Thursday, August 15, 2019

“Hope, Health, and Happiness”: A Review of 100 Secrets From the World’s Happiest Centenarians, by Dr. Elizabeth Lopez

 (Leader’s Press, 2019). ISBN (ebook) 978-1-943386-54-3
Longevity is a topic under much discussion in the twenty-first century, although humans have always been fascinated by those who live to the triple digits. But it is not just a matter of quantity—at least not to me—but of quality, and that is the draw and value of this important book by Dr. Elizabeth Lopez.
A trained psychologist, Lopez focuses on the Nicoya region of Costa Rica, known for a high percentage of centenarians, despite the economic struggles and lack of adequate food and water that have also led to a high infant mortality rate. Through face to face interviews with numerous centenarians, Lopez teases out the overlapping elements that create the physical and psychological conditions conducive to a long life.
Some are not surprising, while others truly do make you stop and assess the way you live your life.
Lopez’s research extends from a “Blue Zone” (places where the percentage of centenarians is unusually high) expedition to the region in 2007, funded by National Geographic and CNN. Second only to Sardinia in its proportion of centenarians, Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula is a statistical anomaly worth studying, and Lopez does a tremendous job of bringing the humanity and energy of her interview subjects to life through extensive quotations and photographs that could easily have come from the pages of National Geographic. The vitality and spirit of the people in those photographs is proof enough that what is revealed in the text works.
It should come as no surprise, after reading this book, that Costa Rica is also often voted one of the happiest places on Earth. Happiness cannot be underestimated when it comes to longevity. The Harvard Grant and Glueck Study took place over 75 years and showed that strong relationships make people happy and keep them healthy. I had watched a TED talk a few years ago by the director of the study, Robert Waldinger, who is quoted in this book. The talk is available on YouTube.
Lopez’s mother is from Guanacaste, the region where the study area is situated and it was a place she visited as a child. That history gives an underlying connective energy to the narrative that would not have been possible were she an outsider.
Some of the most striking common features of centenarians in the region are that their culture and society are collective. With resources scarce and material comforts not a priority, the people of Guanacaste and the Nicoya Peninsula rely on each other. Out of this comes a respect for the elders of the community—a practice sadly lacking in the United States, where we now talk about Ageism and the Sandwich Generation and the gaps between youth and their elders are not so much learning opportunities as a source of mutual disrespect.
Another feature is a deep faith in God in an area where the Catholic Church’s influence is strong. As America becomes increasingly secular, it will be important to see if a common spirituality emerges or if Atheism and its danger of leading to Nihilism and despondency will prevail.
Community cannot be emphasized enough. The centenarians interviewed are “optimistic and easy-going” and exhibit “low neuroticism.” They love music (especially marimba) and dancing and gathering together with members of all generations. They also take great pride in their ability to care for themselves. The centenarians in Costa Rica began work at a young age and continued working until they were in their eighties or, in some cases, their nineties. And the work was hard—in the fields from dawn to dusk—but fulfilling. They were all walkers as well, sometimes covering miles in a day.
A similar case study can be found in the Introduction to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, where he discusses the town of Roseto, Pennsylvania, which has an Italian immigrant community with many of the same dynamics as in the Nicoya Peninsula. Not surprisingly, the people are atypically happy, healthy, and living long lives free of disease and addiction.
100 Secrets is gorgeous, with a colorful and inviting graphical layout that allows Lopez to present the core data in numerous, easily digestible and memorable formats. A table in the back charts the centarians’ names, key characteristics, and related quotes.  
The Recipes section highlights the diet of the centenarians, which is a crucial component of their longevity and, more important—their vitality. I intend to try them all.
In one of the review blurbs that open the book, author Doug Smith reports that “someone born today has a 50/50 chance of living to 100.” It is important to keep in mind that quantity is nothing without quality. I have seen evidence of this over and over with members of my family. So if it is your goal to be a centenarian, apply the characteristics, mindsets, habits, and try the recipes shared by Lopez—they will make the difference.  

