

You were a quiet man
Who’d laugh like a hyena
On a hill, with your head
Thrown back, gazing up at the sky. Continue Reading

All Jazzed Up: Yusef Komunyakaa (Part 1)

On April 29th, 2007, poet Yusef Komunyakaa will celebrate his sixtieth birthday. His career as a poet began more than thirty years ago, and his first book Dedications and Other Darkhorses (R.M.C.A.J. Books), was published in 1977. Since then he’s become not only one of the best poets writing today but also one of the most prolific, having written fourteen volumes of poetry, the most recent being Taboo (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004), the first book of a trilogy, as well as a verse play of Gilgamesh (Wesleyan University Press, 2006), written with Chad Garcia, adding his own voice to the long line of that epic’s interpreters. Neon Vernacular (Wesleyan University Press, 1993), a collection of new and selected poems, won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize. The volumes that followed, Thieves of Paradise (Wesleyan University Press, 1998) and Talking Dirty To The Gods (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000), as well as Pleasure Dome: New And Collected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 2001) not only added to his growing body of work but continued taking it in new directions. Talking Dirty To The Gods in particular was a major departure: while many of his poems are uninterrupted columns of free verse, this volume consisted of 132 poems, each one four stanzas of four lines, with numerous classical allusions as well as poems about slime mold, raccoons, and maggots. The poems in this volume also tend to be less personal than much of his other work, although one unifying factor of his work is the influence of jazz. While it’s generally regarded as improvisational, the tradition of jazz also comes from craftsmanship and practice that gives its practitioners a solid footing before they make that leap. It’s this quality of well-crafted improvisation that makes his poems so fun to read. Here’s Meditations In A Swine Yard:

A god isn’t worth the salt
In our bread if we can’t
Stamp our feet & shake balled fist
At eaters of the brightest insects

On their first day here.
Sometimes we must tug him out
Into the hog’s bloody mud.

His beauty is our blue
Derision, like a child banging
Her ragdoll against the floor, Calling for Daddy.
A god isn’t worth
A drop of water in the hell of his good

Imagination, if we can’t curse
Sunsets & threaten to forsake him
In his storehouse of belladonna,
Tiger hornets, & snakebites.

He’s also a powerful and passionate speaker. I was lucky enough to hear his keynote address to the Millenial Gathering of the Writers of the New South, in which he talked about William Faulkner’s story “A Rose For Emily” and then, as a special treat, read some of his poems.

Yusef Komunyakaa was born James Willie Brown in Bogalusa, Louisiana, on April 29, 1947. His great-grandmother “slipped into this country from the West Indies”, as he explains in an interview with Muna Asali in his book Blue Note: Essays, Interviews, and Commentaries (University of Michigan Press, 2000).  In the same interview he explains his decision to change his name, saying, “I had to go back and accept my history in order to take steps forward.” Continue Reading

War. What Is It Good For?

World War I caused a major shift in the consciousness of Western civilization, possibly even global civilization, and such shifts are always best represented in art. The literature of World War I includes the bitter, occasionally harsh, poetry of poets like Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, and of course Wilfred Owen, who was killed a week before Armistice Day. After World War I the poet Paul Eluard and the artist Max Ernst became best friends. Ernst remarked that, during World War I, they’d been three-hundred feet apart and shooting at each other. There was also the “Lost Generation”, so named by Gertrude Stein, which consisted of writers as diverse as Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf.

Wilfred Owen is, of course, best known for his poem Dulce Et Decorum Est, which is the first part of a line from the Latin poet Horace which translates as, “It is sweet and beautiful to die for one’s country.” Owen ends his poem with the Latin lines, but turns them on their head:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Robert Graves, who lived to see several more wars, also wrote a poem about how we pass war on to the next generation, although his poem, The Next War, is addressed directly to children:

You young friskies who today
Jump and fight in Father’s hay
With bows and arrows and wooden spears,
Playing at Royal Welch Fusiliers,
Happy though these hours you spend,
Have they warned you how games end?


