book review

Review of 'Sly Bang' by Larissa Shmailo

Review of 'Sly Bang' by Larissa Shmailo

What do you do when there is a, “Army of serial killers, mad scientists, and ultra rich sociopaths” after you? 

Why, you summons your alter, “Larissa Ekaterina Anastasia Nikolayevna Romanova, tsaritsa of all the Russias,” and embark upon Larissa Shmailo’s cornucopiac literary odyssey, Sly Bang, of course.

Searching for American Truth

Searching for American Truth

Over the past several years there has been a number of American history books that have taken up the task of providing the reading public with a grand narrative of who and what we are as Americans.

A Woman’s Life: Sally Field’s In Pieces

A Woman’s Life: Sally Field’s In Pieces

Sally Field is a terrific writer, and I can’t say that I’m completely surprised: She’s been giving stunning, emotionally complex performances for nearly fifty years. Released this past September by Grand Central Publishing, In Pieces is a lengthy read — nearly 400 pages — but I could not put it down until I was finished. I loved this book. Field worked on it for seven years and it shows; this is no run-of-the-mill celebrity memoir. It is the story of an emotionally complex woman’s life, warts and all.

A City on a Lake, Urban Political Ecology and The Growth of Mexico City - Review

A City on a Lake, Urban Political Ecology and The Growth of Mexico City - Review

A City on a Lake by UC San Diego History Professor Matthew Vitz tells a pained and difficult history of Mexico City. The book uses academic language and vocabulary, and references many places, things and actors from Mexico, resulting in very thoughtful treatment. The book is a history, presenting a story of the city that we can learn from. It also shows the movements and actions of the past that are still part of the cities political environment. The book recounts mostly an pre World War II history attempting to explore “Urban Political Ecology and The Growth of Mexico City.” Vitz is argument that we can learn from the past presented here.

feast long day - Review of Jim Feast, Long Day, Counting Tomorrow (Brooklyn: Autnomedia, 2017)

feast long day - Review of Jim Feast, Long Day, Counting Tomorrow (Brooklyn: Autnomedia, 2017)

          I must praised Feast for his depiction of me or, at least a character modeled on that wayward waif, Steve Dalachinsky. At that time, I had not fully acquainted myself with the book and find that the Steve character doesn’t have much of a role in the story.

The First Bad Man a Novel by Miranda July reviewed by Jade Sharma


The First Bad Man

A Novel By Miranda July


Miranda July is the master of quirky.. Quirky is a tightrope act, you risk being cheesy or falling into the surreal. Quirky is funny but not ha-ha funny.. Quirky gussies up reality with whimsy.  Quirky is nothing but original. It’s the end of a fish tail sink stopper  in the kitchen sink reality of literature.  Quirky narratives feature main characters that are generally solitary figure. They are earnest to a fault and their clothes are a custome of the absurd. Bow-ties are quirky. Drug use isn’t. Being awkward is quirky. Being mean isn’t. Quirky is endearing. There is nothing quirky about the Holocaust, cancer, or porn. Being quirky is to be so uncool that you are pretty cool. To be quirky is to hold a child-like wonder in the face of a cynical mean world. The world of the quirky is wholly populated by the haves and the have more’s with a soundtrack of people who were indoor children, whose quiet weird music came out college dorms, never roughed in the streets. Being quirky is a narrative device that is the creation solely of the 1st world.

“Who is this middle-aged woman in the blue Honda?” July begins her novel, introducing her narrator Cheryl, as an everywoman but when July begins giving us a tour into the interior space of our narrator we find she lives in a bubble, her attempts to navigate the social world gives us more than a few cringe-worthy moments as when dealing with her bully of a roommate Clee and her crazy obsession with a man 22 years her senior, Phillip.

Cheryl's insights into the world at times feel alien, as she looks wide-eyed at the banal everyday and deconstructs to show us how exactly abused the world around is. Calling Beckett.  As when Cheryl observes a soap dispenser, “Someone took a large bottle of soap and poured into this serious looking machine.” or when July keenly observes the weird ways in which women observe their bodies, as when her boss Suzanne explains to her that she is pear shaped, “This is how your body is shaped. See? Teeny tiny on top and not so tiny on the bottom’ then she explained the illusion created by wearing dark colors on the bottom and bright colors on top. when I see other women with this color combination I check to see if they’re a pear too and they always are--two pears can’t fool each other” (5)

July’s book is a book of longing, of emptiness, of wanting. July’s story is a story of an alienated woman who connects to the world in strange ways. One of the most refreshing ways that July deals with having a middle-aged childless woman is produced in Cheryl's obsession with finding Kelbelko Bondy. Cheryl is always on the search for Kebelko Bondy. Keubelko Bondy is an actual baby the narrator baby-sat for a short amount of time and felt a connection with, “I looked at him and he looked at me and I knew that he loved me more than his mother and father and that in some very real and elemental way he belonged to me. Because I was only nine it wasn’t clear if he belonged to me as a child or as a spouse” (8) As an adult Cheryl  thinks of the baby, who she christened Kueblko Bonky and says: “I did see him again--again and again. Sometimes he’s a newborn, sometimes he’s already toddling along.” When Cheryl finds the spirit of  Kuebelko Bondy in a baby she recognizes it right away. The telepathic conversation that ensue are oddly touching. One of the Kebelko Bondy babies peers at Cheryl and tells her, “I keep getting born to the wrong people” (13). Another urges her: “Do something. They’re taking me away” (9).. Cheryl obsessively searches every baby’s face for signs of recognition but is often met with disappointment: “as I pulled out of my parking spot I got a better look at the baby in the car next to mine. just some kid’ (9) Through absurdity July is illustrating what is at wrestling heart of a woman dealing with her ticking biological clock, which is to yearn for a connection, more than to be a mom, but to have an unmistakable tie to another human being that is fluid and transcends any one kind of love For Cheryl who has no children she has created the illusion she has many children, she just always be on the look-out for them.

At the novel starts Cheryl's obsession with Philip is already in full-swing. Cheryl is obsessed with Philip and Philip is always wearing a sweater that Cheryl always takes note of: : “grey cashmere sweater that matches his beard,’ ‘a wine-colored sweater” (2).

July’s portrayal of obsession is dead-on as in Cheryl's mind Philip is always a constant presence, “I drove to the doctor’s office as I was starring in a movie Philip was watching” (1). She rehearses not just what to say to Philip but how to look, “I practice how my face would go if Philip was in the waiting room” (1).

Cheryl's obsession with Philip is baffling. We’ve always had the experience of being completely perplexed as to why a friend is infatuated with someone who doesn’t seem all that special to us but with this information is left out all we are left Cheryl's obsession and the reality that Philip at his best is a new age kook, and at his worst: a total prick, leaves the reader apathetic and the obsession grows tiresome. This discrepancy feels lazy especially for a woman like Cheryl who has no problem sharing her seuxal fantsies in which she imagines she is Philip having sex with almost every random woman she/he meets. This is a woman who has no problem over-sharing.

July’s depiction of Cheryl's feeling of an intense connection with Philip feels genuine as when Cheryl describes how she desires to approach Philip  “like a wife, as if we’d already been a couple for a hundred thousand lifetimes. Caveman and cavewomen. King and Queens” (12). Also, very realistic is the comically shit  that comes out of one’s mouth such as when Cheryl repeatedly blurts out to Philip: “When in doubt, give me a shout!” After embarrassing herself, she vows to “behave so gracefully that the clumsy woman Philip had spoken with yesterday would impossible to recall. I wouldn’t use a British accent out loud, but I’d be using one in my head and it would carry over” (11)Every tiny gesture is perceived with a deep sense of meaning as when Cheryl’s bosses (who are portrayed with a network sitcom depth) unload beefalo, a hybrid of cattle and bison, onto their staff, which they have folded into white paper with each employees names on it. Cheryl and Philip’s names are called right after one and another and as Philip notices Cheryl's package is a bit larger than his own, the sexual overtones can’t be ignored as she thinks, “He gave me the meat that said Philip and I gave him the meat that said Cheryl.”  (16). Cheryl is completely self-aware, that she deepens gestures with meaning that may not exist: “I’d done that before. I had added meaningful layers to things that were meaningless many, many times before (70).

July’s portrayal of Philip being a total jerk is missing the mark of humour/awkwardness that July had intended.  Signs that Philip is pretty much a jerk is when “Philip pulls her towards him by the necklace,” Cheryl doesn’t perceive this as workplace sexaul harrasment but instead Cheryl decides the action is layered with irony as Philip is actually ‘mocking the kind of a man who would do something like that.” She goes on to tell us, “He’s been doing these things for years, once, during a board meeting, he insisted my blouse wasn’t zipped up in back, and then he unzipped it laughing. (7) When it feels as though Philip is actually about to confess his true feelings for Cheryl he instead drops this douchebag bombshell on her: “I have fallen in love..with a woman who is my equal in every way, who challenges me, who makes me feel, who humbles me. She is sixteen. Her name is Kirsten” (46). As Cheryl is emotionally about to jump off a bridge, Philip, being either cruel or oblivious to Cheryl's feelings, but either way totally weird, Cheryl explains how he “puts his hand on my hand. and tell her  “We want your blessing.” (47). Philip explains that he finds Chery strong and stays to her:  “you’re a feminist and you live alone, and she agreed we should wait until we got your take on it” (47). If there is anything that could put a woman in the bell jar it’s probably hearing a man you’re obsessed with tell you he admires you for how you live alone, after he’s told you how in love he is with a 16 year old.

Philip then goes on to explain how Cheryl's androgynous nature is the reason he looks up to her. “I told her (KIrsten) how perfectly balanced you are in terms of your masculine and feminine energies.” This ability for Cheryl to be able to “ see things from a man’s point of view, but without being clouded by yang” (47) is why he is asks her advice.

With Cheryl's obsession still in full blown and Philip’s being as weird as ever. We are left with this bizarre exchange:

“Our history was behind on us, a hundred lifetimes of making love” (47)

This passage concludes like this:

We have no elders,” he moaned. “no one to guide us. Will you guide us?”

“But I’m younger than you.”

“Perhaps” “NO, I am. I am twenty-two years younger than you” (48).