It should be noted in closing that a portion of the proceeds from the sale of this book will go toward supporting Costa Rica’s centenarians. Just one more reason to buy this book and start applying its lessons without delay.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

“Old Hickory”: A Review of Jackson: The Iron Willed Commander, by Paul Vickery

(Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2012). ISBN: 978-1-947654-89-1

If all you know about the seventh president of the United States is that his is the long, chiseled face and mass of white hair on the twenty dollar bill, you’ve been missing out.
This excellent biography begins with a prologue covering the rabble-rousing ruckus that was Jackson’s inauguration on March 4, 1829. Jackson was a new kind of candidate—unlike his six predecessors in this still-new nation, he was a “man of the people.” In no way an insider, this rugged frontiersman who broke the mold of presidents coming from Massachusetts or Virginia had strong beliefs and was never afraid to defend or act on them. The outgoing president, John Quincy Adams, refused to attend.
Not unlike Alexander Hamilton, Jackson was a “willful boy with a chip on his shoulder” (6) and a mess of contradictions—a daily lifelong reader of scripture, he was also known for his ability to swear with the best of them. He and his brothers fought in the American Revolution, starting Jackson’s complex relationship with death and loss and his ability to carry on despite being wounded. Also like Hamilton, he had a penchant for duels. He had at least three, the second of which resulted in his being wounded in the torso and his killing his opponent, and the third resulting in his carrying a bullet in his body for years after. While taking his law degree, Jackson solidified his reputation as a “roaring, rollicking, game-cocking, horse-racing, card-playing, mischievous fellow” (15).
A great deal of Jackson’s controversy stems from an innocent clerical error. The love of his life, Rachel, had been in a terrible marriage. Leaving her abusive husband she fell in love with and married Jackson, although she was technically not divorced. Jackson’s enemies—and they were considerable—would use this against him, raising his ire as they portrayed the innocent Rachel as a bigamist and unwholesome woman.
True to his style, he defended her to the end.
In addition to the perceptions of his marriage, another aspect of Jackson’s life that cannot be ignored is his fierce actions as an Indian fighter. The controversial stage musical Bloody Andrew Jackson a decade ago brought all of this back to life and at least two productions of the award-winning musical have been canceled in the last few years because of protests by Native Americans. Jackson was given the title of “Long Knife” by his Indian allies for bravery, although it took on dark connotations as he fought against the Indians allied with the Spanish and British.
His growing popularity in the newly formed state of Tennessee led to his election to Congress in 1796, where he was once again seen as a brash outsider. He returned the next term as a senator, but politics did not suit him as well as the military, and by 1802 he was a major general in the Tennessee militia.
Jackson’s role in and around New Orleans is the core focus of his life and legacy. He was one player on an international stage that involved the Spanish, Napoleon, Jefferson, and the Louisiana Purchase. There were also a slew of nefarious personalities like Aaron Burr, who had ironically killed Hamilton in a duel, and General James Wilkinson, an agent provocateur if ever there was one. In the treason trial that was to come, implicating Burr and others, Jackson took Burr’s side, going so far as to go to Richmond, VA to testify on his behalf.
This is a fascinating time in American history, worthy of the cinema and the stage and Vickery does an excellent job of offering a primer and context to the larger story while focusing on Jackson.
