Saturday, December 8, 2012

A Review of Crash by Carolyn Roy-Bornstein, MD

 (Skirt!, Guilford, CT, 2012; ISBN: 978-0-7627-8045-7)
Crash, subtitled, “A Mother, a Son, and a Journey from Grief to Gratitude,” is many books in one. First and foremost, it tells the story of the author’s son, Neil, being hit by a drunk driver as he was walking his girlfriend home one night, and his ongoing physical and mental recovery over the last 10 years. If that was the beginning and end of it, Crash would still be a book worth reading. But it isn’t. Instead, Crash is also a book about how families come together in times of crisis; it’s an examination of the medical system by an insider turned outsider; it’s an indictment of the justice system when it comes to the sentencing of drunk drivers who injure and kill. And it is also a testament to the true wonder and worth of Words, for it is clear that Roy-Bornstein owes much of her family’s victory over tragedy—of their movement from Grief to Gratitude—to her ability to write things out, whether academically, as a crusader, as loving mother, or gifted storyteller.
Crash is very carefully crafted for maximum effect, taking us on a nonlinear journey where the primary narrative is interdicted with episodes from the past that undergird and inform the family’s experiences from the night of the crash through the following decade. Just as important to the story as Neil’s injuries and ongoing recovery is the author’s journey from small business owner to nurse to pediatrician. Context is crucial… if we are to invest in the ramifications of all Neil and Carolyn have experienced, then we need to know their larger story. Roy-Bornstein is to be credited for rendering the story within a structure that keeps the reader engaged and motivated without resorting to a mere dump of information.
The book begins with a section titled “A Crack in the Glass.” It lasts all of seven sentences, a mere half page. But after I read it, I wrote at the bottom a single word—“Wow.” As a writer, as a parent, as a human being, it hooked me and the 211 pages that followed never let me go.
The story begins on the evening of January 7, 2003. Neil and his girlfriend, Trista, have been studying at his home and it’s time to get Trista back to hers. Neil would like to stay with her and study, but her Mom is very strict. Carolyn suggests that his walking her home might be just the good showing Neil and Trista need to make that happen.
But they never get there. A drunk driver—with 30 empty beer cans in his SUV from a party at a friend’s and a prior for hitting someone else—runs them down on a cold Massachusett’s night. Trista dies at the hospital. Neil is left with a broken leg and injured brain. And the drunk driver just kept on going. Going until he rolled his SUV and was taken into custody.
Complexity is rife throughout Crash, and here it begins. Carolyn suggested that Neil walk Trista home. Can you imagine the guilt that comes with that? We all, as parents, as teachers, as friends, make a dozen little suggestions like this every day of our lives... We never expect the worst, and yet on that unexpected day, it’s the very worst that happens.
Along with complexity is juxtaposition, as Carolyn becomes Mother instead of Doctor in the ER. Always apt to see the family’s side as a practitioner, first as a nurse and then as an MD, she now sees all that she hadn’t seen before. She comes up against rules and environments (waiting rooms, triage, recovery rooms) that she believed in as a medical practitioner—that she enforced and supported. And although she still sees the sense and purpose behind them, she also understands the reasons why they sometimes fail to serve their purpose as well as they could.
There is also juxtaposition in how Trista’s parents react to the tragedy and trial proceedings of the drunk driver, who they wholly (and understandably) wish dead and Carolyn’s more measured response; in how Neil’s friends handle his change in personality after his brain injury; and the role of the media as the story unfolds. Roy-Bornstein presents all sides as she goes, even the ones with which she disagrees and, although there is plenty of emotion in her disagreements, the fact that the other sides are so thoroughly presented gives the reader room to make his or her own judgments about justice, forgiveness, and the movement from grief to gratitude to grace.
I could explore this rich, moving book for several more pages, but suffice it to say that with both drunk driving tragedies and traumatic brain injury (especially with the return of so many injured veterans from the Middle East) constantly in the headlines, Crash is also topical and immediate.
After writing dozens upon dozens of reviews, this one ends with a first for me: I want to end by wishing Neil and Carolyn Roy-Bornstein and their family good wishes and continued strength as their journey continues on.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

“Morphine Meditations”: A Review of Bobbi Lurie’s the morphine poems

(Otoliths, 2012, ISBN 978-0-9872010-5-8)

by Joey Madia

In March of 2010 I opened my review of Bobbi Lurie’s collection of poems titled Grief Suite by saying: “Bobbi Lurie writes poetry that hurts.”

Some two and a half years later, Lurie has presented the reader with a substantially different group of poems in both form and substance. Different, yes—but equally compelling.

the morphine poems are 55 pieces that vary in length from a page and a quarter to a single sentence. All are run-on and stream of consciousness in form, with the varied content tethered to Lurie’s experiences during treatment for cancer.

The first poem, “horrors of morphine,” is also the longest at more than a page, and sets the stage for all that is to come. It is here that we first experience Lurie’s thoughts on the state of poets and poetry, a theme that pervades:

“they want to be among you if you offer them a contract for a book they believe will make them famous but if you speak the truth they think let’s see martha’s vineyard” (5).

And, in “blog of solitude chapter…”:

“the i guess famous poet i never heard of looked up and said my books were written on good paper… before i left he reminded me of his reading” (11).

Quite a harsh indictment of where things are, but as I learned with Grief Suite, Lurie (thankfully) pulls no punches. We’ve all, as poets, been on the receiving end of just these things.

As the poems progress, there is much of Spirit through the physical pains and material obstacles. Lurie writes of cedar and moths, feathers and snakes, lemongrass and rice, “green lizards in the garden” and “hawks … in their slide toward north.” Poems such as “to be let in the back porch” are Shamanic in the power of their visions, as the author walks on the edge between the worlds made all the more defined by the morphine.

What I like best about the morphine poems is the rich variety. In the midst of peaceful visions of nature we get:

“forgive me for merely sitting decomposing exponentially on your tragically picturesque front porch” (“clotted or crooned…,” 20)

“they had to take the teeth out of my wings” (“our undoing done smoldering,” 22)

“the ground a gutter of foraging crows” (“heart of ruins if body remains,” 23)

The reader is actively engaged… we cannot afford to settle in as often happens when a collection is all of a piece and the poems center on a central theme and form and so become undifferentiated, like listening to the droning voices of the early-morning news. Assumption is a danger here. The poems will fight them at every turn.