July touches on this idea of the single middle-aged woman as having some spiritual value  in our society, as when her boss Carl called her a ginjo which is japanese for ‘a man, usually an elderly man, who  lives in isolation while keeps the fire burning for the whole village’ (19).

The new-age kookiness that July thankfully doesn’t get into is what prompts Cheryl so see the “chromologist” (if you are me you will spend an embarrassingly number of pages mis reading chromologist for chemotologist and finding yourself feeling bad for Philip). Dr. Boynard, who works three days a year, concludes she has Globus sytericious? And the cure is 30 milliliters of the essence of red (Again, weird for the sake of being weird). There are moments where you want to feel the layers of meaning July has pinned on but instead the narrative  falls flat, feels trying, like a dream, sometimes, just because something is weird doesn’t mean it’s interesting.

When Clee is introduced in the novel, we finally have a character who doesn’t feel as though she was written as a clever sketch of a character in a notebook. Clee is alive. She jumps off the pages. From her fungus-invested feet to her bratty attitude to her sofa bound, jugging sodas, with the television on 24/7 she is scene stealer.

Clee, Cheryl’s bosses’ aimless daughter who they are under the impression or denial that she is an aspiring actresses. Clee is predictably, after being bogged off by co-worker’s shows up at Cheryl's house.   Cheryl’s misanthropic disposition reveals itself when she’s asked to house Clee: “When you live alone people are always thinking they can stay with you, when the opposite is true: who they should stay with is a person whose situation is already messed  by other people and so one more won’t matter” (19). But Clee ends up moving in anyway which creates perhaps, the oddest, odd couple routine, their disdain for one another evolves into their own secret fight club. Cheryl’s who can’t help but smiling all day long after wrestling with Clee, which is like Gaitskill's ‘Secretary,’ finds a release in the world of Sadomasochism. Another pertitant quote of Cheryl comes to mind: “imitating crass people was kind of liberating--like pretending to be a child or a crazy person” (7).

Clee’s harshness is hysterical, as she says to Cheryl: “one half of your face is way older and uglier than the other half. The pores are all big and it’s like your eyelid is starting to fall into your eye. I’m not saying the other side looks good, but if both sides were lke your left side people would think you were seventy (80)

Clee is not just is cruel but messes with Cheryl system that have been in the making for years, “Let’s say a person is down in the dumps, or maybe just lazy, and they stop doing the dishes. soon the dishes are piled sky-high and it seems impossible to even clean a fork. So the person starts eating with dirty forks out of dirty dishes and this makes the person feel like a homeless person. so they stop bathing. Which makes it hard to leave the house. The person begins to throw trash anyway and pee in cups because/c they’re close to the bed. We’all been this person, so there is no place for judgment, but the solution is simple:

Fewer dishes.

The other solution: stop moving things around ie. ‘Can’t you read the book standing right next to the shelf with your finger holding the spot you’ll put it back into? Or better yet: don’t read at all.”

At one point when Cheryl feels as though they are sharing a moment, Clee corrects her, “You thought i was laughing about the pan?...I was laughing because--you’re so sad. Sooo. Saad.”


The only time Cheryl stands up for herself is after Philip rejects her. She comes home and demands to Clee: “You need to get your act together and start looking for a job. This couch isn’t meant to be used as a bed. You need to flip the cushions so they don’t get permanently misshaped” (49).

It is after this exchange their first “fight” occurs: “The crook of her arm caught my neck and jerked me backward. I slammed into the couch--the wind knocked out of me. Before I could get my balance she shoved my hip down with her knee. I grabbed at the air stupidly. She pinned my shoulders down, intently watching what the panic was going to my face. Then she suddenly let go and walked away.” (50)

Philip-fuckng 16 year old and Clee attacked her:

“I peed in cups and knocked over one of the cups and didn’t clean it up (51)

“if possible, please donate the thirty minutes to someone who can’t afford therapy” (54)

Cheryl sees Ruth-Anne Tibbets for counsel. She recognizes Tibbet’s as Dr. Boynard’s receptionist the three days a year he works there. When Cheryl confronts her as being a fraud the explanation turns out to be far more bizarre Tibbets was the receptionist but also acts as Dr. Boynard’s receptions. Tibbets’ doesn’t do it for the money: “Three days a year I take on a submissive role. It’s a game we like to play, an immensely satisfying adult game.” (63)

Cheryl tries to offer Clee a gift to start off what she hopes will be an immensely satisfying adult game but Clee rejects it, saying, “I appreciate the gift but I’m know. I’m into dick” (75). But the fighting continues and Cheryl is at her best in this part of the book until she finds out that Clee is pregnant. She is heartbroken. She quietly contemplates:  “Were there many ways to get pregnant? not really.” (133)]

The real intimacy and bond in this novel is not between Philip and Cheryl and it begins but is actually between Clee and Cheryl. From the time that she sets sight on Clee, sofa-bound, with her feet reeking, this it the first time we see and feel any kind of intense emotional reaction from Cheryl which is then acting out during their ‘fight club’ scene. The tie-in for both Cheryl and Clee is that Cheryl's bosses who are Clee’s parents ran a studio that taught self-defense classes for women, so both women are often times accoutrements such the self-defense videos the company produced and the pummel outfits were by the men (which are doned by Clee). The physical release is the only source of intimacy for Cheryl. Where she was seeking a more conventional relationship with Philip, he soon is an extra in the novel, and the crux of the novel is the relationship between Clee and Cheryl.

After Clee becomes pregnant, true to her nature, she not cut from maternal cloth. This is where Cheryl steps up and helps Clee through her difficult childbirth and through the touch and go first day’s of the infant who they Clee wants to name, “little fatty,’ but Cheryl decides to go with Jack. The troubled first days of Jack’s life is one that July’s writes touchingly, as is the bond between the two women, “we were gripping each other hands between the folds of our white hospital gowns-- a small hard brain formed by our interlocking white knuckles” 169) As the baby is in critically stable, with tubes inserted in it’s tiny body, Chery realizes Jack is Kelbelko Bondy. The most touching scene of the novel is when Cheryl telepathically tries to will Jack/Kelbelko Bondy into giving life on Earth a chance: Try not base your decision on this room, it isn't representative of the whole world. Somewhere the sun is hot an a rubbery leave, clouds are making shapes and shaping and reshaping, spider web is broken but still works. And in case he wasn’t into nature I added: and it’s a really wild time in terms of technology. You’ll probably have a robot and will be normal.” Cheryl then forgives Jack if he decides he doesn’t want try life out, “Of course, there’s no ‘right choice. If you choose death I won’t be mad. I’ve wanted to choose it myself a few times.” Cheryl, not willing to indulge the idea of the baby not making it, as his eyes peer up to her, she back-peddles, “Forget what I just said. You’re already a part of this. You will eat, you will laugh at stupid things, you will stay up all night just to see what it feels like, you will fall painfully in love, you have babies of your own, you will doubt and regret and yearn and keep a secret. You will get old and decrepit,and you will die, exhausted from all that living. That’s when you get to die. Not now” (173). To read Cheryl give such an affirmation of life is immensely powerful. For most of the novel it seems she wasn’t living much of a life. It was only through Clee, Cheryl speaks of the evolution of their relationship, “I’d been her enmy, then her mother, then her girfriend. That was three lifetimes right there.” These realtionship with Clee is what transformed into someone who is on the side of life. As the baby grows stronger, Cheryl finds she is up for the job of being her guardian.

The last unneeded twist of the novel is when Philip swings back into the picture. If this were a movie I would assume the producers lacked funds to have more than a few actors and that’s what accounted for Philip’s presence but it’s not it’s a book and it’s bad choice. First off, Cheryl and Philip non-existent relationship was never central to the novel and the most interesting parts where in Cheryl’s own hand and second, although July does the heavy lifting of how Clee and Philip meet (Cheryl recommends Dr. Boynard for her feet fungus who was recommended by her by Philip) in Dr. Boynard’s waiting room, it still feels forced and still more forced that this chance encounter would end of the two of them having sex and neither of them telling Cheryl and that this fling would result in a baby. July is normally more scatterbrained, which is endearing, then to go to soap opera land to pile on the drama, which it actually doesn’t as we have long forgotten or cared about Philip. 3) As true to Philip’s shit-head nature he ends up crashing, having a one-night stand with Cheryl, and then deems he just doesn’t feel a connection with Philip and takes off. The only point of bringing Philip back around would have been to show the transformed Cheryl, who is now stronger through her relationship with Clee, and the strength of love she feels towards Jack, and tell Philip to go fly a kite. The fact that she still defers to him is painfully and brings Cheryl back about 100 pages in the novel.

July’s novel is uneven but worth reading. It would easy to break it apart and easier to love it because it’s fun. As a professor once told me, “in the end, you can choose whether you like a book and make a pretty fine argument either way,’ thus negating the entire idea of academia, but he is of course, has a solid point. We love things that are imperfect. Flaws in the narrative, and the Philip parts that lag, and the unnecessary Dr. Boynard, and globus hystericus, are worth it when July gets it right. July’s maturing as a writer. Her first book felt more like something she did in the afternoon, after she decided it would be fun to write a book the way retired people think it’s fun to take up painting but here is something different. There is real feeling, behind the quirks, and gimmicks, and weird for the sake of weird. Being quirky, as Wes Anderson, has shown us, when done right, is an aesthetic that doesn’t get in the way of an emotional connection. As all characters in the world of the quirky are underdeveloped emotional, and yearning for a connection. The connections that Cheryl makes in the novel aren't the conventional ones we’ve seen a million times in Hollywood. They are the connections of a stunted personality who literally needed to be punched in the face to feel something again.

A review of The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon by Nancy Mercado

A review of
The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon
by Nancy Mercado

Penguin Books, 2014

Willie Perdomo’s latest collection of poems, The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon, published by Penguin includes four sections that interplay voices and characters, the language of music, street jargon, Spanish and English and Spanglish.

As a Nuyorican poet who emerged on the scene in the 1990’s, Perdomo is comfortable in meshing a variety of elements that may have no business being together but come out clean and intelligible in the end. His book is a fusion of street culture, life in the halls of learning, dual languages, dual homes or no home that resulted in a multifaceted life.