On the heels of these events came the Creek War. On the strength of his continuing bravery, Jackson had a new nickname—Old Hickory. With America currently at a crossroads in how it talks about and moves forward from its history of repression and genocide again the Indians, books like this provide crucial context for the campaigns against and removal of Indians. In the case of Jackson, he believed he had a duty to defend the United States and, at times, this led to censure by commanders, threats of mutiny by his men, and dangers to his often fragile health. But Old Hickory would not be daunted, and his actions earned him a commission in the US Regular Army. He was not afraid to carry out executions to maintain discipline and he amassed essential victories in the southern campaigns of the War of 1812.
I have read a lot of military history in the past quarter century and can say without reservation that the chapters on the lead-up and waging of the Battle of New Orleans are some of the best I have read. Vickery deftly handles the role of pirates and privateers like Jean Lafitte, the shifting alliances with the Native Americans, the intricacies of the maneuvers of the armies, and even the post-battle burial and housekeeping practices without letting the dramatic pace of the sights and sounds die in the details. 
Following the battle, in which Jackson was the acknowledged hero, his persistent drive to secure the spoils of victory and answer the so-called Indian Question caused friction with the locals and his superiors, but Jackson never slowed. His efforts culminated in the First Seminole War, which resulted in America wresting control of Florida (with the exception of the fort at St. Augustine) from the Spanish in 1818. Jackson encouraged President Monroe to allow him to go on to take the fort and Cuba, although he was literally spitting blood from the fatigues of battle.
Riding his military popularity and displacement of the Indians, Jackson became president, but not without more controversy. In his first campaign, he lost to John Quincy Adams, although Jackson had won both the popular and electoral votes. In the Electoral College, the firebrand Henry Clay supported Adams and then became his Secretary of State. Amazing how nothing changes on Capitol Hill. The result of the outcome was the start of the Democratic Party. In a “vitriolic and personal campaign” (193) Jackson got his revenge on Adams, his camp even accusing the sitting president of “pimp[ing] for the czar [of Russia] and provid[ing] sex slaves.”
You see… things really haven’t changed.
A casualty of the vicious election was Jackson’s beloved Rebecca, who died before he could take office. An office she wished he hadn’t sought.
In another parallel with modern presidential history, Jackson was quick to use the Veto and believed in cycling his Cabinet to keep them “sharp and compliant.” He didn’t want their opinions. He demanded their unwavering support. And his controversies continued. He made sure the Bank of the United States wasn’t re-chartered and oversaw the General Removal Act, which led to the Trail of Tears under Van Buren and other atrocities against Native American tribes.
The heart of history is the complexity of those who were involved in the events that shaped the world. Vickery, a professor of History at Oral Roberts University and accomplished living history presenter, does an excellent job of balancing his assessments of both Jackson’s strengths and his weaknesses. This is one of three things we can demand of our historians. The other two are getting the facts straight and being a talented enough writer that reading their books isn’t like chewing hay and sawdust. Vickery excels at all three.
Jackson: The Iron Willed Commander is part of “The Generals” series, edited by the noted author Stephen Mansfield. I will be reviewing Vickery’s book on George Washington in the months to come. I am very much looking forward to it.