The Vietnam War caused a similar shift in consciousness, at least for Americans. Robert Mason’s novel Chickenhawk (Viking Press, 1983) has given us a word for someone who wants war but who’s too cowardly to go–which applies to a lot of our politicians. Poets also came out of the Vietnam War, including Bruce Weigl, whose books The Monkey Wars (University of Georgia Press, 1985) and What Saves Us (TriQuarterly Books, 1992) reflect on his Vietnam experience. The Pulizter-prize winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa went to Vietnam a journalist but came back a poet.

Will the current conflict change us at all? I think it already has. Torture, which used to be something only the enemy did, has become standard operating procedure. The definition of victory used to be when the troops came home. Now that’s the definition of defeat. And wars can now be fought for any reason, or no reason at all, by politicians who are not only chickenhawks but war profiteers. I worry that we’re a civilization teetering on the brink of illiteracy. Literature, because it’s both more concise and more personal, can tell us more about history than the rote repetition of dates and locations, but we not only haven’t learned from the literature of previous wars, there may not be anyone writing the literature of this one.

Here are a few more lines from Graves’ The Next War:

Wars don’t change except in name;
The next one must go just the same,
And new foul tricks unguessed before
Will win and justify this War.

God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
November 11, 1922-April 11, 2007

And so it goes.

In his introduction to his collection of short stories, Welcome To The Monkey House, Kurt Vonnegut talks about a very funny letter from his brother, whose wife had just had a baby, and the last words of his sister who died of cancer. He gives them credit for inspiring him, saying, “I realized that the two themes to my work had been given to me by my siblings: ‘Here I am, cleaning shit off of practically everything,” and ‘No pain.'”

When I was in high school I picked up Slaughterhouse Five, thinking it would be an easy read for English class. I’d heard it was science fiction, and, hey, at that point I’d read a ton of science fiction. But it was unlike any science fiction, or any book, I’d ever read. Here was a book that was funny and crude and dark and just plain weird. So naturally after reading it twice I moved on to Galapagos, then Cat’s Cradle, then God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, then Deadeye Dick, led around Kurt Vonnegut’s oeuvre by one of my best friends at the time and a couple of hip adults, one of whom noticed me reading Sirens Of Titan in church. Vonnegut’s ideas on religion had a more profound influence on me than Presbyterianism. As I was taking a class on Twentieth Century art I read Bluebeard, and his take on modern art tickled me. Shortly after the first Gulf War I picked up Hocus Pocus, a dark novel composed of notes by a Vietnam veteran locked in a library and dying of tuberculosis. Every time I get a cold I can’t help remembering, “Cough, cough,” and wondering whether the disease isn’t really from Tralfamadore.

I’ve never read any actual news reports, but I’ve heard that at various times and in various places Vonnegut’s books have been burned, which is an ironic way to treat the works of a World War II veteran. I once met a guy who claimed to have met Vonnegut in a bar and asked him what he thought of his books being burned. Vonnegut’s supposed reply was, “It shows how civilized we’ve become. Four hundred years ago they would have been burning me.”

Although Slaughterhouse-five, Or, The Children’s Crusade is his most famous novel, the one that sticks in my mind is Breakfast Of Champions, the novel Vonnegut wrote as a fiftieth birthday present to himself. Mostly funny, and including simple drawings done by Vonnegut himself, the book turns extremely sad at the end. In true Vonnegut style he leads us blindfolded down a strange, winding trail, telling jokes along the way, then pushes us off a cliff. He enters the book and meets his alter ego, pulp-fiction writer Kilgore Trout. Trout appeared in several earlier novels, and Vonnegut intended Breakfast of Champions to be his last appearance. He proves he is Trout’s maker, then sets him free. As he departs he hears Trout’s last words: “Make me young, make me young, make me young…”

In 1982 the Bower-Suhrheinrich Library was opened on the campus of the University of Evansville, where I went to college. Kurt Vonnegut gave the opening address. Although I wasn’t a student there at the time stories about him were passed down, and I was told that, before the ceremonies, a group of students happened to see Mr. Vonnegut sitting on the ground in front of the library reading a book. They started to walk over and talk to him when he looked up and glared. “You kids leave me alone!” he barked. “Can’t you see I’m reading?”