Through it all is the Condition of the Writer: the struggle, the pursuit: “wish the dictator inside us did not deride us our pathetic leanings toward verse” (32) or the complete poem “if only good-bye”:

“pale hand drops off side of bed uttering last burning wish to lose secret universe of words” (33)

Lose it forever? Lose it by putting it out into the world, where it is no longer secret? The poems offer answers and beg questions for them.

As the traveler travels, not all is lost in the gauzy haze of the morphine and the writer’s life: “greatest love comes to those closest to death” (37). This is unadulterated optimism—a virile counterpoint to the other pages of poems that encase it.

Near book’s end, in a poem called “i need so little now one drop from the shelf,” Lurie writes, “poets don’t want to hear about disease they write persona poems about it” (51).

Not all poets. Bobbi Lurie demonstrates once again, as she did in Grief Suite, that tragedy is her triumph and that poetry should be Honest and Unself-assuming in its brutal vision of how and what things are.

If you care to hear her Truth, spend some hours with this book.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Dark Teen Vision of 2045: A Review of Theodore A. Webb’s The STARLING Connection

 (self-published, 2012; available on in for several devices)
Take a moment to imagine American society’s reliance on social networking, Genetically Modified food, and pharmaceutical over-prescription continuing on its current upward arc.
What will a virtual-reality world of synthetic foods, drinks, mood-enhancers, genetic manipulation, and digital economic opportunity-building run by the biomedical, religious, media, political, military, and educational establishments look like?
If you are thinking bleak and slave-like, then there is much to appeal to you in The STARLING Connection, author Theodore Webb’s four-part vision of life in 30 years.
Part Phillip K. Dick and part John Hughes’ prototypical high school meets Tim Burton’ Edward Scissorhands, The STARLING Connection is a sobering and often times violent and frightening look at what our world might become if things continue on their current trajectory.
Taking the premise that the more things change the more they remain the same, much in Webb’s 2045 is familiar. Societal structures are still easily recognizable, and control is implemented from them all—education through an under-individualization of the students and strategically placed scanners that make recommendations on how many and what meds one should be taking for “optimal” performance; the military through constant patroling by overhead Drones and the mandatory insertion of chips in everyone’s bodies called the Radio Frequency Identification System; religion through TEMPLE—a massively networked mega-church that brainwashes its masses with a disturbing vision of God and “his” message and expectations for humanity (the scenes at TEMPLE invoke Sally’s visit to see the messiah in the Who’s Tommy); and the media through its carefully filtered, packaged, and presented “Prop News.” Underneath it all is a “bread and circuses” mentality that harkens to the pre-collapse of the Roman Empire.
Those who don’t comply with life within the SUPERNET are sent to Reconditioning Centers.
Webb writes in a fast-paced, passionate style that intermixes narrative, blog entries, manifestos, and poetry, pulling together point and counter-point, attack and response, and an abundance of philosophy and ideology through the eyes of teenagers and adults. It is an engaging mix that keeps The STARLING Connection from becoming didactic, even as Webb tackles the big, abstract notions of God, Freedom, Individuality, and so on.
He does an impressive job of finding the authentic voice of his teen characters and for this reason alone the book should appeal to this age group, although the reasons for teens to read this series are far more numerous than that.
The story centers around Simon Laramie (his first name evoking the Biblical magician and his last name the tragic murder in 1998 of gay student Matthew Shepard), a high school freshman who has lost his family in a car accident. As he tries to navigate life with his over-medicated grandmother he faces punishment at the hands of the high school’s athletic heroes (who play the eponymous “number one sport”) as he attempts to assert his individualism.
Having spent the past 10 years doing interactive bullying education workshops with over 25,000 school-aged kids, I see early evidence of the link between the constant exposure to the digital world and the manifestations of and attitudes toward violence in this book series. It is not mere fiction Webb is penning any more than the great science fiction writers of the last 130 years were. His Alternate Reality is based on our current one.
Simon’s actions draw the attention of Jaya Ceyes, a rebellious student with a vision to liberate her fellow students from the technological–pharmaceutical noose around their necks. She chooses to do so by creating a SUPERNET portal named STARLING (Spirit,  Truth,  Art,  Rights, Life, Independence, News-Knowledge and Growth)—a place for free expression and the expansion of ideas through the Arts. Yet, like in other dark visions of total government control such as the Rush album “2112” or the film Equilibrium, the Arts have been crushed and suppressed by those in control. Jaya is an archetypical warrior-goddess and therefore, in the eyes of the Establishment, she is the Tempter, Corruptor, and Seductress who must be removed at all costs.
STARLING quickly gets attention from both sides of the freedom line. The subsequent interplay of student–student and student–adult confrontations, alliances, and betrayals drive the last three parts of the series.
I highly recommend this book to teenagers and to anyone who is interested in better understanding where our digitized, medicated society may be heading.
If readers want  to  learn  more  about  “The  STARLING  Series”  and  other  works  by  Theodore Webb they should visit: All  four  parts  in  “The  STARLING  Connection:  Volume  One”  of  “The  STARLING  Series”  are  available in e-book format on for a variety of devices.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