Thursday, July 18, 2019

A Review of Soothing the Savage Swamp Beast, by Zakary McGaha

 (Bizarro Pulp Press, an imprint of JournalStone, 2019). ISBN: 978-1-947654-89-1
If you are looking for a weird but fun ride this summer, this novella might just be for you. But a quick word of warning. Know what you’re getting into. As you’ll notice, this is published by Bizarro Pulp Press. So let’s get some definitions from Wikipedia:
Bizarro fiction: a contemporary literary genre, which often uses elements of absurdism, satire, and the grotesque, along with pop-surrealism and genre fiction staples, in order to create subversive, weird, and entertaining works.
Pulp fiction: lurid, exploitative, and sensational subject matter
So, Bizarro Pulp… you can only imagine. And you should.
But this label has nothing to do with quality. Although it is in many ways the ink-on-paper analog of Slasher Films, complete with lots of violence, sex, and, well… bizarreness, it can also be just as fine and releasing as a Rob Zombie film.
If that’s your sort of thing. If it is, read on. I don’t read a lot of Bizarro, but I have read and reviewed some anthologies and stand-alones. Knowing what I am getting when I am going in, I adjust my mindset and just enjoy, if the author’s talent allows.
Because all the same standards apply. You need interesting characters with an arc, and an at least semi-cohesive narrative and an interesting problem to solve.
Although, in Bizarro, the characters are often deeper in the shit at the end than when they started. And this is truly its appeal.
Life isn’t always jolly. And this subgenre revels in it.
Earlier this year I read and reviewed McGaha’s debut novel, Locker Arms. It was a fun homage to small town high school politics with an overlay of edgy horror. It seems the trend in modern horror is to make it a social commentary on towns and families—the way Stephen King has always done it—and it works.
So I was a little surprised as I began to read Soothing the Savage Swamp Beast. As far as Locker Arms went on the sex and violence scale—and it went pretty far (I am not a prude)—the follow-up novel from this college-aged writer of promise goes plenty farther. And the circumstances do go considerably off the rails.
In other words—McGaha did his job in writing Bizarro Pulp.
Soothing the Savage Swamp Beast (the cover of the book recalls the film O Brother Where Art Thou? but dressed in a provocative surrealism) primarily concerns the little lives of a couple named Vogel and Aldert who live in a backwater town, eking by with little expectation and even less imagination. Like Locker Arms, much of the story takes place in a school where Vogel teaches. Hopelessness and ennui prevail. Hormones rage, violence simmers, and, although some of the teachers and students—usually while stoned—dream or blab about getting out, they know the odds are infinitely against them.
In the downward spiral of the socioeconomic Cycle of Shit that is the end result of rampant neoliberalism, they are swimming with the turds that have inevitably trickled down.
To pass the time, Vogel reads a book. An odd little number like the one by Fingerling in The Number 23, although this one is written by Intentionally Anonymous (IA). It’s chock full of serpent-symbols and ill omens, which makes it compelling but complex reading. The book’s contents recur throughout the narrative, undergirding and commentating upon it, and, in the final few pages, the reader is given the template to write one of their own. If they dare.
The characters around which Vogel and Aldert constellate are mostly engaged in a stunning dance of dueling simplicities. Carnal. Visceral. And born of the understandable hopelessness that comes with knowing you are Nowhere and will be there Forever. Even the community college kids are screwed, despite current propaganda to the contrary.
McGaha, as well read and gifted as any mainstream writer, is never afraid to let the reader know that he takes none of this too seriously. He swims with turds of his own devise and the ink on the page is smiling. An interlude about a third of the way through, titled “Cheesy Existentialism,” is a case in point. We shouldn’t take any of this too much to heart. It’s a romp, a fantasy—but chock full of hard and prickly truths.
Again reminiscent of O Brother, another central character is Junior Hicks (gotta love the name), a native of the eastern Tennessee town of Johnson City (do you hear the lyrics to “Wagon Wheel”?). He lives back to nature but woos the crowds with his old timey, down homey fiddle-playin’ and croonin’, which serve as a potent form of preachin’. He could be at least one banjo-pickin’ character’s way out of Nowhereville, or just as easily his ticket to destinations even worse.
Junior’s got layers.
It’s a little before half way that things get real weird, real fast—like most contemporary horror—including Vogel being attacked and telling the operator just after, Juliette Lewis style, “There’s a crazy dude in my house. I stabbed him.”
When Aldert is exposed to a mysterious, supernatural goop that ups his physique and sexual appetite, things truly start to unravel. Vogel looks to IA’s book for answers as thing collapse around her.
The answers are not forthcoming.
Classic Bizarro-Pulp.
As I was writing this review, news broke that McGaha’s third novel will be available in September. We can only guess what horrific wonders await.


“An Innovator, Always”: A Review of Eileen R. Tabios’ Witness in the Convex Mirror