I don’t know whether that story is true, but God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut. You’re no longer in pain. And we’re stuck down here cleaning shit off of practically everything.

Green With Pride.

Ironically we know more about Sin-leqi Uninni, the author of a version of Gilgamesh, which is significantly older, than we do about the author of Sir Gawain And The Green Kight and the allegorical poems Patience, Purity, and The Pearl. Simply called the Pearl Poet, we know he was a contemporary of Chaucer, but, living in either Lancashire or Cheshire in the Northwest of Britain, near Wales, he spoke a very different English. From there on the biographical information is murky. What we do know is that Sir Gawain And The Green Knight is an extraordinary story, and that it’s well served by a new translation by Pulitzer-price winning poet W.S. Merwin (Knopf, 2005). gawain.jpg

Merwin is no stranger to bringing a work to English, having translated works as diverse as Dante’s Purgatorio (Knopf, 2001) and Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam (New York Review Books Classics, 2004). His translation of Sir Gawain And The Green Knight is contemporary and clear, a good version for contemporary readers, especially if you don’t know the poem. Also, unlike most editions of the poem, the text in the original language is on the facing page, like the edition of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, another anonymous medieval poem.

Close to the beginning the poet says,

I schal telle hit as-tit, as I in toun herde,

with tonge,

As hit is stad and stoken

In stori stif and stronge,

With lel lettres loken,

In londe so hatz ben longe.

It’s not quite as clear as Chaucer (who has his own blog, by the way) but Merwin turns the language, including the rhyming quartet that falls every twenty lines, into clear English:

I shall tell it as I heard it in the hall,


As it is set down

In a strong story,

With true letters written

In the old way.

If you’re not familiar with the story I don’t want to give too much away, other than a few details that will hopefully pique your interest. It opens in the Court of King Arthur on New Year’s Day, with a great celebration taking place. King Arthur declares that the feast will not begin until he’s seen a marvellous spectacle. As if on cue a giant man, with green skin and clothing, rides in holding a huge axe and dares any knight present to take a swing at him with it. Since no one comes forward Arthur himself steps up, but his nephew Gawain quickly takes his place and beheads the green giant. The head rolls around, and gets kicked around by the lords and ladies of the court, before being picked up by the giant. Imagine this scene: a head being held by its former body speaks. It tells Gawain that in a year’s time he must come to the Green Chapel and subject himself to a similar blow. The still headless Green Knight the gets back on his horse and rides out. Fortunately this is spectacle enough for King Arthur and the feast begins; the poet doesn’t say whether anybody lost their appetites seeing a giant green head roll around the floor. Summer turns to Fall and Gawain sets out, determined to keep his word. As though he knew he were writing for history the poet cuts through the more sensational parts of the story, summing up the difficulties Gawain faces in only a few lines:

So many marvels the man met in those mountains

That it would be hard to tell the tenth part of it.

Sometimes he fights with dragons, and with wolves at other times.

Gawain never complains in spite of unbelievable hardships. He sleeps in his armor on bare rocks in winter, in rain and sleet, and, even more extraordinary, he’s marching on to certain death, too full of pride to break his promise. The poet was writing about a world of chivalry that was already disappearing: a world of courteous conversation and tradition, of purity of heart and courage. Later on in the poem he goes into great detail about three consecutive days of hunting: first for a deer, symbolic of caution, then for a boar, symbolic of strength and boldness, and finally for a fox, a cowardly creature full of cunning and deceitfulness. These hunts mirror Gawain’s dalliance with a married woman that is platonic, but just barely. Gawain is tempted, not by lust, but by self-preservation. In his poem Patience the Pearl Poet explains that patience is the greatest virtue, and humility, also a great virtue, comes from it. Sir Gawain And The Green Knight is much less didactic, but, throughout the poem, Gawain is full of pride, and it goeth before the fall. There is no sin in being human, and in wanting to live, and in the end Gawain must accept that he is no better than anyone else.