A Review of Rosemary Ellen Guiley’s Ouija Gone Wild, with Rick Fisher

A Review of Rosemary Ellen Guiley’s Ouija Gone Wild, with Rick Fisher (2012, Visionary Living, Inc., ISBN: 9780985724306
From one of the most prolific and respected author–investigators working in the field of the paranormal today, Ouija Gone Wild is a thoroughly researched and excellently organized collection of facts and true stories having to do with the often mis-understood (and mis-used) “talking board.”
            Rosemary Ellen Guiley is joined in this endeavor by Rick Fisher, founder of the Paranormal Society of Pennsylvania, the National Museum of Mysteries and Research Center in Columbia, PA and the founder of that city’s Historic Haunted Ghost Walks. He maintains an extensive file of news clipping and stories related to the board and owns a sizable and varied collection of them.
            The book is filled with some hair-raising stories of bad experiences with the board; gives a thorough history of the board’s development and various incarnations, including the Ouija brand name with which most people are familiar; and delves deeply into a handful of particularly noteworthy and unsettling anecdotes. The most gripping chapters include “The Zozo Phenomenon,” “A Choir of Vampires,” and “Calling the King of the Witches.”
            There is also a complete filmography going back to 1920, and an interesting chapter on the role of the Ouija in literature and music. Comprehensive as always for a book by Guiley, Ouija Gone Wild includes a chapter titled “How to Use a Talking Board.”
            A story that I related to the author about my experience with a talking board is included, as well as some experiences related by my wife, Tonya.
            Like many of the people who told their stories for the book, my earliest experience was with the marketed party game version, the Ouija board, as a child, having found it amongst the other games in my aunt’s upstairs closet one holiday night. My siblings and cousins and I, having no idea what to do, most likely ran the planchette around the board, spelling out curse words and other silly things. The story I shared for the book is a bit more serious than that.
            After swearing to never use one ever again after my experience in 1984, I recently (November 2011) was involved in a session in which my wife’s long-deceased grandmother (her story is contained in the book) made an appearance. It was not until the very end of a 90-minute session that I finally put my hands on the planchette, after she asked repeatedly for me to do so. It was an emotional, peaceful evening. Some of the information she gave us and other insights she provided about others in attendance—although not proving that it was indeed Tonya’s grandmother—certainly was well beyond easy explanation.
            Back to the book. It truly is a page turner, delivering equal parts horror and subtle comedy as Guiley and Fisher take us through true crime stories, stories of money gained and lost (mostly lost), and of course the core issues when it comes to matters of the board: the frequent communication with “demons” and the question of just who are we actually communicating with?
Ouija Gone Wild by and large lets the anecdotes and the “evidence” speak for themselves. Even the authors and the experts they interview can’t say for sure. That seems wise. I’ve experienced enough hauntings, entities, and mysterious energies to know that dealing with the paranormal in general—and particularly divination/communication devices such as the Ouija board—is kind of like being in a little boat on a big, stormy ocean—be respectful, don’t take chances, and don’t for a minute think your Ego can get you through.
A highlight of the book is a story near the end in the chapter “Fear and Ouija-pocalypse” that relates an aborted attempt a few years ago to do a live board session on George Noory’s Coast to Coast AM program. After you read it, there is no denying that there are vast amounts of believers out there—and many of them are more than a little scared of the power of the board.
Guiley and Fisher do a fine job making a case for why they’re right to feel that fear.

Monday, September 24, 2012

“Surfing Near the Siege”: A Review of Jesse Aizenstat’s Surfing the Middle East

Surfing the Middle East is a book of endless dicotomy. Subtitled “Deviant Journalism for the Lost Generation,” Aizenstat’s diary and depiction of his two trips to the Middle East is equal parts eye-opening participant journalism in the tradition of Sebastian Junger and V.S. Naipaul’s Among the Believers (the best book I have ever read about the tangled weave of cultures and belief systems in the Middle East) and an at times over-the-top homage to the Gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson (as evidenced most obviously by the opening quote from the good doctor and more subtly by the rampant use of his signature words: “savage,” “swine,” “fiend,” and his metaphorical device of linking drug-tripping adjectives with his on-site experiences).
            To be fair to Aizenstat—whose idea to surf in Israel and Lebanon while immersing himself in the Gordian knot of what is happening “over there” as an American Jew was as excellently executed as it was extremely evocative in concept—I have spent the past eight years reading everything I can find written by or about Hunter S. Thompson (indeed, as I was reading Surfing the Middle East I was also reading Hey Rube, so the Doctor’s typical dialogue and devices were foremost in my mind). Thompson’s appeal is his intense Uniqueness, and any attempt to borrow from or otherwise emulate what he so carefully cultivated rubs me the wrong way. It’s like trying to paint like Jackson Pollock and pass it off as in any way your own. I have watched with no small sorrow as Johnny Depp sinks into a not-so-subtle cartoon echo of his fallen hero. Sad.
            Aizenstat—a self-professed “smartass”—succeeds best when he is caught with his guard down, letting the waves of misery, injustice, absurdism, and poor policy that is the history of the Palestinian–Israeli conflict wash over him like some rogue wave. These moments—which happen with more frequency and greater intensity as he gets deeper into the Reality of things—like a Nor’easter moving into the mid-Atlantic coast where I spent my youth—make this book a must-read for anyone who cares at all about what is really happening among the flying rhetoric and rockets.
            Of course, like any successful story arc, the main character, fictional or not, has to start from somewhere far from where he ends, and watching Aizenstat’s armored plates of wise-cracks and playing the couldn’t-care-less California surfer-dude crack and fall away as he attends fire-flinging political rallies on both sides and sees first hand the Andersonville-esque squalor of the refugee camps in Sabra and Shatila one cannot help but invest in his pain and disbelief.
            The book is abundantly filled with quotes penned by everyone from social commentators like Mary Shelley and Mark Twain to absurdist/existentialists like Albert Camus and Joseph Heller and is richly illustrated with nearly a dozen indispensible maps and a section of provocative color pictures. [I was doing a series of workshops for eighth graders in the West Virginia Capitol Complex on the Constitution and Bill of Rights while reading the book and the inside cover shots showing the disturbing dicotomy between the war and the western shore opened more than a few lost and jaded eyes]. There is also an ipad app [as well as a blog and numerous YouTube videos], illustrative of the hip and happening mode that feeds the surfing metaphors that are Aizenstat’s own coin of the realm. I was quickly reminded that what we think of almost without fail as an unmitigated desert-scape actually has a considerable coastline that provides page after page of apt comparisons between the surfer’s unpredictable dance with the swells and daily life in the camps, bombed out neighborhoods, checkpoints, and mosques and temples in Israel and Lebanon.
            Like the metafiction of the Beats, Surfing the Middle East boasts a compelling cast of characters: Jewish and Muslim surfers; attractive and flirtatious female border guards; no nonsense Israeli soldiers; wealthy Palestinian playboys living the club life; and an on-the-edge journalist from Texas nicknamed As-Salibi (“The Crusader”) who clandestinely gathers stories for a Palestinian news agency are just some of the many people that serve to educate and escalate Aizenstat’s transformation.
            This is not to say that at the start the author is in any way vacuous or not in tune. Despite his put-on surfer persona and failure to pass the Foreign Service Exam (the precipitating incident that started him on his journey—what Joe Campbell would identify as the hero’s “Call to Adventure”) his writing demonstrates an impressive knowledge of geography, mythology, foreign affairs, Middle Eastern history, and human psychology. In that regard, he is very much like Hunter S. Thompson, who, thru the drug and booze–fueled madness that mark his writing and his life, was a brilliant analyst whose political and pop culture predictions more often than not came true.
And Aizenstat definitely knows enough about the nuances of surfing to thread them through the multi-colored, multi-textured Middle Eastern tapestry that he weaves.
            As I said at the start, Surfing the Middle East is about nothing if not Dicotomy. I’ve explored several in this review—the serious journalist vs. the smartass surfer; the Israelis and Palestinians; the war and the western shore. These could be considered the macro-dicotomies. But dig a little deeper [stick around as the sun starts to set for that one last perfect wave] and you can mine the riches of the micro-dicotomies: the Sunni vs. the Shia; the blood-lusting militant vs. the old man struggling to feed his family in a quiet corner of a bombed and burned out world after being chased from his home by a roving gang of those blood-lusting militants; the shortest distance between two points vs. the realities of traveling in such a divided, border-guarded land; and perhaps the most compelling of all—the Jekyll and Hyde nature of organizations like Hezbollah, Hamas, and the PLO and many of the so-called leaders on both sides. The deeper you go—the longer you ride the tide—the more you want to know and the less you can ignore.
            So what about the non-Jew, the non-Muslim, like myself? What is our role in all of this? Because we most certainly have one. If you know nothing about the history and horrors of this area of the world, let this book be your passport, your circumventing navigational tool, your entrypoint to the rallies and the temples and the mosques.
            And when you’re done, just try and forget what you have read.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