In the first section of his book: How I Came to My Name, the book’s main character, Shorty Bon Bon describes himself to the reader in the first person. In adjacent poems another character (perhaps a spirit) describes Shorty to Perdomo in past tense. The language used includes musical terms in both English and Spanish much of which is slang. In juxtaposing the communication between the characters, between the reader and the poet, in Perdomo’s particular use of language and in his creation of instantaneous mixtures of images, the complex and fast world of Shorty Bon Bon is made vivid.

A musician by trade, Shorty is also a slick street hustler. His hustle has found a home in his musicianship. Shorty learned his craft by listening to the masters not by attending school. He is so sure of his greatness, he is arrogant:

So cool

     That I chased God like he was on the run.


So cool

     That when Puente heard my speed, I made him bite his

     Tongue. I’m saying—I made the Mambo King bleed.        (12)

Rather than being distasteful however, Shorty’s arrogance is amusing. Besides, his greatness is validated by the spirit who addresses Perdomo.

In the second section; To Be with You, gone is the “spirit” character who communicates with Perdomo and introduced is Rose; a singer who is Shorty’s girl. Here, Rose’s tumultuous relationship to Shorty takes precedence. Their separate accounts of their struggling liaison and of one another, sustains the play of communication established in the first section. Rose addresses Shorty through a series of letters while Shorty addresses Perdomo directly. The language Perdomo uses is again a sofrito of English, Spanish, Spanglish, street talk and proper terminology e.g., the use of the word pubis.

The greatness of Rose as a singer is a metaphor for her amazing intellect, beauty and female power. Rose is a formidable challenge to Shorty. So much so that regardless of Shorty’s coolness she leaves him in the end.

The third section of the book; Fracture, Flow, sees Perdomo melding into Shorty. The communication here is between the poet and reader; the voice in the poem is the poet’s and that voice is Shorty Bon Bon’s. Set in Puerto Rico, in this group of poems, Shorty recounts life on the island vs life on the mainland, the treatment of Puerto Rico by the United States and the island’s political state. Through the use of metaphor, Perdomo refers to such historical events as Columbus’ treatment by the natives when he lands on the island, the dignity of Puerto Rican nationalists, the Ponce massacre, how the island and mainland are treated with the same brutality by those in power, the selling of the illusion of freedom.

The final segment of the book; The Birth of Shorty Bon Bon  45, realizes the death and rebirth of Shorty Bon Bon. Just like the poet himself, Shorty has died and is reborn anew. His transformation played out on a metaphoric 45 vinyl sides A and B.

Telling the story of one character throughout a book of poems is a risky proposition; a tool usually reserved for novelists and short story writers. But the persistence of a character among the sewn shards of language and colliding metaphors throughout Perdomo’s book, unifies the work and gives pause to the reader to ponder; is Shorty Bon Bon really Willie Perdomo?

The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon is a must read for anyone seeking a poetically visceral experience of what it is to be an amalgamation of things which, in the end is truly American.


Nancy Mercado is a writer, editor and activist whose work appears in dozens of anthologies and literary journals. Most recently, she presented her work at Casa de las Americas in Cuba. Mercado is an Assistant Editor for and an Associate Professor at Boricua College in New York City. She authored the collection of poetry titled: It Concerns the Madness. For more information go to: 

Patricia Spears Jones reviews STUDY by Yuko Otomo

  • Book: STUDY & Other Poems on Art
  • Author:  Yuko Otomo
  • Press: Ugly Duckling Presse, Brooklyn, NY 2013
  • 288 pages


Strolling Through a Life in Art—Review of  STUDY & Other Poems on Art

 by Patricia Spears Jones

Yuko Otomo has been writing and performing poetry and texts for three decades printing many in limited edition chapbooks.  Her poems offer a range of perceptions about art from her vantage as an artist, as a viewer, as a poet.  Reading the poems in STUDY is to relive the art world and its contents and discontents through those three decades. As she remarks in an epistolary poem, “A Letter to Christine”: “How visual I am!”  And yes, she is very visual.

As someone who has seen many of the same shows and/or artists she considers in these poems, I am intrigued by her approach.  Her well-trained observant artist’s eye pairs with psychological observation—deepening our understanding of image and image making.  As she notes in her introduction, “I noticed two things . . . One is the lack of poems of my “favorite” artists (e.g. Matisse; Goya; Pollock . ) & an abundance of poems on art I care less personally for.” Moreover, she sees how some work such as Louise Bourgeois invites her to enter both the poetic and critical world. As she looks at her output, she realizes that “I’ve learned one of the most vital truths: ‘liking’ & ‘disliking” have nothing to do with art.”

What her poems do is meditate on images or image-making to expand her artistic vision.  “10 Poems for “The Americans” by Robert Frank” concretizes in language the stark, erotically charged photographs that Frank is known for.  Otomo looks sideways at his images in these stanzas in “Parade—Hoboken, New Jersey”:


LOVE meta-morphed

into different shapes

stands still

by the (window) frames.


Arms of a woman

Palms of a boy


An afternoon breeze waves

a flag of IDEALS, DREAMS & the VOID

rectifying HAPPINESS


But of course, this is Frank whose images of Americans are deeply engaged in his subject’s complications and the poem ends:


As cheers fill the streets,

a new sense of HUNGER

nails the interior darkness down.


Otomo is comfortable with exploring the abstractions : ideals, dreams, the voids in artists’ work.  Also, she is fascinated by the fluidity of identity especially gender in the artists’ work:  “a man is a man, a mother, a brother” is a line from “Joseph Cornell in his Garden (Hans Namuth 1969)” and in the Cornell Box Poems, she dynamically explores androgyny.  It seems to this reader that the poems about the photographs of Cornell’s studio are more expressive than the ones on the actual Cornell boxes.  It may be that focus on image making-what did the studio look like; what were the items he would use; how did the photographer orchestrate these images?  Indeed, “Studio Details of Storage Racks (Hans Namuth 1973)” is a delicious list poem that ends: snow flakes, birds, nest, feathers which pretty captures the basis for a Cornell box!

While many of the poems are lyric or meditative, the most notable texts here are epistolary—letters to specific persons both living and dead.  These pieces offer the reader a more intensive view of Otomo’s own artistic practice-how she thinks through her work and the work of others. “A Letter to Christine (for Christine Hughes)”  is a piece de resistance.  Back to the strolling—Otomo uses that well worn New York writer’s exercise, a walk around the city—and here the stroll sparks one side of what appears to be a very long and useful conversation between two artists. But more importantly, the letter considers Otomo’s own creative inspirations: that stroll; her love of music; the issue of location (where is one when one works) and her enthusiasm for her friend’s “botanical art” which leads her to a book on wildflowers.  Much like Maureen Owen and others who use lists to illustrate a particular point—she finds the wildflowers that grow in the city: “Loosestrifes; Milkweeds; Purple Cornflowers; Asters; Blazing Stars; Vervains; Bell Flowers; Gentians; Dayflowers; Chicory; Golden Rods .   . .”  and in the next stanza she notes: “Nothing is so mesmerizing as the colors and forms of plants”.  This letter allows the reader to enter into the intimacy of artistic conversation-the ways in which one artist recognizes and encourages the work of another and simultaneously, recognizes and advances her own.  I don’t know the work of Christine Hughes, but after reading this piece, I really wanted to see what she does with her “botanical art”.

A more poignant piece is “Myself: Self Portrait (for Emma Bee Bernstein).   This elegy for the beloved young artist who took her own life in a kind of last “self-portrait” responds to the extraordinary body of work Emma Bee Bernstein made and to the issues raised by Bee Bernstein’s artistic practice.  Moreover, she interrogates that practice in light of her own well-considered self-examinations and how the younger artist made her consider the desire to see one self mirrored, reflected in control of one’s image.  “I don’t particularly/ like to face my reflected self in a cornered room with harsh/ artificial light  . . . but, for some reason,/ the situation always takes place in this kind of imagined space./Ah, how much I wish I wee a Narcissist, but I am not.” As she shies from the kinds of staged works the young artist made, she also notes: “I know that she knows me better than I know her”.

Throughout the piece she lists titles of Bee Bernstein works, which go from abstractions “Faith/fate” to nature “a Tree/Trees”.   In the second and most complicated stanza of this text, she offers the artist’s view of  boundaries—going from abstract to concrete and back again:  “I once told my dear friend that I was not curious/ about what’s behind the wall, but about the wall itself & what I/was looking for was not who/what I was, but what I was made/ of.”  Bee Bernstein’s important conversations with older women artists offered her a way into audacity.  That she left the world so early confounds and in Otomo’s delicate re-working of her ideas in this text, we see what the art world lost.

Otomo’s often works with her partner, Steve Dalachinsky and Study includes a major collaboration entitled “Arena”, based on a Joseph Beuys artwork.  It has moments of clarity, hilarity and occasional frustration—one can hear the marriage of two different, but equal voices, a true rarity (Steve Dalachinsky =sd and Yuko Otomo ==yd).


sd                    you listen to air through copper tube & wax

yo                    I see the heart beat of the air

a perfect loop, a perfect malice, a perfect dust


sd                    the wildlife on stilts is frozen by removing its innards

yo                    I am crossed with an triangle & my bones ache

to be with time is tearing me apart


sd                    I hang like a hand like a hangar on a hand on a nail

on a cross where I hang


yo                    a perfect bath tub, a perfect profile



As one can see, Otomo is in search of that perfect line, the perfect loop, the right word to say what she needs to say about Sarah Sze, Bourgeois, Caravaggio, Beuys, Cornell, Bruce Nauman, August Sander. At times, that word is not found—the poems in response to Nauman’s exhibition don’t quite work. But when she goes into depth, it can be startling.


In one of the last and most ambitious poems in this book, she delves even more deeply into women’s lives and art—the poem “Intra-Venus” that is in part dedicated to Hannah Wilke. I met Wilke before cancer began to destroy her almost other-worldly beauty, so I am always interested in the ways in which people approach her work, not only her early work, but also her end of life portraits that are harsh and powerful.  Otomo does not disappoint here.  In deft stanzas she catches the artist’s work, but also that decay and in her own way, the particular significance of women, women’s bodies and how they are used in art.  Here are excerpts from “Intra-Venus (for Hannah Wilke and Lona Foote)”


time to timelessness

you witness

your physicality

assaulted & forced

is it your eyes that we are facing?

is it your navel that we are looking at it?

is it your thighs that we are marveling at?



in a sense of metaphysics



how a raw road leads

to the bottom of the well

where all those inspirations

for life pour out





in a sense of metaphysics


a river

a morning


a luster

a monument

a flower petal—


remember that


to be or not to be


in the Origin


the sun was a woman


The poem in many ways sums up Otomo’s sensibility-she seeks the eternal in art, but always is in touch with the ephemeral-art may endure, but each of us will die.  Wilke, Beuys and Bee Berstein’s art endures.