(Kāne’ohe, HI: Tinfish Press, 2019, ISBN: 978-0-9987438-9-9)
It is always a special day when a new work by this innovative and energetic writer arrives in my mailbox. Over the past 10 years, I’ve reviewed about 20 percent of Tabios’ over fifty published works, at times being inspired to be as innovative as the poet and the particular work in how I did so.
Part of her ability to be so prolific is the way she reworks, recycles, and reimagines her own writings and the writings of others—in this case, as the Author’s Note indicates: “Each poem begins with 1 or 1–2 lines from ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ by John Ashbery.” In many of my previous Tabios reviews I talk at length about her various means of working with existing pieces to create something new, so I won’t belabor it here. Instead, I’ll say that ALL work a writer or other artist produces is linked to and derivative of something—many things—that have come before.
Tabios simply has the self-awareness to be up front about it, even when it is more ephemeral than repurposing lines from another poet’s already existing poem.
Although Tabios has always been to some extent political, be it the Filipino diaspora, 9/11 and the world ever since, or the complexities of gender or adoption for adopter and adoptee, I found Witness in the Convex Mirror to take it to a new level. And the clue is in the substitution of Witness for Self-Portrait. As many a wise and wizened soul has told us, to Witness is to be responsible to Speak. And speak Tabios does, on a variety of pressing subjects in a hurting and hurtful world. So this review will be less about the technical achievement and more about the content of the poems and the responses they evoke.
Within the first few poems, Tabios makes her declarations on the state of things. Take these lines from “History”:
“We imbue objects with worth as determined by the artifice of scarcity”; “We break proven ancestral wisdom by taking more from the land than what we give back to it” (11)
Pressing and thorny themes, including History itself (who “owns,” who teaches, who manipulates it) that are very much in the current consciousness run all through the poems in this volume. She continues in this vein with “The Temporal,” writing: “I am exhausted from living in the dim shadows of a movie forged from the margins of capitalism” (32). The use of “movie” conjures images of Plato’s Cave, where the illusions are mistaken for reality. Neoliberalism anyone? During a recent historical education tour of a wealthy oil area I was shocked to learn that most of the attendees of my workshops and performances as Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara were not familiar with, nor aware of the etymology of, “neoliberalism.” Talk about a snake successfully inserted into a garden…
So as not to get too, too serious, Tabios interjects (one might say ejaculates) two poems in the mix—“Processing the Sheriff’s Advice” and “The Sheriff’s Advice”—the first the setup and the second the punchline on the subject of terms for male masturbation. The second is also a good example of Tabios’s use of list poems in her cumulative body of work.
The section that follows, Cubism of Color, tackles gender, race, and other political complexities through the modern lens. We have Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman; Scarlet(t) Johansson’s turn as an Asian character in Ghost in the Shell (as I was writing this she defended her right to play any kind of human—or an animal or tree); struggles in the Sudan and the bombing of Syria; riffs on an article from The Atlantic and a report about the CDC from the Washington Post; the poverty politics of government cheese (which was a staple of my childhood family meals one particularly desperate year); irresponsibility and the environment; and rape politics and sex dolls (which are already overlapping).
And, because I spent 18 months immersed in the world of Che before the historical education tour last month, I have to quote from  “A Revolt at the Ready”: “I bet you’ll choose Che Guevara’s face, stubbled and with eyes haunting under a black beret—a logo for determination.” The co-optation of his image beautifully represents the distorted reflection and the witness in the convex mirror.
The collection concludes with the Selected Notes and Acknowledgments, which will clue you in to the extent of both the origin material for the collection beyond the Ashbery poem and the true reach and influence of this talented and always innovative poet.

Have a look inside the mirror, and let the poems ask a response.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

A Review of Chuck Regan’s FOR BLOOD OR JUSTICE, Stormkind: Episode 1


(Rayguns and Mayhem/Kindle Direct Publishing, 2019).