“Symmetry and Artistry in a Well-Told Tale”

A Review of Seth Hammons Unheard Of [Book One of The Keys] (2012, ISBN 978-0-9859841-0-6)

Welcome to a brand new world. Two actually. The first is real, the other a writer’s creation. Both are equally important to this book.
            The first is a world that allows an author, almost independently, to publish a high-quality book without a publisher. I am talking more and more often in my reviews about these ultra-small, independent, and DIY authors and presses because they are growing in prevalence. Print on demand is virtually indistinguishable from large-volume runs that were the norm only 3 short years ago. Seth Hammons has written one of the best books I have read from this world in some time, and it bodes well for the future of literature that a book like this is in the world.
            The second world is the one created by the author. It centers on The Iori Keys, a group of islands wherein two classes of people reside—the Imperial Iori and the workaday Brecks, the former of whom oppress the latter.
            The differences between the two are numerous, familiar, and important: be it Science vs. Nature, Dogma vs. Paganism, formal schooling vs. orally passed knowledge, materialism vs. simple living, aggression vs. peace, or privileged vs. working class, Unheard Of tells us all about ourselves—our predispositions, our prejudices… and it does so with a simplicity and depth of craft that plays lightly like the music with which it is centrally concerned.
            The success of this music is its symmetry. For the first third or so of the novel, three central characters—the spoiled son of an Iori duke, the granddaughter of elderly farmers, and an ex ship’s navigator fallen on hard and drunken times—live their parallel lives. Although it is the sublime inevitability of good storytelling that we know that they will meet, Hammons makes us wait until the time is as perfectly ripe as the fruit and wheat yielded on the family farm.
            Although both the characters and the circumstances are deeply rooted in traditional storytelling themes—as are all the secondary and tertiary characters—Hammons gives us plenty that is fresh and new. His use of music as magic and explorations of other arts, such as whittling, all show a thorough understanding and reinforcement of the main themes through extended and well-rendered metaphor.
            In his Acknowledgments, the author says that his first foray into novel writing was a million-word epic that is not this book. All the practice shows. The prose is rich and rhythmical. The pages fly by. And I cared very much about the main characters. Their frustration, pains, and wants became my own. I rooted for them, and became emotionally and vocally moved when they were thwarted—or when they thwarted themselves.
            Like the works of Shakespeare or Tolkien, a well-crafted fantasy speaks to us through the ages and the mists of make-believe places to exactly where we are. The prejudices and injustices of Hammon’s set of islands are our own. Religion, economics, schooling, family—these are central pillars of any society, or set of societies, and if it were not for the thrumming hold of the cadence of the prose, one could get pulled into more modern matters of the war in the Middle East, ongoing prejudice in all areas of society, and what some are calling the “class war.” It is impossible to remain neutral when reading Unheard Of.
            Of how many books can we say the same?
            Unheard Of has some big surprises… some real “I didn’t see that coming” moments, but each are grounded securely in the story. There are no cheap tricks or gimmicks. And being the first book in a series (at least, I hope Hammons is writing more), there are some pressing matters with which we are left to wonder.
            I would happily recommend Unheard Of to those eighth grade to adult. There are some beautifully rendered maps by Zeyan Zhang (who also did the cover) and a Glossary. This is an excellent book for a discussion group, and the Glossary seems to be specifically crafted to suit just that.
            Reading the biographies in the back of the book, I can’t help but root for both the author and illustrator.
            No matter which world you consider—the real one of publishing and those trying to make their way in it or the fantasy one in which these memorable characters reside—this is a story that deserves a broad and loyal audience.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

“Bullets, Buddies, and Babes”

A Review of James Phoenix’s Frame Up (Grey Swan Press, Sept. 2012, ISBN: 978-0-9834900-3-6)