Ugly Duckling Presse has made it possible for readers to see a poet’s confidence grow as she considers art in our time.  Yuko Otomo’s  Study is a great addition to the proud New YorkSchool sensibility of connecting poetry and visual arts.  Her strolling through galleries, museums, in and out of friends’ studios and in and out of her own is a major document of the past three decades.  It was a pleasure to join her.

Divine Comedy reviewed in the Villager

BY LAEL HINES  |  “I got stabbed. It was no big deal, small deal, small deal, small deal. It was stupid. “I was working at this bookstore on St. Mark’s Place near Second Ave. on the south side of the street,” Ron Kolm recalled. “I was up behind the register and we used to get robbed all the time. The counter actually had an opening on both sides, so we could run away.

“Anyway, I was there alone one night and this guy came in, went into the manager’s office and tried leaving with the manager’s bike. You know, I said, ‘Yo dude, you can’t do that. Put it back.’ He was drunk out of his mind; it was like this cloud of alcohol surrounding him.

“And he came up to me at the counter and pulled out a knife and whacked it in my hand,” Kolm said. “The knife is stuck there and he couldn’t pull it out. It was actually kind of funny. I said — because this is the asshole I am — ‘You’re really small and you’re really drunk and I could probably kill you if I wanted to, but it would be pointless. Your life is a pointless life, so I’m just going to ask you to get the fuck out.’ ”

“It’s been a good trip,” said Kolm, as he reflected on his life, living in New York and working in bookstores since the late ’60s.

PEOPs portrait project by Fly - Ron Kolm - 04/03/2k10 - Lower East Side NYC Local Unbearable Writer -

PEOPs portrait project by Fly - Ron Kolm – 04/03/2k10 – Lower East Side NYC Local Unbearable Writer –

Kolm’s experiences stimulate and inform his writing — poetry and prose that paint stories and images that are both relatable and barely believable.

With his characteristic self-deprecating tone, Kolm explained, “You have to understand what an asshole I am. A part of me is this guy going through life and another part of me is this guy watching it or commenting, the writer the observer, if you will.

“It was a gift that I saw the thing happened or that I saw the size and shape of it,” he said. “I don’t just try to write poems about anything. I try to look for things that have a shape and cut it out of that shape, the same way a sculptor sees something in a block of marble. You’re trying to free something that you see in there. That’s a cliché — but, most of my poems are based on real events. ”

With New York as the usual backdrop, the turbulence in Kolm’s life has sparked literature that similarly stimulates rebellious and revolutionary emotions among readers.

“I’ve had a little bit of luck with my tiny, silly-ass career,” said Kolm with concise irony. His “silly-ass career” has effectively produced his most recent book of poetry, “The Divine Comedy” (Fly by Night Press). With poems with titles like “Butt Sex” and “Hand Jobs,” Kolm as an artist is clearly unbound by societal perceptions or restrictions.

His revolutionary spirit has been resonant since the late ’60s.

“I did become antiwar ” he exclaimed, “but I didn’t go to Vietnam. I worked in Appalachia as a community organizer, which actually did shape my life. I worked with really poor people and I never quite made it back to the mainstream in America. Thank God, in a way. I try to use some of that stuff in my writing. A lot of shit happened.”

Kolm’s radical mentality effectively instigated the formation of The Unbearables. The Unbearables are a group of revolutionary writers who have rocked the New York City literature scene with their humor-filled, radical actions since 1984.

“We would picket the New Yorker, protesting their shitty poetry,” Kolm recalled. “We would do erotic readings on the Brooklyn Bridge every September 13. We would read to businesspeople as they went from Manhattan to Brooklyn. It was a fun thing to do; it was a little bit like being back in the ’60s.”

Most of Kolm’s actions align with a desire to be radical while fighting against the generic mainstream. He described this as one of the main inspirations of his writing.

“This culture is based on things wearing out, on selling things,” he explained. “I like to feel if you do a piece of art that doesn’t become instantly obsolete — it’s going to stick around for a while — you’ve actually done a small blow against the empire, and I genuinely believe that.”

For Kolm, radical literature shaped his existence.

“I was a fucking fascist when I was growing up in Pennsylvania,” he said. “It was art and literature that got me out of that. Reading ‘Catch-22’ changed me.”

By creating wonderfully rich and rebellious works like “The Divine Comedy,” Ron Kolm perhaps aims similarly to inspire readers, lifting them out of the often-superficial elements of American mainstream society.

“American culture is like dead in the water,” he declared. “It’s as close to the ’50s as I can remember. People are scared of being different and nobody really knows what to do.”

With his humanistic worldview, Kolm certainly harbors a discontent with the current generation. Expressing his annoyance with the world today, he said, “When I moved to New York in ’69-70 it was ridiculously cheap. You could get apartments for $100 a month. What’s happened is New York has gotten incredibly expensive — it’s just gone up and up and up.

“It’s almost impossible to live here now unless you move out to the ghettos,” he continued. “Bushwick, Bed-Stuy. I mean Bed-Stuy, for God sake! In the old days you wouldn’t even go close to that place because you’d be afraid you would just die.”

Fitting for a modern-day humanist, Kolm has a love of antiquity.

“Basically, my degrees are in history,” he noted. “What I enjoy are reading books on ancient Roman history.”

In fact, he described his belief, as he put it, that, “New York is Rome — ancient Rome. I think of 9/11 being New York’s 410 [the year of the sack of Rome]. I think that event influenced the city in more ways than we know it.”

Kolm’s connection to antiquity is fully represented in his “The Divine Comedy.” His poem of the same name fully parallels the work by Renaissance Humanist Dante. Kolm explained, “There are three movements. There is an attempt to move upward toward heaven the entire way through. The three movements vaguely mirror the three movements of ‘The Divine Comedy,’ I sort of fell into it.”

Near the interview’s conclusion, Kolm once again expressed his ironic, self-deprecating take on things.

“I’m so glad my mind still works,” he said, though adding, “It doesn’t really work anymore. I used to really like my mind. It wasn’t a bad mind. I managed to be very lucky.

“There’s the writer part of me that I like,” he said. “But there is another part of me which is just this old guy deteriorating. I see old guys going around in their little motorized chairs and I think, Oh fuck, that’s going to be me someday.”

Divine Comedy reviewed by Kevin Riordan

Divine Comedy  Poems by Ron Kolm

Fly By Night Press, 2013

Reviewed by Kevin Riordan

Ron Kolm, whom for the purposes of this review I will think of as Kid Danté, is an artist whose canvas is the kind on which you go down for the count. But not this palooka.

He goes 32 rounds in this match with the poetic form, not counting graphic relief between rounds by ten gifted illustrators. The result is arnica for the soul. He delivers a nice combination of thrusts, jabs, uppercuts and sucker punches in this exhibition of the sweet science of the stanza. The bodily fluids fly but he never loses heart, whether he’s taking down Death, JFK or a can-opener wielding girlfriend. His cauliflower ear for the New York street, bedroom, tap or factory is as true as his bloodshot eye for the absurdity of his place and time. While he holds poetry up by the armpits from time to time, he takes no dive and neither filches nor ducks. The Void gives him the biggest jolt of any bout, and the women often have him on the ropes, but he comes out swinging every time, not with fancy footwork but steady; implacable — despite little birdies floating over his shoulders. I can only conclude that, as below, somebody up there likes him.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010)


Dying Notes of an Ordinary Songbird?

by Susan Scutti  

The most present character of Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom is not so much Patty Berglund as her generation and class. Franzen frames Patty in her choices and her choices are distinctly those that were made, as he would have it, by most everybody. In his first chapter, he declares of Patty, “She was already fully the thing that was just starting to happen to the rest of the street.”  He then makes it clear that he's speaking to a reader who understands all of this because a reader inevitably lived on that same street; his reader is you and you are middle-class gentrification, no matter who you actually are or what city or town you come from. “The collective task in Ramsey Hill was to relearn certain life skills that your own parents had fled to the suburbs specifically to unlearn, like how to interest the local cops in actually doing their job, and how to protect a bike from a highly motivated thief, and when to bother rousting a drunk from your lawn furniture, and how to encourage feral cats to shit in somebody else’s children’s sandbox, and how to determine whether a public school sucked too much to bother trying to fix it.” Eventually, he concludes, “For all queries, Patty Berglund was a resource, a sunny carrier of sociocultural pollen, an affable bee.”

And with these words we've backed out of the drive and begun our trip with this sunny carrier of  sociocultural pollen. Despite my suspicions that Franzen has created his Everywoman the way  Dr. Frankenstein might, stitching together disparate parts to resonate with each segment of his reading public --- she's originally from New York and now living in St. Paul, she's half WASP,  half Jewish, her original family was upper middle class yet she married a lower middle class guy, she's the oldest of four and formerly played sports in college, and now she's the stay-at-home mom of a daughter who is bright and normal and a son who is exceptional --- despite the fact that Franzen labors to hit every single key on his piano, I can't help but to enjoy and appreciate Patty Berglund. Franzen, after all, is a terrific writer, nimble in his plotting, succinct yet thorough in his characterizations, relentlessly topical and usually fun. Franzen has an unerring instinct for the juice of neighborly relations; describing Patty's rise and inevitable fall, he stops inside a jealous neighbor's house so a reader can overhear another woman cut Patty to pieces. Best of all, he repeatedly flogs her for the root trait of her eventual demise: Patty is and always has been competitive and at times she's inept at hiding that fact. Within the lock-step conformity of the middle class, what could possibly be more damning than this? For that jagged truth alone,  Franzen must be appreciated.