As I opened with in my review of Chuck Regan’s short story collection six months ago, I have known him and his work for a long time. Thirty-three years. And, in that time, I have witnessed his growth from a talented sketch artist and budding graphic novel writer and graphic artist to a novelist, graphic novelist, and short story writer whose immense world-building and attention to detail conspire to create expansive, immersive story-scapes that combine science fiction, fantasy, pop culture, and a deft mix of comedy and darkness. 
For Blood or Justice represents the next level in Regan’s world-building and his in-progress and planned meta-verse. The book opens with a Prologue taking us back to 1890, when a meteor brought vast changes to Earth. So many changes, in fact, that historical timelines were shifted from what we know them to be. Rather than bogging down the narrative, Regan uses footnotes to define, contextualize, and, in some cases, point the reader to other works and facts about his alternative history timeline (such as a longer life for Tesla and a much worse ending for Nixon than resigning). Although I like very little about the twenty-first century and where it’s taken technology, as a writer of meta-verse stories, I appreciate what our capabilities are to package and distribute parts and pieces of our large stories in this way. I especially liked the alt-origin of the Philly Phanatic.
The Prologue then jumps to 1910, as the effects of the meteor begin to reveal themselves. The Prologue also cues the reader that this is a story that pulses at the nexus of Science and Spirit, with detailed doses of each. Never does the story get bound in ideas from either side of the same virtual coin, but the detail grounds the fantastic.
The Prologue jumps its time-scale several more times, bringing us to 1982.
As the story proper starts, we are situated in 1981, 15 months earlier. Regan and I were born only months apart and share an—I think quite proper and deserved—nostalgia for the Eighties. We were still innocent enough to unabashedly use our imaginations, while film, TV, fashion, music, and even the United States itself were all operating at a very high-energy, high-quality level.
So, if it’s happening in the 1980s, all the better for me, especially when it pays homage to the dominant tropes. And For Blood or Justice pays them aplenty. One of the characters, Scott, dresses in a “hoodie with the sleeves ripped off, bleach-distressed jeans, fingerless gloves, [and] scuffed high top sneakers”—as we did. And Regan is never coy about his homages, which I like. He says that Scott “did his best to try to look the part.” Later in the novel, a character cobbles together his superhero suit from a black sweat suit, goggles, balaclava mask, and skateboarding elbow and knee protectors, finishing off the ensemble with black parkour high tops. And one situation provokes a character to say, “Kinda tropey.” If you like things like “space robot spider things,” this story-world’s for you.
From early on and throughout the novel, I was thinking of Mystery Men and X-Men. For Blood or Justice falls somewhere tonally between the two, although it navigates a much wider swath of tropes and landscapes than either. This is a world where “microdrone camera[s]” and “styrofoam coffee cups” seamlessly co-exist.
And the laughs generated by names like Silver Scythe/Silver Dildo are too good to miss.
The different cultural worlds that Regan brings together all but leap off the page in a hologram of sight, taste, sound, and smell, such as his passages about a group called the Chaos Punks. This has the kind of Dystopian feel that brings to mind the films of Joel Schumacher and Ridley Scott. And, again, the detail of the world is value-added. The description of Post-Non-Enhancement Syndrome and the side-effects of the treatment made me smile, because that would definitely be a thing.
Like recent films, especially in the MU, the book is packed with Easter Eggs. Here’s just one: “So, what’ve we got? Aliens? Is it aliens? It’s always aliens if it glows like that.” Giorgio T to the max.
Cross-pollinating with the popular genres of “forensics investigation drama” and Reality TV (which is anything but), For Blood or Justice explores the TV-land deals some of the special-power people have landed, including the story’s protagonist, Dan. Like Mystery Men, it is all about the “brand.” Help abounds, from algorithms, questionnaires, sponsors, and image consultants—human and android. Complexities abound as well, in the form of ratings, possibility of cancellation, and potential for lawsuits. Again, if a meteor were to hit Earth and create special powers in some of the population, this would definitely be a thing.
Dan tries his best to keep up with the Criminal and the Corporate (which, as we know, are each of a piece), and his failure—trying a gravelly voice and having a coughing fit—brings us closer to his arc. He also has to deal with upticks in his Wrack—his set of special powers—that he does not understand and cannot thoroughly manage.
Joining the Criminal and the Corporate are the Coppers, and as the tension and the plot ramp up, we get a lot of noir-speak and other tropey deliciousness, including D & D–like point systems for traits like Strength. I particularly liked the pair of detectives in the last third of the story.
There’s also plenty of darkness in For Blood and Justice. Tasting a living person’s blood gives the protagonist the ability to check in on them telepathically and access their memories and there are entities out on the psychic planes that “even ghosts are scared of.” As a professional paranormal researcher, lecturer and author, I can attest to the truth of that. The descriptions of some specific ones are as eerie as they are accurate. There is also something called the Red Web that’s every bit as terrible as our own Dark one.
Something tells me—and I speak from decades of experience as a teacher, reviewer, and writer—that Regan is just getting started.
Book Two is going to be published in October, so get reading. You’ll be very glad you did.


Monday, May 6, 2019

A Review of Different Drummers, by Kevin Cummings, with poetry by John Gartland

 (Frog in the Mirror Press, 2019). ISBN: 978-0-692-19767-7 (paperback)