I like bold. Writers should be. During my three-decade-long literary apprenticeship I have come to agree with teachers and working professionals that being a good writer—nevermind a great one—takes a hell of lot of effort, study, and belief in yourself.
            You have to be bold.
So I was immediately interested in James Phoenix and his debut novel when I read that he was intending Frame Up to help fill the void left by Robert Parker (author of the ultra-popular Spenser and Jesse Stone detective series’) when he died in 2010. There are several other names of note in his press materials—Dashiell Hammett, Mickey Spillane, Raymond Chandler.
His own literary apprenticeship certainly seems to fit the subject matter—while he was learning to write well (and he does) he worked as a dishwasher, a waiter, a factory worker, a construction laborer, a stone tender, a weightlifter, and bouncer, a lobsterman, a salesman, and a successful International hi-tech entrepreneur.
Elements of all of these varied jobs appear in his book. And his publicity photo presents the image of a no-nonsense New Englander with an edge.
Learn your craft. Set your sights high. And then put it out there. Let the audience decide.
That is the great democracy of small-press publishing, especially in the age of print on demand and DIYers flooding the market with their words.
In this case, Phoenix is offering his book in hardback. Taking a risk at reaching a new audience fresh out of the gates with a $27.95 cover price.
He’s bold. And it seems to suit him. And the genre in which he works.
The hardboiled detective is a beloved American icon, whether on the page, the screen, or the stage. My recent foray into the field with a murder mystery musical in which the lead character is a trenchcoated, whiskey-slugging gumshoe in 1939 Manhattan was such a hit I was commissioned to write a sequel. Whether it's the wise-cracking, the knuckle-busting, or the bevy of beautiful clients who prove to be medicine good and bad, characters like Phoenix’s—a Boston cop now retired and turned private eye named Fenway Burke—are easy to root for and fascinating to watch.
Frame Up pays homage to all the best parts of the genre—it’s got the arrogant rich, the scum of the Earth criminals, the pissed-off cops, the beautiful women, and the loyal-to-a-fault friends. It’s got plenty of violence, and fast cars, late nights, and trendy locales. The dialogue is snappy and abundant, making for a quick read that moves along toward a satifying end. It’s also got the requisite dead ends and false leads.
It’s even got some romance.
Another aspect of the book, which has become a staple of crime dramas on TV, is the use of technology to solve crimes. The recent updating of Sherlock Holmes to be as adept at using cell phones and computers as the original character was at analyzing tobacco and mud samples brings the detective genre home to new audiences and Phoenix introduces an interesting tertiary character to help Burke with the more complicated cyber-work of tracking down clues in the twenty-first century.
I applaud Phoenix’s boldness—and fans of the crime drama, including Parker’s—should enjoy this latest addition.
I regret having to end an otherwise positive review by making note that the book suffers from an inordinate amount of typos. A thorough editorial review of the manuscript before publication would have elevated this book to the first-class publication its author no doubt would like it to be.

Monday, August 20, 2012

“An Integration of Opposites”: A Review of Healing the Sacred Divide by Jean Benedict Raffa

(Larson Publications, 2012,, ISBN: 978-1-936012-60-2

Books, in many ways, are like people, and a bookshelf full of books could be thought of as a society in miniature. Some books look nice, but don’t offer much when you get past the cover. Some books offer some companionship in the form of a bit of new knowledge, perhaps some laughs, and a pleasant passing of time, but they are soon forgotten. Still other books are provocative, poking us in uncomfortable places and riling us up—and in the process, helping us to grow.
            Then there are the books that are destined to be great. They are the books that we go to again and again. Books that are clearly the product of deep thought, extensive research, careful structure, and years of richly lived experience by their authors.
            These books, unlike those that are merely passing travelers or vague acquaintances, become our friends.
            Healing the Sacred Divide (subtitled “Making Peace with Ourselves, Each Other, and the World”) has become my friend. It will be given a special place on my shelves once this review is complete and sent out into the world, and I anticipate going back to it again and again as I continue my journey to wholeness and spirtual health.
            From its stunning cover (with art by Cicero Greathouse) depicting the mandorla (which I’ll define later) to its closing myth, Dr. Raffa’s book grabbed me and egged me on. It is a fairly dense book at 318 pages, with small type and 54 chapters, but it is also varied in its presentation and structure.
            Healing the Sacred Divide is divided into two parts: The Evolution of God-Images (which sets the stage by examining the creation and promulgation of organized religion and the separation of the God and Goddess) and Nine Wisdom Gifts of an Integrated God-Image. It is this second part that constitutes the greater portion of the book.
            As I mentioned, the book, although packed full of words, is sufficiently varied to prevent it from ever feeling like a dry academic tome or didactic “self-help book.” [This makes sense considering the duality of logos and mythos that runs like a river thru the text]. Dr. Raffa presents experiences, light and dark, from her personal life, for they are inextricably woven with the chapters she has written and the ideas and suggestions she presents. This personal investment over the course of decades, through family tragedy, Church struggles, and spiritual passageways fills the book with a warmth and sincerity some books in this vein lack. One gets the sense that the exercises she offers at the end of each chapter in Part 2 should at least be tried, because she’s used them herself.
            Intermingled with the Nine Gifts (which are: Holistic Perception, Transforming Light, Acceptance of Shadow, Emotional Integrity, Partnership, Balance, Sovereignty, Meaning, and Mandorla Consciousness) are a series of “Cosmic Dialogues.” These, to me, were the edgiest and most difficult sections of the book as a male, to read (along with the culminating myth, which works on the same model), casting as they do the God as a traditionally driven, domineering Patriarch and Goddess as the solely Nurturing Mother. But, as Dr. Raffa suggests, I was open to the feelings I felt when the hackles came up, and I saw where the Shadow in me still needs some integration to get beyond the idea that Males being to blame for all of the heartaches, wars, and deceits in the world means that I am somehow to blame by being one. Not since reading Robert Bly’s Iron John 20 years ago have I so actively engaged with the notions of Maleness being devalued in society and how it has shaped my engagement with it, and I am more whole for having done so.
            One of the keys to the process of healing the sacred divide, very much in line with Jungian ideas of embracing and integrating the Shadow (I have previously reviewed an excellent book by Erel Shalit on the subject), is the mandorla [what I have always known as the vesica piscis], that middle place where Light and Dark, Male and Female, “Good” and “Evil,” etc. overlap. It's the spiritual analog of the Venn Diagram and the section of the overlap brings to mind the shape of the fish associated with Jesus and also the entrance to the womb.
            There is a thought-provoking table of pairs on pages 50–52 that are organized around the Drive for Species-Preservation (Feminine Principle) and Drive for Self-Preservation (Masculine Principle). This distinction of Species- vs. Self-Preservation is one I had never before seen and it goes a long way toward understanding what is at work here.
            Those readers familiar with Alchemy, the Hieros Gamos [sacred marriage], and Kundalini, Sophia, and other snake-based spiritual symbology will find much of interest in these layers of the text. Raffa pulls from the work of Jung, as mentioned, and also from Joseph Campbell and those from whom he learned, such as Heinrich Zimmer and the writings of Meister Eckert and Dante’s Divine Comedy.
            Many chapters have an Endnotes section, which is a wonderful aide should a certain idea or “Gift” create a pull toward further research.
            Division [partisanship, sexual politics, classism, etc.] is the coin of the realm in America as the November 2012 election approaches. The chasm seems to grow ever wider, marked by increased venom in the rhetoric of politicians, corporate CEOs, religious leaders, and the millions posting on Facebook and Twitter. The voices of those committed to healing the divide are being drowned in all the noise.
            I hope that many, many people read, digest, and practice the exercises in Dr. Raffa’s Healing the Sacred Divide. Healing begins within, but quickly spreads to farther realms. A shift in paradigms has never been needed more.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Making a Case for Myth in Modern Life: A Review of Smoky Trudeau Zeidel’s The Storyteller’s Bracelet