Quoting Shakespeare's The Winter’s Tale in his epigraph, Franzen foreshadows the adultery at the heart of his own winter's tale, which presumably is the dying season of American empire. Walter, Patty's husband, is the environmentally-aware guy who rides to an office job weekday mornings on a bike. Around the time his wife flips out over their son's affair with the slightly older lower-class girl next door, Walter begins to distance himself from his family by becoming more involved in green politics. Soon he's shuttling back and forth to Washington D.C. and eventually he accepts a position with a private trust protecting the cerulean warbler, a native American songbird which is rapidly disappearing due to removal of mature hardwood forests as well as the presence of household cats (the cerulean warbler has never evolved proper defenses to this non-native species). After Joey has moved in with his girlfriend's family, after a distraught Patty has consummated then ended her brief affair with Walter's former-college-roommate, the Berglund family, minus Joey, sets up house in a Georgetown mansion that doubles as headquarters for the Cerulean Mountain Trust.

With his assistant Lalitha, Walter visits his former roommate, Richard Katz, now a cultish rocker --- the songs he wrote after the demise of his affair with Patty have catapulted him to fame. Unaware of his wife's infidelity and hoping Richard will lend celebrity to his own cause, Walter explains his vision of creating a cerulean warbler preserve in West Virginia by first permitting coal extraction via mountain top removal. Walter believes that reclamation following mountain top removal (MTR) will mitigate much of the damage --- what's best about it is the preserve will be safe as no one will ever rip open the mined-out land again. Walter explains his perspective:

What’s given MTR such a bad name is that most surface-rights owners don’t insist on the right sort of reclamation. Before a coal company can exercise its mineral rights and tear down a mountain, it has to put up a bond that doesn’t get refunded until the land’s been restored. And the problem is, these owners keep settling for these barren, flat, subsidence-prone pastures, in the hope that some developer will come along and build luxury condos on them, in spite of their being in the middle of nowhere. The fact is, you can actually get a very lush and biodiverse forest if you do the reclamation right. … But the environmental mainstream doesn’t want to talk about doing things right, because doing things right would make the coal companies look less villainous and MTR more palatable politically.

Walter outlines his understanding of this confluence of finance, government, corporate interests, private investment and environmental cause then explains that this is merely a preliminary before he tackles the real problem: low-density development, fragmentation, and over-population. Reading the ins and outs of what is, for the well-intentioned Walter, an acceptable solution, glimpsing the compromise and deal-making and taint behind simple preservation of land for an endangered species is enough to smog a reader's mind for days. Unfortunately, it stinks of the truth and this is Franzen's horrifying point; this is where it’s at in America now, bloated bureaucracy and innumerable interest groups mean absolutely nothing is simple (or sacred). To create his preserve, Walter ends up making a deal so that displaced homeowners will be given jobs at a factory run by LBI, the oilfield services giant and government contractor that manufactures body armor and also happens to employ Walter's son, Joey. Father and son, then, are caught in the same web... what will they do? 

Despite the urgency of this environmental plot-line, the lifeblood of Franzen’s novel is Patty's marriage to Walter. Gracefully, compellingly, Franzen offers a reader his understanding of the crucial psychological underpinnings of their marriage, the emotional counterpoint that creates both consonance and discord: Patty's high school rape, and Walter's drunk father's cruelty. Raped by Ethan Post, the son of wealthy friends of her parents, Patty feels abandoned by her parents. A pragmatic lawyer, her father outlines what he believes will be her humiliation, not her rapist's: “Patty, the people at the party were all friends of his. They’re going to say they saw you get drunk and be aggressive with him. They’ll say you were behind a shed that wasn’t more than thirty feet from the pool, and they didn’t hear anything untoward.” Disappointed, hurt, Patty notes, “You’re not on my side, are you.” After rape and lack of justice, Patty becomes “a real player, not just talent” on the basketball court, a girl who is “no longer on speaking terms with physical pain.”

Her husband's childhood has been sculpted by a drunk father who favors his first-born son while doing his ample best to beat down his book-loving son, Walter; one of the father's favored tactics is to demand Walter perform the most humiliating chores at the family-run motel. In order to support his family in his father's demise, Walter gives up his dream of becoming a filmmaker so that he can work extra jobs while attending law school. When Walter, a natural caretaker, meets the needy Patty, he falls in love yet his knowledge of her rape makes him too sensitive, too careful, too respectful in bed and ultimately not as exciting as the more self-aware Katz. Thus Franzen animates these psychological portraits of Patty and Walter who blindly enter the inevitable crisis of mid-life in which Walter will choose between Patty and his assistant, Lalitha, an Indian-American raised in Missouri by engineer parents.

First seen through Katz's eyes, who describes her merely as an “Indian chick,” Lalitha is the notable exception in more ways than one within this comedy of errors (or Mistakes, as Patty would have it) among the middle class. I can’t argue with Franzen’s understanding of the separate fate of the one character of color as compared to the other characters. This is his vision after all, and it may very well be the true state of America in the earliest years of the Twenty-First Century. So, too, he may be correct in his understanding of greed as the natural yet unsavory offspring of a union of upper middle class and lower middle class (as embodied by Joey Berglund and Connie Monaghan). I’m not sure his perceptions are unfounded, so much as I fear them; Franzen unfortunately has done his job too well, seduced and implicated his readers too fully, so that seeing the truth played out in fictional form hits too close to home.  

Finally, mention must be given to the title of this novel. Although at first "Freedom" seems both too serious and too sprawling a word for what transpires on these pages, Franzen's ironic meaning becomes clear by novel's end. Hemmed in by government, big business, neighbors and the limitations of our own characters, our American freedom is as endangered as that of the cerulean warbler.


Review of ON BEAUTY

          By Zadie Smith

          Reviewed by Bonny Finberg

          I’ve been thinking about reincarnation and Zadie Smith— wondering if the tremendous insight and breadth of her vision are the result of many lives lived. But the more I think about it, the more convinced I become by the simpler idea that she experiences and processes what she sees and hears more deeply and quickly than most people do. There is always the sense of play as she gives us an unobstructed view of those things that transcend gender, class, and race—that is, most things at the core of being—delivered with immense humor and compassion for all concerned. The narrative occurs naturally out of the various intersections between these people, taking place in this Present World that we all wake up to and sleep as reprieve from, whatever Them or Us we belong to.

          Let’s start with Howard Belsey: an opinionated, hubristic type who knows what’s right, and insists that others take heed, while he fights various losing battles between his sexual boredom and his last stabs (no pun intended) at fading lust, not to mention his interminably “soon to be published” treatise on how Rembrandt has been overrated. He is an Englishman who teaches art history at a prestigious New England University through the lens of his left leaning politics, loves his African American wife, Kiki, and has raised three children, now teenagers, who have variously grown into Belsey-adherents or rebels, depending on their gender and age. Zora is her daddy’s girl, passionately aspiring to academic accomplishment and intellectual vigor. Jerome, being the oldest son, also follows his father’s intellectual path into academia, though he veers into forbidden territory, having gone on holiday to London, where he is staying with the family of Howard’s right wing nemesis, Monty Kipps. Howard and Monty are engaged in an ongoing academic feud about what constitutes Good vs. Bad Art. Easily acclimated into the Kipps milieu, Jerome finds himself in love with Victoria, the luscious Kipps daughter. This becomes further complicated by developments that would qualify as bordering on the surreal. Levi Belsey, 15 years old, is in the throes of teendom, and intent on hiding the fact that he lives in a privileged college town with the privileges afforded the family of a respected academic in a respected American University. He, rather, talks the talk and walks the walk of young Black men 250 miles away in New York City (none of the Belseys can figure out how he learned to talk like that) wears a head stocking, writes Rap lyrics, and gets involved with some African “Brothers,” street vendors, selling pirated DVD’s, CD’s and designer bag knockoffs. Howard and Kiki are both recuperating, at least trying to, from the crisis of Kiki’s discovery that Howard had a one-night stand.

          All the people but one in this novel have some physical flaw that puts their beauty into question, compensated for by some other virtue like wisdom, wit, talent or youth. This is most prominently true for Kiki Belsey, who at 54 has gained considerable weight since the time when she and Howard were young lovers brought together by sex and radical politics. Forthright, wise and emanating a beauty and style of her own, she tries to accept these changes gracefully, particularly challenging in the face of Howard’s own slip from grace. Howard’s attempts at damage control, on the other hand, are poignantly transparent, awkward, and familiar.

          Kiki and Howard, on a family outing, stand in line for a concert in the park, with their three children:

  Kiki began to giggle. Now Howard let go of Zora and held his wife instead, gripping her from behind. His arms could not go entirely around her, but still they walked in this manner down the small hill towards the gates of the park. This was one of the little ways in which he said sorry. They were meant to add up each day.

          Kiki, cautiously inching closer to forgiveness in the glow of a milestone anniversary and its requisite party, is further cast down the rabbit hole. Howard continues to try to “get out of this one,” stumbling, and yielding to temptation with the sad weakness of the 1950’s sitcom husband: Stupid Loveable Louse.
          Though in truth, no one in this novel comes across as a stereotype, quite the opposite, and no one is actually stupid. They only act stupid, often against their own best interests, and some more than others. The smartest choices and observations generally fall to the women. That brings us to the one exception in this book of flawed beauty. Victoria Kipps, possibly named after the lingerie line of the same name, is the ideal centerfold masturbation fantasy and she plays this (most hilariously during a sex scene) to the max. This eponymous Victoria has quite a few secrets of her own. While her characterological flaws mar her physical perfection, all the other paunch-bellied, ass-sagging, bespectacled, prominent-fore headed, awkward teen-aged humans are trying to do the right thing, even if imperfectly, with good intentions and relative humility.
          The Belseys and their friends and foes are people that one could easily know, or at least might have come into contact with. You don’t know how this will all come out until the last page, and even then, just as in life, there is still room for another turn of events, another slip up, a change of mind. It’s not over till it’s over and so, at its end, after you’ve closed the book and these fictional intimates are silenced, you may find yourself wishing for a sequel, or even a trilogy.

Review of "A Mercy" by Sarah Goodwin-Nguyen


Toni Morrison


Reviewed by Sarah Goodwin-Nguyen




How does one review a book by Toni Morrison?  Feelings of “I’m not worthy” are inevitable.  Reading a Toni Morrison novel is always an astounding, unsettling experience.   Morrison never shies away from bringing  her readers to the dark core of the matter, especially when that matter is the enslavement of human beings. 