You never know where the connections you make in life will lead. Simply saying yes to opportunity, out of curiosity or even as a courtesy, can open doors to whole new worlds, whole new places, that you never knew existed.
In the twenty-first century, where everything is divided into Us and Them and the Other might as well live in another solar system where their rituals and culture are uber-alienated by some shadowy cabal that has engineered itself to make such decisions, feeding them down through indoctrinal water-drips to the TV-zombied hamster-people, it is imperative to learn about other places, other sub-sets of society. And to learn about and from what occupies the time of the thinkers and artists that reside there.
For this reason alone, Different Drummers is a primer on Thailand and an invaluable read.
So… that saying yes I mentioned. It happened a decade ago, when I received John Gartland’s Gravity’s Fool in the mail for review. His poetry moved me. Still does. I can’t swear to it, but I believe John and I connected on Facebook, which is an admittedly unusual benefit to an otherwise stinking/sinking cesspool of Big Data content and insidious mood manipulation. I had been doing reviews for about five years, which is an invaluable exercise for a writer and content creator (and, should you need more proof, Different Drummers is full to the brim with Cummings’s and others’ reviews of the books of some of the expats he interviews).
John and I got to talking after the review was published and our conversations led to publishing some of his work on the literary website I founded in 2002, www.newmystics.com, and even a collaboration on an extended piece he asked me to do the voice work for, called “Letter to John Wilson” (http://www.newmystics.com/lit/JohnGartland-JohnWilson.html). In 2015 I reviewed the re-issue of his novel Orgasmus, which is a Robert Anton Wilson/William S. Burroughs–esque mind-trip that I highly recommend. Between then and now I have reviewed a few more of John’s poetry books, which involve collaborations with other writers and photographers.
John was how I came to read and now review this collection of book reviews, essays, interviews, and, of course, a good bit of poetry by John, who has been given the well-earned moniker of “Bangkok’s Poet Noir.”
There are a number of things that impress me about this collection (which is a follow-up to Cummings’s Bangkok Beat). First of all, it is an obvious labor of love, which is why I concentrate on reviewing (this is my 170th) small and independent press titles. It’s not about money or prestige or ramming a thinly packaged ideology down a beach-goer’s throat during summer vacation reading time. It’s all about The Work. Second, Cummings is a great interviewer. Great questions, terrific insights, and, as a result, the interviewees give us something other than the standard BS magazine drivel. They truly do give of themselves. I reveled in honest opinions and colorful experiences. I learned what makes other writers write, other musicians play, other artists’ photograph or paint. Third, I learned about a place that seems as interesting and foreign and scintillating and mysterious and yet modern and problematic as any I’ve been to in my travels.
As indicated by the illustration on the cover—a tribute to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—the book features a considerable selection of interesting individuals and a mosaic of undulating, interacting, overlapping stories.
Place is important. What draws a person to a foreign land? What keeps them there so long they are an expat? chapter 1, “The Entertainment Zones,” and the handful of chapters that follow all center upon the places. And more are explored throughout. Through some excellent writing we get to know a bit about the cities, the neighborhoods, the streets, the bars and music clubs. This is important, because, to truly understand this extensive cast of characters, you have to understand the places in which they move, because that’s the mix from which the circumstances come.
And all of the stories told in Different Drummers have interesting circumstances. A standout story is in chapter 6, told by T Hunt Locke, about Noi. The anecdote about Bi and Bo really made me smile. I’ve already shared it half a dozen times.
Of no surprise, I highly recommend the book for the presence of John Gartland alone. There is a hard-hitting, non-PC interview he gives and the poetry in the middle of the book and in the closing section is some of John’s best work.
In John’s interview and others you’ll get an insider’s view of the expat community in Thailand—what brought them there, what keeps them there. Some of the answers may surprise you, some of their comments may move you back and forth on the reactionary scale, but applaud their honesty and acknowledge how much they’ve earned the knowledge they share.
Another highlight of the book is chapter 13, which is an interview with Irishman Hugh Gallagher, aka Von Von Von, a former music scene writer turned musician/performer whose many accomplishments include performing at Harlem’s fabled Apollo Theatre. He is also a novelist.
As I mentioned, John Gartland is not the only one who brings his Truth to the pages of this book in a non-apologetic way. There are opinions and insights—not all of which align—on topics such as Brexit, globalization/neoliberalism, and the state of the arts in Thailand and the world. The writers, artists, and thinkers in Different Drummers all display an impressive balance of experience and intelligence. And most of them have a terrific sense of irony and humor.
Of special interest to the crime thriller and mystery devotee are several interviews and book reviews (I love the decision to pair them for each author) with some of the best in the business. Situating their stories in Thailand and environs is value added. Check it out and see.
So do yourself a favor, and get a copy of Different Drummers. It is not one book, but many all in one. If you are planning a trip to Thailand it’s the perfect primer to keep from being just your average tourist… and if you’re not currently planning to go, by the end of the read, you will be.