 (Vanilla Heart Publishing, 2012), ISBN: 978-1-935407-46-1
By Joey Madia
Frequent readers of my book reviews and creative writing are well aware of my belief that mythology, folktales, and multicultural tales, and storytelling in general, are an all-too-often missing and yet vitally important element of a healthy mind and well-functioning society, so when I got the opportunity to read and review this brand new book, I jumped at the chance.
            I was not disappointed.
            Smoky Trudeau Zeidel is not a Native American, as she tells us in the book’s Afterword. And yet she captures the syntax, symbolism, and simple beauty of the Native American expression of human experience with an artistry that makes for almost hypnotic reading.
            The Storyteller’s Bracelet is the story of two young people, Otter and Sun Song, from The Tribe (more on the nonspecificity of exactly which tribe later) who are sent East to an Indian School to be trained in the ways of the Others, the Whites.
            The history of the subjugation, the conquering, of the Native Peoples of North America is hopefully known to the reader of this review, so it will suffice to say that in the process of Education, there was no small amount of derision and humiliation directed at these students—forbidden to speak their language, to practice their rituals, to wear their traditional clothing—they were expected to Assimilate. There are countless other examples of this practice on the global scale—the English engineered this very thing against the Scots.
            Zeidel has done her research and has woven both Native and White practices seamlessly into her story. Having been a longtime student of Lakota practices and having participated in vision quests and sweat lodge, I can say with some confidence that Zeidel gets it right. And this accuracy undergirds the more mythological and magical parts of the story.
            I hesitate to say too much about the story itself—I found myself surprised on more than one occasion by the twists and turns the story took, and I would hate to ruin them for another reader. Instead, I’d like to spend the rest of my allotted space talking about some of the larger thematic issues at work in The Storyteller’s Bracelet.
            It is clear that Zeidel’s decision to pull traditions and myths from numerous tribes instead of focusing on a specific group was an excellent one. It gives her freedom to combine the strongest elements available to reinforce her story and it guards her against offending or otherwise misrepresenting any given group. It is also then easier for the reader to get inside the symbols and freely swim around inside of them.
            Zeidel also does a fine job of telling the story with balance and multiple viewpoints. As she says in the Afterword, not all Indian Schools were the vicious, disrespectful, and dangerous place as this book’s Oak Tree School is, but in the pursuit of telling an engaging and edgy story that will keep the reader’s attention (especially in our desensitized, visually and aurally overwhelmed modern world) this “heightening and compressing” (as writing theory calls it), is both appropriate and necessary.
            The Whites and Native Peoples represent a broad spectrum of beliefs and actions. Zeidel has confidence enough in the tale she wants to tell to let the circumstances speak for themselves. Because all points of view are given equal weight in the core story, there is no agenda on the author’s part, and that is to be applauded. Agenda-ism is killing healthy dialogue in modern America, to our collective peril.
            The notion of the bully within the educational system is an important one to examine, again falling under the umbrella of agenda-ism. What version of History or Science is being taught? How are our other social institutions, such as churches, feeding into and shaping the curriculum?  How does socioeconomic status and ideas of the Privilege of the Wealthy shape our society?
            An albeit rare yet connected element of this is the privileged predator in a position of power who targets children through sexual abuse. There is a character in The Storyteller’s Bracelet that is chillingly close to the recently convicted Jerry Sandusky.
            All of these pressing social issues aside, though, The Storyteller’s Bracelet is first and foremost about our collective experiences and histories as a single, whole Humanity, no matter our color, our gender, our religious beliefs, or our socioeconomic status. It is here that our Myths are most important and most resonant. When we consider that the Hopi word for the moon is the Tibetan word for the sun and vice versa, and that all ancient peoples assigned one of four colors—white, red, black, and yellow—to the four cardinal directions in their own unique patterns, then it is hard to rationalize our pervasive attitude of Other, for it seems we all started from the same central point, the Axis Mundi, as philosophers, anthropologists, and comparative mythologists call it.
            I applaud Smoky Trudeau Zeidel for keeping story and myth alive and radiant in our darkened modern world, and for doing it with such splendid skill, craft, and heart.