A Mercy treads territory we’ve seen before in Morrison’s work, most notably in the Nobel Prize winning Beloved.  As in Beloved, Morrison takes on the daunting task of channeling the voices of slaves in pre-Civil War America.  One wonders how  a successful, educated, modern-day citizen of the U.S. of A. seems to understand so well what the lives of slaves must have been like.  Ms. Morrison’s amazing gift has always been her ability to create an authentic written voice for people who were unable to write their own stories.  Through this gift, she is able to give them and internal life greater than the obvious hardship of their situations.    

As usual, her characters, and their stories,  are complex, compelling, and real enough to walk off the page.  A Mercy watches the women of Jacob Vaark, an English trader recently come to the American frontier where he has inherited land in Maryland.  Though Jacob expresses some distaste for slavery, he accepts a young slave girl, Florens, in lieu of money to erase a nobleman’s debt.  The defining moment of Florens’ life is when Florens’ own mother offers her up to Jacob.  Florens believes her mother is preoccupied with her new baby boy, but Jacob suspects correctly that she wants to save Florens  from being forced into her master’s bed.  This is the profound, startling act of mercy in the novel’s title.


The act or idea of being orphaned is central to A Mercy.  Jacob was himself an orphan, and has a soft spot for unwanted children.  By the time he brings Florens home, he has already  acquired two other orphans to the household.  There is Sorrow, a silent, strange girl, the daughter of a pirate, who was found nearly-drowned by a sawyer who gave her to Jacob (the sawyer’s wife was unnerved by Sorrow’s sexual nature.)  Also, there is Lina, a Native-American  whose tribe was killed by smallpox.   The church that took her in as a child eventually sold her through and ad in the newspaper. 

Interestingly, Lina’s view of “Europes,” as her people called the whites, is that they have orphaned themselves from the earth, their mother: “They would come with languages that sounded like dog bark; with a childish hunger for animal fur.  They would forever fence land, ship whole trees to faraway countries, take any woman for quick pleasure, ruin soil, befoul sacred places and worship a dull, unimaginative god.  They let their hogs browse the ocean shore turning it into dunes of sand where nothing green can ever grow again.  Cut loose from the earth’s soul, the insisted on purchase of it soil, and like all orphans they were insatiable.”

The mistress of the household is Rebekka, Jacob’s wife by arranged marriage.   She is the headstrong daughter of poor, religious zealots, sent to America to the first stranger willing to pay a bride-price.  It’s interesting to note that none of the women in Jacob’s life ended up with him of their own free will.   Nonetheless, he treats them decently, and the hardship of life on the frontier turns them into a family.  But when Jacob becomes mortally ill, the women confront the reality that they are not a family: they are a man’s property.  They know that once Jacob is gone, is it only a matter of time before they are parceled off to other masters. 

Jacob’s upright character is, at first, irreproachable, especially compared to the other white Christians we meet in the novel who have somehow convinced themselves that they do “God’s work” by oppressing anyone different from themselves.  But after Rebekka gives birth to five boys and a girl who all die before their sixth birthday, Jacob’s character falters.  He is away from home more and more often, and squanders his wealth on impractical baubles, most notably, on increasingly bigger houses.  The last house he builds is gaudy and flimsy, falling apart before they ever move in.

 The only other men in the women’s lives are the kindly indentured servants from a neighboring property,  Scully and Willard,  who occasionally help out on Jacob’s property.  That is, until, a free, black African man, a blacksmith, arrives in their midst, unsettling the women.  Florens, especially, falls hopelessly in love.  Florens’ undoing will be the enraged jealousy she feels upon meeting the small orphan boy that the blacksmith has taken on as his own, dredging up memories of her own mother’s choice to keep her baby boy but send Florens away.

Morrison does not hand readers the story, but lets it unpeel.  Each character gets a chance a tell a bit of their tale in their own dialect, and only at the very end will we hear from Florens’ mother.  As in Beloved, the author moves backward and forward in time.  The theme in both novels (the unbelievable lengths a mother will do to spare her daughter) is the same, but A Mercy is slightly less harrowing.  Whereas the darkness in Beloved is unrelenting, A Mercy has moments of redemption.   Perhaps this is because A Mercy takes place in an earlier time.  America’s system of slavery was still in its infancy, and had not yet reached its brutal boiling point.       

The moral of A Mercy, though obvious, is stated in a succinct, rather unexpected manner by Florens’ mother.  At the end, we will learn how her tribe in Africa was invaded by another tribe.  Shockingly, her people were forced into slavery by other African blacks.  Those who survived the journey at sea were utterly stripped of their humanity in America.  Unforgettably, she says: “to be given dominion over another is a hard thing; to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion of yourself to anther is a wicked thing.”   



Poonam Srivastava

Hardcover: 288 pages Publisher: Free Press; 1 edition (April 22, 2008)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 1416562591

ISBN-13: 978-1416562597 Murder in India. It’s about time.

Review by Poonam Srivastava The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga is as rare amongst novels set in India as its namesake is in the world of animals. Winner of the Booker Mann Award, Adiga’s first novel takes the format of seven letters written by the main character, Balram Halvai to Wen Jibaou, visiting Chinese premier. These seven chapters, seven late night confessions, illuminate the journey of a desperate village boy from his birth into servitude to manhood in the midst of big city modernity and Bangalore. The   conversational voice of the main character spins the tale quickly and with much emotion but little sentimentality.

I leaned out from the edge of the fort in the direction of my village—and then I did something too disgusting to describe to you.

Well actually I spat. Again and again. And then, whistling and humming, I went back down the hill.

Eight months later, I slit Mr. Ashok’s throat.

What separates White Tiger is a sparseness of writing. The tale is poignant and can be read on many levels but one is not necessarily confined to a SubAltern Studies class merely by picking up the book. Still Adiga certainly does tackle modern India’s distinct schizophrenia, a country split in two: the Darkness and the Light. The Darkness is where our hero hails from and where he was fated to remain. An uncanny awareness of his place in the world allows him to exceed his peers, tea servers to become a driver, and a shocking capacity to act alone, to be a maverick, leads him to escape the Darkness and the consequences of his crime completely.

The story is told from the perspective of our killer/entrepreneur and in his own words. Many Indian reviewers have taken issue with the words in his mouth. Which Indian half-baked driver would know to say that assess are being kissed, they want to know. Which Indian ex-village boy would know to conjecture that the Light of modern India shines mainly on the coasts and it’s the rivers that demark the Darkness?

My problem with the book is that though many characters are evoked and are not developed. In my experience to live in India as a lone wolf is something near impossible. The radical Maoist group known as the Naxalite is evoked but not developed. I can believe that our hero has the luxury of freedom due to his job changes, which distance him from family and direct supervision. It’s his very isolation that empowers him to go where no Indian from the Dark or the Light has gone before. At least not in literature. However there seems to need be more force to push him to where he eventually does go, to the murder of his boss and to placing his entire family’s necks on the chopping block. I wanted to know more of this unique creature’s inner life. Yes he suffered and yes he’s sensitive (finding inspiration in architect and poetry), but what really is his trigger?

Our hero, unbelievable perhaps, is definitely desirable. If a Balram Halvai does not exist, we sure want him to. His closeness with his parents, his shock at his father’s ugly death and his likeness to his “crazy” mother, dead before the book begins, does give us some sense of his uniqueness and therefore the possibility of his trajectory. Also when faced with the social forces of conformity that are the Indian family and the class / caste system (referred to as the rooster coop) it takes a fiercely independent personality to shake off the determined role and be their own person. Perhaps it takes a certain psychosis to deal with a psychotic country.

Adiga has written a book of hope. He has fleshed out the country’s problems without much sorrowful lament.  In a world market where India and China are hailed as the next economic giants he exposes truths that have been buried or made exotic too long. Adiga’s book is a book that appeals to the hearts of people of Indian origin everywhere who are appalled at the treatment of some in India by others. It is also a book that finally shows how trapped even the rich are by their family pressures. Though the Haves in India do have it all, including the Have Nots, they too must obey. This book puts them on notice. The White Tiger is a step in the right direction. The next step would be a book by a writer who is a Balram Halvai, or his brother or sister, in her own voice. Until then, Adiga speaks with humor and heartfelt admiration for the masses that continue their mainly silent struggle in the veins and muscles and sewer pipes of the economic giant that is India.

The White Tiger is a fun read. The comic nature of the play between the influence of the west, and economic participation in the world of global markets, and the stranglehold of ancient privilidge dominates. At one point Balram’s employers bond over the fun they have at Balram’s pronunciation of the word pizza. Their fun ends when they themselves find they are not in agreement.  At another point Balram sneaks into the malls that are gaurded against his type simply by wearing full shoes and a T-shirt with very little writing. Then there is the scene behind the mall where four men are defecating in an open sewer and Balram squats next to them to vent about his boss/master’s demands that he take the rap for a homicide committed by his mistress. This scatological scene, with four men laughing deliriously in the solidarity of the oppressed, takes place directly behind one of those monuments to modernity of glass and steel and climate control.

You don’t have to know a lot about India to enjoy this book. However if you do, then you might pick up on several symbolisms. For one, the names of our hero: Balram is given that name by a school teacher. In myth, Balram is the Serpant of Shiva in his incarnation as Krisna’s brother. Krisna was the defender of the downtrodden. Also, he goes on to be christened White Tiger, an endangered and fierce predator.  Then when our hero has killed his enslaver and become his own man he takes the name Ashok Sharma. Sharma is a Brahmin name. That is the highest caste. Ashok is the name of the peace-loving emperor who embraced the philosophies of Bhudda. Bihar is one of the poorest states with one of the lowest literacy rates.

It interests me as a U.S. born person of Indian descent, who visits India on a regular basis, that the subject of servants finally be addressed in literature from this perspective. The Indian elite is moaning that this book is not a fair representation, that it glorifies the increasing trend of violent crimes perpetrated by servants on their bosses. Never does the Indian elite acknowledge, however, that in the twenty first century Indian servants are the closest beings to slaves on a institutional level on our endangered planet. When I visited a family in Gurgaon, the Delhi suburb that becomes the home of White Tiger’s main characters, I was told that the poor are weighing down progress. They are uneducable. How would you take someone from prehistory to modernity was the argument.

As this book suggests, if you don’t, they just might take matters into their own hands.

I recommend this book to everyone.