Thursday, April 18, 2019

A Review of The Watchman’s Rainbow and Other Works, by Bill Wyant

ISBN: 978-0-9600201-0-2 (paperback)

DISCLOSURE: For four years the author of this collection of short stories, plays, essays, and poems was a student in my creative writing classes held through an extension program offered by a community college in West Virginia. Most of the pieces that create the seemingly disparate yet unified tapestry of this collection were developed in those classes; I edited many to varying degrees and published early versions of The Watchman’s Rainbow at the literary site for which I am Founding Editor, www.newmystics.com.
That said, my objectivity could rightly be put into question. With sensitivity to such a probable circumstance, what follows is more of a book report than a book review. I have chosen this modification of my approach over the prospect of abandoning the work altogether for one simple reason:
These works are well written, exquisitely researched, and, as the author tells us in several of his Author Notes to the various sections, he has lived at least to some degree the realities that he has crafted into his fiction.
Constituting the bulk of the page-count for this collection, The Watchman’s Rainbow is a geopolitical action-thriller in the tradition of  le Carré and Clancy. It takes as its focus the drug wars between the United States and Mexico, although, as writers and able readers know, we do not read or care about subjects when it comes to fiction—we read and care about people. And the person at the core of this collection of stories and theatre-like interludes is Amos Sanson (a pseudonym) who is coming to the end of a long, successful career as a watcher for a cabal led by a man named Simon Stoddard (think Charlie directing the Angels or the voice on the Mission: Impossible recordings). As we first meet Sanson he is struggling, akin to Sherlock Holmes (a character with whom Wyant, like myself, has great affinity) with whether or not to retire in the face of the fact that he is no longer the man he was, mentally or physically, although the villains—and his employers—are making it hard to walk away.
It was clear from the first day Bill brought the bones of The Watchman to class that his knowledge of the watcher’s world was impressive (he has nearly 30 years of experience in the “active and reserve component Army … [with] qualifications in military intelligence and special operations” according to his bio) and put him squarely on a research level with le Carré and Clancy.
His commitment to improving as a writer (and, truth be told, he was more than proficient to start) put him on their level in other ways as well.
The Watchman’s Rainbow boasts an intriguing cast of international secondary and tertiary characters, plenty of action, and many insights into the geopolitical realities of the twenty-first century.
Showing his range, Wyant follows up the novella with five poems, the first of which, “The Master Mysterian,” is an homage in quatrains to none other than Sherlock Holmes. He follows this up with a poem about the first literary detective, C. Auguste Dupin (a creation of Edgar Allan Poe). The final three poems cover Reality, War, and Death.
After the poems, Wyant offers two one-act plays. The first takes as its subject the Monongahela River, in north-central West Virginia, and its importance and function through history. A life-long resident and champion of the area, Wyant explores over the course of centuries of development one of the defining features of the river: the struggle between economic profit and protection of the environment. As a playwright and social justice activist who spent seven years researching and producing historical fiction in north-central West Virginia, I can vouch for Wyant’s historical research and authenticity of his characters.
The next play, titled Parlor Games, is one for which my theatre company gave a staged reading, with myself as director, as part of an evening of new one-acts several years ago. It is a tragic tale of gossip and jealously in a small town. It reads as well as it plays on stage.
The collection then offers a non-fiction section of essays on the state of the twenty-first century. Fans of only fiction might be tempted to skip them, but that would be a mistake—Wyant synthesizes his professional work as an analyst and deep thinker with his creative writing, situating the essays in the nexus of fact and fiction, drawing on the works of George Orwell, Dan Brown, Tom Clancy, and Jack London to observe and prognosticate—ala Amos Sanson—on the current geopolitical landscape and its obstacles and hopes.
And so we come full circle, or, more aptly, go from one end of the rainbow to the other.
The collection closes with a brief essay on the “Greatest Generation” and an Afterword.
The Watchman’s Rainbow ends with a cliffhanger, so I hope we will be reading more from this experienced and talented author in the not too distant future.