Friday, July 20, 2012

“It’s a Helluva Place to Write About”: A Review of Rich Bottles Jr.’s Hellhole, West Virginia

 (2011, Burning Bulb Publishing, ISBN:9780615535791,
By Joey Madia
There are lots of West Virginias. To some it’s the redneck, backwards in-bred core of Appalachia. To others it is home to the powerhouse football and basketball teams of WVU (Go Mountaineers!), while, to legions of John Denver fans, it is “Almost Heaven,” an outdoor mecca of whitewater rafting, biking, and hiking.
In the five years I’ve been here I’ve seen a little bit of all of these pictures of West Virginia, and many more. The frontier spirit is alive and well, as are lots of examples of innovation and the ongoing controversy over coal, natural gas, and “fracking.” I’ve also noticed in my time here that West Virginia fascinates writers, whether natives or transplants like myself. Sooner or later, you just have to write about the place.
Rich Bottles Jr., a Pennsylvania native and “bizarro” author, is one of those whose fascination with all things West Virginia manifests prominently in his work. Like his novel Lumberjacked, Hellhole, West Virginia confluences fact and fiction, stereotype and the utterly unique in horrific and humorous ways.
His publisher, Burning Bulb, specializes in both Bizarro and West Virginia as a ripe setting for the horror and sex-filled tales their authors tell (I have previously reviewed the 50+ story collection called The Big Book of Bizarro that Bottles co-edited as well as Gary Lee Vincent’s Darkened vampire trilogy). Hellhole is the perfect storm of these foci. On the back cover the publisher gives a tongue in cheek but perhaps necessary warning to the reader about the “graphic sex and gratuitous violence” in Hellhole. I’m not going to dwell on either of these elements, as I frankly think they belong in this book and I’ve waded through worse in both content and execution in bizarro and other types of works and if that isn’t your cup of tea, well—you’ve been warned.
Hellhole is like Pulp Fiction, in the sense that it consists of several separate stories all tied together in a single thematic arc that wraps up neatly… and yet ugly… in the end. I’d like to comment on each separate story and then do a bit of wrap-up in order to parallel the structure Bottles employs.
The first story is titled “The Pussy Peddlers of Pendleton County” and tells the tale of an undercover cop fresh out of the WV Police Academy who is trying to find her predecessor, who has disappeared, while attempting to break the prostitution ring operating out of a seedy motel. This section is perhaps the most grotesque in terms of both violence and sex, because of the way they are so thoroughly inter-related in the Pendleton County Bottles presents to us.
The second story, called “At the Point of Unpleasantness,” takes as its raw material a subject near and dear to my heart and of which I am intimately acquainted, as I have spent the past 3 years researching for and writing a three-act play about the area—the Mothman sightings and Silver Bridge Collapse in Point Pleasant, WV in 1966 and 1967. Bottles takes the legends and the lore and intriguingly adapts them to the larger tale he is telling, both by filling in the gaps with his own crafting of events as well as twisting the facts to suit his purpose. It is clear that Bottles spent considerable time in the key locations where Mothman was seen, including the TNT area and its infamous “igloos,” and read all the requisite books concerning eyewitness accounts and the circumstances surrounding the collapse of the bridge. This story is a worthy addition to the growing catalog of Mothman tales.
The third story, “Zenra and the Art of Hummer Maintenance,” is perhaps the most complicated thematically and as far as source material is concerned. Beyond the title’s play on Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance the chapter pulls pieces from the WV Environmental scene, mashing them up with the Manson Family murders (appropriate given Manson’s connection to West Virginia). It is also in this chapter that the author’s technical writing skills shine brightest as he explains the nuances of energy company expansion versus the protection of indigenous wildlife. Having friends who live near the headwaters of the Potomac in eastern West Virginia, I have seen the rape of the landscape perpetrated by the energy companies. It’s easy to understand how some people take their passion for the environment to extreme and ugly places.
The fourth chapter, “The Winter of Our Discombobulation,” boldly goes where most authors dare not tread—interdicting themselves, warts and farts and all, into their own story. This can be polarizing for audiences, as in the case of Stephen King and the final two books of the Dark Tower series, but, like in all things having to do with Art, it only matters if it works for the story or not and in this case (as in King’s) it certainly does. I give Bottles credit for taking a twisted trip to the kinds of places only the late, great Hunter S. Thompson could and leaving his ego in the background to maximize the laughs and the bizarreness of the tale he tells. Kudos must be given for the insights he gives into both the creative and business sides of the novelist’s life. And, for all you fans of zombies, he does not disappoint!
The fifth and final section, “At the Mountains of Mayhem,” takes us back to the characters of Pendleton County while introducing a Buffy-esque new one and tying all of the stories together in a mounting climax (a few actually) and ending that undoes typical conventions and expectations.
Further tying the separate stories together are some recurring themes and scenes that one can only truly appreciate when the book is finished.
Although it’s not for everyone (and no style of writing should be), Hellhole, West Virginia provides ample entertainment and new takes on tried and true legends of the region.
And should you want to burn it, perhaps the publisher’s back cover advice should get the final word: “wear fire-resistant clothing.”

Sunday, July 8, 2012

“Of Floods, and Fires, and Vampires”: A Review of Gary Lee Vincent’s Darkened Waters

(Burning Bulb Publishing, 2012, ISBN: 9780615623511) The Horror (or Sci-Fi) Trilogy, based as it is on the classic three-act model, is a time-honored literary tradition. But as satisfying as it can be, it’s hard to pull off through the final act. To sustain the suspense, slowly unravel the details of and maintain interest in the central characters, tease the reader with cliffhangers without creating alienation—these are the obstacles to the successfully executed trilogy. It’s a well-known mantra in literary circles that “anyone can write a good first act”—it’s all Expectation, initial IOUs (as my college writing professor termed them), and the setting of the large and small events in motion. To those who have read my reviews of Darkened Hills (2010) and Darkened Hollows (2011)— the first two books of the West Virginia Vampire Series—the reasons why “act one” and “act two” of the trilogy work so well are clear: they serve as a wonderful homage to and pastiche of the oft-told tale of the vampire, mixing as they do the larger international lore with the idiosyncrasies and unique people and places of rural West Virginia. The best we can do as genre fiction writers is to bring something new to the prerequisites and symbol systems of the particular genre in which we write, and Gary Lee Vincent has done that and more, especially in this final installment, which goes from the local to the national to the truly universal (and therefore mythological). Darkened Waters covers several time periods and geographical bits and pieces, overlaying a mythological array of characters both familiar and unique to Vincent’s blood-drenched world in addition to the returning residents and visitors to Melas, WV and its environs. It breaks out well beyond the framework of the first book, which took many of its names and cues from Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Stephen King’s de- and re-construction of it, ‘Salem’s Lot, and stakes its claim to its very own place in vampire literature. Similar to the strength of the mining scenes in the second book of the trilogy, Vincent’s detailed and vivid descriptions of landscape and its destruction rivet the reader as Nature is once again unleashed on the small towns of Melas and Tarklin, setting in motion an epic battle of Good vs. Evil, Simple Mortal vs. Massive Monster that moves relentlessly and entertainingly toward its climax. Complete with adult themes and dark matters, ample twists and turns, and a healthy dose of laughs, Darkened Waters delivers on the promise of Darkened Hills and Darkened Hollows and does so in a satisfying and memorable way. As always, I end with a few words about the multi-talented Gary Lee Vincent: He has published several non-fiction books as well as the novel Passageway and has a background and Ph.D. in Computer Information Systems. In addition to being an author, editor, and publisher of Burning Bulb, he is also a recording artist, with three albums to his credit. I look forward to what comes next.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