Review of Toni Morrison's "A Mercy"

Review for The Gathering of the Tribes www.tribes.orgReviewer:  Patricia Spears Jones December 29, 2008

Author/Editor    :    Toni Morrison Title:            A Mercy Publisher:        Alfred A. Knopf, Publisher, New York Publication Date    November, 2008 ISBN            978-0-307-26423-7 Price:            $23.95


A funny thing happened on the way to my reviewing A Mercy-about ten thousand other reviews all praising the work, some with restraint, and some lavishly have already been printed, blogged, audio taped.  I sort of had to step back and see if the commentary was about the book or the writer? Well, it seems a bit of both, so be it.  I agree that Toni Morrison is one our most important and impressive writers. She has a well-deserved Nobel Prize to show for her imagination, curiosity and craft.  Her characters, particularly the women, are complex, befuddled, brilliant, brutal, terrifying, sensual and moral.  There are types in her work, but no stereotypes.  She also understands the use of place, thematic construction, and moral import of those themes, which does not allow her novels to simply live in some rarefied arts for arts sakes space.  Toni Morrison is not interested in wasting her time on small ideas or issues, and yet there is a great deal of intimacy and intricate detail in her best work—some of the it, like the scenes in Beloved and even the opening to The Bluest Eye—are almost too brutal to bear.

In A Mercy she explores a number of issues that she’s looked at in other works: the psychological and experiential experience of enslavement; the destructive aspects of Christian piety and the spirituality of resistance; the brutal development and destruction of continent’s landscape from development and/or neglect; and how these crisis’s effect relationships between men and women.  But most of all she looks at how, why and when women come together in comradeship and how and why those groupings often fail.  This is a lot for a 167 page book to do and for the most part, she pulls it off.

A Mercy is narrated by a small group of characters who find themselves in 1690 somewhere in the southern part of what is now the United States—most likely Maryland.  Florens, a precocious African girl “confesses” at the beginning of the novel, telling the reader “Don’t be afraid. My telling can’t hurt you . . .” And ironically the story begins with her desire for shoes.  Her willfulness and her desires will be put to the test in the next 100 or more pages.  Most revealing, she is literate and writes her story on the walls of her master’s house, a house that starts to fall apart as soon as it is finished.  Florens’ fear of and rage against rejection flows from her relationship with her mother, who gives/shoves her away at the very moment she seeks protection.  But it is for her protection that her mother gives/shoves away as her mother declares at the book’s end.

Women’s powerlessness is stated from the book’s very beginning.  How women respond and resist these limits tests all of their relationships, particularly the maternal ones--is that my mother? Why did she contract me or send me away or why can’t she feed me?  The disconnection between mothers and children was in full flower in the 17th century—whether African, native or European because of wars in Europe and Africa; imperial aspirations, new products and new markets.  A Mercy shows these things becoming.  And in that, it examines how the position of women helped to advance these new and dangerous phenomena, particularly the exploitation and sale of children into bondage.  Women owned nothing of their lives except their spirit and much was done to break or compromise their language, rituals, familial connections, and beliefs.

Thus, Florens writing her own story on a wall represents pure resistance.  First, she’s not supposed to be able to read or write.  Moreover, Florens reads signs as well as words. Second, she enters and writes on the wall of her master’s house. And finally she tells her truth and it’s pretty horrific. Florens story follows the trip she is made to take at her mistress behest.  She is to find and bring back a blacksmith, a healer who also happens to be a Free Man of Color.  This journey is both physically and psychologically dangerous to Florens and to the other women and men left behind on the farm.  When Florens arrives at the point where she must continue to follow her mistress’ instructions even though it is very late, Morrison writes:  “Hard as I try I lose the road.  Tree leaves are too new for shelter. . The sky is the color of currants.  Can I go more, I wonder. Should I. Two hares freeze before bounding away. I don’t know how to read that.”  At the end of this passage, Florens states: “My plan for this night is not good.  I need Lina to say how to shelter in wilderness.”

It is the character of Lina that Morrison brings out a wide range of values, ideas, and intuitions.  Lina is native to the continent.  Hers is the land that has been seized by Europes”.   She survives a small pox epidemic and is taken in by “kindly Presbyterians.” But they can’t quite Christianize her.  When the opportunity to leave her happens, they do so “without so much as a murmur of farewell.” But Lina finds a way to live and work for “Sir” (JacobVaark) and his new wife, Rebekah.  The novel shows how Lina and Rebekah forge an unlikely friendship as they work a farm owned by a man who hates farming, even as he idealizes the farmer’s life.  Lina’s critique of the Vaarks is not so much unique as appropriate.  These newcomers-- the Europes-- to the land and their brethren (Anabaptists, Presbyterians, Papists) bring religion that excludes and dis-empowers people such as her, and allows for the misuse of natural resources.  She resists these beliefs with what she remembers of her people’s language and rituals.  She compromises where she can and she tries to “mother” Florens and neutralize Sorrow, who is pregnant and listless, whom she sees as cursed.  She tries to be the best servant ever to her mistress.  But the master’s death changes these precarious relationships and Lina loses her capacity to keep her own faith; to follow what is left of her culture.

The Vaarks-Jacob and Rebekah-Europes whose farm brings these and other characters together are interesting in that they articulate competing ideas brought from Europe.  Vaark supposedly hates slavery and yet takes on Florens as part of a debt payment from a Portuguese slaver.  Rebekah is a mail order bride. Had she not found a husband, she would have been indentured like Scully and Willard, the two white males working on the farm (and as amiable a gay couple as you’ll find in American fiction).  The idealized self-sufficiency of this couple is undermined by their children’s deaths, thus no heirs; their religious beliefs that leave them spiritually deficient; and finally by Vaark’s death.

Throughout A Mercy, Morrison looks at how certain issues and ideas that would become part of our nation’s culture and history are in the making in the seventeenth century—the nascent Golden Triangle: slaves, molasses, rum; the conflict between Protestants and Catholics as a stand in for empire building between Northern and Southern Europe; the lack of any kind of business ethics especially when it came to the contracts for indentured servants--Scully and Willard’s difficulty in figuring out just how much longer was their service to Vaark); the fear and ignorance of the European settlers and how that ignorance was used to demonized Africans and native people; how the putdown of rebellions led to Black Codes—a way to divide and conquer oppressed people.  And again, she does this with extraordinary economy using her characters’ experiences to advance the narrative and to reflect upon these problems, all flowing from the death of the patriarch.

Indeed, another name for this book could have been The Death of the Patriarch.  Much of its narrative power comes from Rebekah, Florens, Lina, Scully and Willard, even Sorrow’s reactions to Jacob Vaark’s death.  Those left behind are bereft of a place in a fluid yet hierarchical society.  Rebekah who had been seen as kind and fair becomes a pious and brutal mistress.  Rebekah’s changed behavior symbolizes her loss of status and her fear of the future.  As Scully muses near the end of the book: “They once thought they were a kind of family because together they had carved companionship out of isolation. But the family they imagined they become was false. Whatever each one loved, sought or escaped, their futures were separate . . .”

And as Florens writes on the mansion’s wall, that future is a dark and awful one.  Not only does she lose the shoes she so desired, but also the man she thought wanted her –the blacksmith.  Her story includes a description of the hurt she put on him after he rejects her calling her a slave, but what he really rejects is her sense of sexual agency. Morrison’s skill in showing female rage is a wonder to read/behold.  “You say I am wilderness. I am.  Is that a tremble on your mouth, in your eye? Are you afraid? You should be.”

But ultimately, it is not that rage that Morrison wants us to look at, it is that lack of agency by these women; the impossibility to mother children when you cannot protect them.  In the final chapter Florens mother says her piece.  And here is where A Mercy gets too tidy for me.  The mother’s commentary on her daughter’s pubescence is important and her “Sophie’s choice” idea of giving her girl to a man who seemed unlikely to harm her makes sense for this story.  But while her choice will only buy a little time for her child, the novel ends with these ringing but I almost think too easily rung words:

“ to be given dominion over another is hard thing; to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion to another is a wicked thing.”  I certainly agree with this expression, but it reduces the emotional power of the novel—it is as if she wants to say Reader I want to make sure you understand just exactly what I have been saying for the past 160 pages or so.  I think she should have trusted her readers to get it.  In many ways, the novel really ends with the hard soles of Florens unshod feet.

A Mercy is an important book with a strong central narrative, women characters you find yourself caring about as they try, but cannot be family because there is no way in which they can act on their own or in their own interests without becoming “wilderness.”  Morrison started many years ago to explore the untold stories in American culture and here she is three decades later still finding stories to tell.  With this book, she fights against our collective cultural amnesia about property rights, marriage, and bondage that relies on and upholds the power and abuses of the patriarchy.

Morrison is novelist who uses her vast intelligence, intense passion and growing sagacity to express her version of what matters this new world was founded upon: morally, legally, philosophically.  Race and gender play crucial parts.  Her telling can’t hurt us because she understands that with this telling the lives of women and men at a particular moment when a culture was in formation is only now starting to be more fully told.  Florens’ story written on the mansion’s decadent wall is an act of extraordinary generosity.  It is as if Morrison is saying we need to see how much wilderness we need to be if we are to really see/read our national identity.  Or as Dolly Parton sings “wild flowers grow where they grow.”

Sarah Goodwin-Nguyen's Review of "The White Tiger"

“The White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga

Reviewed by Sarah Goodwin-Nguyen

Free Press, 2008, 304 page      The winner of this year’s prestigious Booker Prize focuses on a young man’s rise from the slums of modern India. Balram Halwai is the owner of a taxi fleet; he is also a wanted killer. He tells his life story through letters (written in English) to the Premier of China who is soon to visit Balram’s city of Bangalore .  Outsourcing for American companies is the main industry in Bangalore, but Balram explains that this sort of entrepreneurship is not available to India’s lower classes, who do not receive proper education, and very rarely have electricity.  Balram suggests to Premier Jiabao that there is another, darker form of entrepreneurship alive and well in India in the form of criminal activity. 

As a boy, Balram excelled in school, a rarity for boys of his caste.  His family dubbed him “The White Tiger,” then pulled him out of school to work.  Balram’s station in life seems fixed, but Balram continues his education by eavesdropping on customers.  Eventually, he ingratiates himself to a wealthy family of landlords and moves to Dehli to become their driver.

Balram is treated as an object of convenience for his despicable masters.  Balram lives in a tiny, filthy room, and is on call at all times.  He is expected to give foot massages, care for the master’s lap dogs (who are better fed than he is), and endure any humiliation the employers see fit.  His immediate master, Ashok, was educated in the West.  At first, Balram admires Ashok’s worldly ways, but soon learns to despise Ashok’s inability to stand up to his father, his failure to hold onto his sophisticated wife, and his weakness for whiskey.  

When Balram is expected to take the blame for a hit-and-run which killed a homeless child (Ashok’s wife was drunk behind the wheel,) Balram confronts the lack of humanity with which the rich are allowed to treat the poor.  Balram describes life as a servant in India as “the Rooster Coop.” The entire class system is devised to keep him in.  He laments the complacency of the other servants and the arrogance of their masters who fear no retribution for their abuses. 

Balram is aware that India is changing, being influenced by Western capitalism.  But, despite promises by the Socialist government, the prejudices of an ancient caste system are still in place, and a stupendous gap between rich and poor remains.  Balram, recently saddled with a young nephew sent to him by his grandmother, becomes desperate for a way out.  He decides to murder Ashok, steal a bag of money Ashok plans to use to bribe an official, and drive off in his master’s air-conditioned Honda to a new life.    

Adiga has created a sympathetic anti-hero in Balram.  Balram is decidedly not sorry for murdering his boss, or for stealing, or for abandoning his family who will probably pay with their lives for his crime.  How else, Adiga seems to asks, could Balram escape the poverty and oppression caused by India’s caste system?  The problem is not necessarily Balram’s lack of scruple: it is that a man locked in cage may try to tear his way out. 

Balram’s ambivalence is complicated by the fact that Balram’s murdered boss, Ashok, is not a cruel man.  He is spoiled and weak.  He bribes officials, sleeps with prostitutes, and drinks English whiskey because that is what men of his station do.  He is unable to relate to his thoroughly modern wife, or to be with the woman of a lower caste he once loved.  Ashok seems as trapped in his life as a landlord as Balram is in his as a servant.  

There is nothing magical or sensuous about the India of The White Tiger. The author, through Balram, offers a scathing portrait of a country rife with gritty poverty, corrupt officials, and elitist mores. Adiga’s Dehli is drawn as two very different cities.  For the rich, Dehli is a land of swanky malls and nightclubs.  Meanwhile, the poor keep warm with fires set in trashcans and urinate in the gutters.  The existence of each world is dependent on not looking to closely at the other.  In a moment of drunken indiscretion, Ashok visits Balram’s room in the servants’ quarters and is shamefully unaware that such squalor exists in his very own home.     

           Adiga-as-Balram is irreverent and sly.  He uses language that is suitably coarse and without poetry,  a counterpoint to more lyrical literature by Indian writers like Salman Rushdie or Bharati Mukhergee. Overall, the effect is a smart, engaging, and entertaining read. 

The novel’s one flaw may be its utter lack of surprise or suspense due to the narrative framing device;  Balram admits to murdering his boss at the beginning of the book.   Luckily, the novel echoes the mystery magazines enjoyed by Balram’s fellow drivers, promising “Rape, Murder, and Mayhem:” Though the outcome is foretold, the interest lies in the lurid details.  

Review of: Ma Jian, Beijing Coma, trans. Flora Drew (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008)

In Remembrance of Things Past, as we've all read, the author is able to recall events from the distant past with tremendous sensory detail after tasting a madeleine cake. In Ma Jian's Beijing Coma, a similarly monumental recall is instituted, not by an experience, but by a unique situation. Struck down by a bullet to the head, the protagonist lies comatose in bed, but, while unable to move, communicate or see, he can still think clearly. Being taken care of by his isolated mother, a retired singer, he has little to occupy his mind but memories, particularly of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in which he was one of the leaders, and at which, when the military cracked down, he was shot.

Sound Unbound - Review

Aaron Hayes When reading great thinkers, it is natural to wonder whether these people’s lives were any different from ours, whether their insights into the nature of reality and the world we live in allowed them some sort of super powers, or at least greater happiness, or something – especially nowadays with these intellectuals who can ‘see through’ the false images of society into the deeper forces working below us.  But I suspect that today, like any age, the philosophers remain blinded by the truth and so stumble around without actually doing anything, sightless oracles revealing to us the truths of postmodernism, etc., expecting something from those who act in the world, hoping for others to live guided by their wise instruction, to be able to understand the implications of what has been revealed to them.

Or maybe today might be different, in that the truths that are interpreted and discussed by the philosophers are precisely those forces and flows which everyone already participates in, and so the task is better understood as a coming to terms with what is here already.  Still, there remains a very interesting social gap between the thinkers and theorists in the academic towers, and the doers and the practitioners on the street level.  This gap, a strange fence which causes undue drag on the flows between the two preventing the otherwise natural movement, hides the fact that the dichotomy it hopes to perpetuate (pick your favorite name) doesn’t really work anymore. 

We all know that, yet it still operates.  It operates because few of us are able to move as individuals between the two.  We specialize in thinking about something, or in doing something, and taking up both as a task leaves our authority in either open to question.  But the answer was never really the generalist; the generalist could only draw diagrams (though valuable ones).  The answer lies in how we discuss, who we talk to, and what we talk about.  The general practice of talking to each other, learning, teaching, and playing in groups, requires some change if we want to get any of these flows of ideas to work right.

(Sound Unbound)

Without grasping the challenge facing contemporary discourse, it is easy to miss the significance of the recent MIT Press publication, Sound Unbound.  Edited by DJ Spooky (that subliminal kid), or Paul Miller, whichever name you feel more appropriate for an editor, this book contains interviews with composers, essays by important lawyers, cultural studies theorists, and many others.  The subtitle, otherwise known as the feeble attempt at thematizing an immensely eclectic series of essays (and a CD mix) is: sampling digital music and culture.  Sampling, the art of the DJ, is driven by musical aesthetics, and the aspect of intuitive groove among all the essays is perhaps the only unifying factor.  10 years ago, digital music and culture might have referred to a somewhat small and relatively rich segment of civilization (a nice, clean, focused topic), but today encompasses much more of the mainstream, and hence much more of the important, powerful, and decisive issues which artists create and audiences experience.

This is not to say there are no strong themes which unify many of the essays in the book.  Much of the work of Sound Unbound comes together to create a well thought out strategic positioning about intellectual property rights against the brutal legalism of the large media conglomerates who, in grand efforts of self preservation (or total domination, depending on your optimism or pessimism), are trying to criminalize the use of media in the face of increased technological freedom.  For those who tire of the shallow moralizing of the mainstream discussions of digital rights, many of the ideas in Sound Unbound are very refreshing.

Another common theme, though by no means ever-present, is a head-on look at the development of technology as it relates to musical creation and the changes of musical styles, not only concerning Boulez and the avant-garde, but also jungle, hip-hop, and easy listening.  Of course, the discussions of music and technology are an almost essential part of 20th century music history.  But this is not your average lab coat and thick glasses theorizing about the implications of spectral analysis on real time quadraphonic distribution.  Flowing naturally into these discussions come ancient deities and pop music producers, asking to be taken just as seriously as the latest IRCAM experiments.

In fact, one of the main weaknesses of the book is the contributions of Boulez and Reich.  Containing almost no reflections of any broad significance, the interviews and Riech’s introduction to the book read like some boring fanzine: ‘well, I used some technology, then I used some different technology, then I stopped for a while, and now I am using some technology again.’  However seriously one takes the other discussions of the book, it would have been nice to read the thoughts of these composers today, and not the same thoughts they have been having for 20 years (which, by the way, was 1988, in case some of you old people forget).

In an interesting way, this book is actually lacking in the traditional style of scholarship and the scholarly music – not through negligence, but in an appropriately destructive manner.  Sound Unbound is not a scholarly work, it is better.  In the past, these sorts of discourses were given voice out of some liberal moral obligation to let everyone be heard and respected.  But now, this book shows that the life of musical thought and thoughtful music can be found in many places, that the musical realization of our most profound ideas can be found in many other styles and practices than could have been previously admitted.

To illustrate the diversity of the book, consider a few highlights: writer Jonathan Lethem’s essay “The Ecstasy of Influence” traces all of its phrases to other sources; Cultural Studies scholar Dick Hebdige writes about the differences and similarities between US culture in the ‘60s and today; Google lawyer Daphne Keller writes about intellectual rights and copyright law; Philosopher Manuel DeLanda writes about the connections between evolutionary systems and musical systems; Artists Evelina Domnitch and Dmitry Gelfand discuss their use of sonoluminescence in one of their recent installations; Chuck D offers some raps -- and many more, all coming together, not in any thematic way, but in a much more subtle, aesthetic grouping which just somehow works.

Included with the book is a CD mix of DJ Spooky (who also contributes his thoughts via printed text).  This mix uses material culled from the Sub Rosa sound archives ( and contains samples of James Joyce, Sonic Youth, Phillip Glass, and quite a few other recorded voices and sounds mixed together in interesting ways.  The amount of information it contains and plays with is overwhelming, in some ways like the whole project, as many interesting ideas and sounds as possible fit into one publication. 

The scholarly validity of this collection of essays is of no importance; it creates its own validity by opening up a new way of connecting ideas and people.  As a consequence, it must be approached on its own terms.  If, in the end, the stories of crazy cyberpunk numerologists or the Deleuzian nature of dub and jungle isn’t accessible to you for whatever reason, there is still something for everyone.  What makes this book different is that these other voices are not so easily ignored.  Other worlds are opened up next to each other, and the flow increases.

America's Child

The Sixties were a bend in the river—-a river that seems to be in danger of going the way of the Rio Grande—dried up. Susan Sherman traces the gathering currents of this river at the confluence between some of its major tributaries. For her it begins in Los Angeles in the Forties and Fifties, which was by then the heart of America’s image-making machine. Her transformation follows the larger social trajectory of a country that rose victorious and prosperous from a world war. First are her frustrated early attempts to keep step with the world of toothpaste smiles, tidy lawns, backyard barbeques, martini cocktail hours, and non-filtered cigarettes. With her move to Berkley at nineteen, and the ensuing, age-specific progression of influences, relationships and their resulting liberations and limitations, she begins her five-decade investigation into political and social change and the power and beauty of language.