A Review of Rosemary Ellen Guiley’s Guide to the Dark Side of the Paranormal

(2012, Visionary Living, Inc., From one of the foremost experts on the paranormal comes this introductory handbook to a selection of 20 different categories in the field. From Haunted Objects to Mirrors, from The Evil Eye to Moon Madness this quick-reading guide serves to both educate and protect the reader in its succinct chapters and 157 pages. Whether you are just curious or one of the growing numbers of people purchasing EMF meters, tape recorders, and digital cameras and going out into the field to try and experience ghosts, spirits, and other manifestations, this book does an excellent job of explicating the pleasures and pitfalls of experiencing the Unseen and Unusual. Opening with a chapter on Curses, the book goes into an array of physical objects (those mentioned above, as well as Haunted Houses) before moving on to supernatural beings, including: demons, djinn (Guiley has co-authored an excellent book on the subject, which I reviewed last year), Shadow People, and Skinwalkers. This is an important section to study, as these beings all have their specific strengths, weaknesses, and challenges should you be (un)lucky enough to encounter one! The Guide then examines the less-dangerous types of beings and manifestations, such as doppelgangers and ghosts. The book continues its exploration and education through excellent chapters on Dream Invasion, Sex with Ghosts and Entities, the Ouija (Guiley’s new book this often misunderstood spirit-communication tool just came out), Spirit Bargaining, Men in Black (there’s much more too them than what’s portrayed in the popular film trilogy!), and Vampire UFOs—in this case, the strangest is definitely left for the last. Chapters 17 and 18 and the Appendix are indispensible reading for those going out into the field to do their own paranormal investigations. Red Flags to Avoid, Psychic Protection, and Getting Help for Dark Side Problems are all covered. While my library is filled with highly detailed books on almost all of the subjects covered in this Guide (many written by Guiley), I will be turning to this book again and again for a quick reminder and some ready information, whether I am into a new writing project or heading out into the field with a group of investigators.

Friday, May 11, 2012

A Review of Eileen R. Tabios and j/j hastain’s the relational elations of ORPHANED ALGEBRA

(New York: Marsh Hawk Press, 2012; ISBN: 978-0-9846353-2-0) If you label me, you negate me. —Soren Kierkegaard Some books help us pass the time. Others entertain or inform us. And then there is the rare book that Inspires us—forces us to see with a different set of eyes and subsequently change our Newly Provoked Thoughts to Actions, enlivening our heart and engaging our Humanity. This is such a book. And, for that reason, this will be more than just a review. There are excellent reviews about the poetics of this book available on both the back cover and out it in world. And although the book’s content is my basis for all that follows, what this is is an extension of the work begun in the book, as I believe Tabios and hastain would have it. I should begin by saying that it a great honor for me, as Founding Editor of, to have poetry by both of these poet–philosopher–activists on our literary website. They push the boundaries; even more, they evaporate them—the boundaries of reader and writer, of author and social visionary, of Human and Spirit. This is the energy that makes New Mystics what it has grown to be over the past 10 years, and the energy that keeps the function of the Poet so vital to the world. the relational elations of ORPHANED ALGEBRA carries through one of the main themes in Tabios’ work—the condition of being the Orphan. Sparked by her own experience as an adoptive parent, the socio-political and emotional challenges strike a sharp chord in her work and thus the book begins with “ORPHANED ALGEBRA,” a series of prose-poems that take as their basis Word Problems from a math textbook used by her adopted son. Word Problems. Or, perhaps, the Problem with WORDS. This is resonant throughout the book. Ancient wisdom says that once you find the moon, you no longer need the finger that points to it. Put another way, once we have a firm grasp of the Idea, the Words no longer matter. But we are all too poor at grasping the ideas that pool and swirl around us, so we categorize and label and organize, and in doing so, restrict what people can be or become. This is a main point of the civil/humans rights performance piece, “I Am Not Other” that my social justice theatre company, Seven Stories, has been performing the past five years. And this is a thru-thread in this book as well. So. Word Problems. Through her deft and vivid prose-poems, Tabios tackles the underlying social ramifications of the seemingly innocent scenarios posed in the service of our children learning their math. Math that revolves around an antiquated Industrial model that has no place in the New Millenium, and yet still persists, for the American education system, as an extension of the Corporate–Military–Industrial complex, is more interested in producing Worker-Bees and Consumers than Citizens and Thinkers. No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which is one of the most oxymoronic, inaccurate, and reprehensible monikers ever put forth by any government anywhere (and which is, thankfully, beginning to go away), in its effort to clamp down on the critical thinking and arts-based curriculum beginning to take hold around the country prior to its “adoption,” put all the emphasis on the Standardized Test—the shortest way, in their Other-driven thinking—of making a Standardized American, who could then join the military or a corporation that would then created a Standardized World. But there have been studies done since the implementation of NCLB that show a few unsettling things: (1) It dishonors Multiculturalism, and the pushback by teachers in creating an inclusive classroom is immense; (2) In the case of Word Problems, it makes it all the more difficult for those who use English as a second language, and those native Americans (wink, wink) who are being poorly educated and so are not proficient enough readers to get from Prosody/Fluency to Comprehension (the mind cannot do both at once) to first interpret, then actually answer the Word Problems correctly, so scores do not necessarily reflect Math aptitude, but a slew of other deficiencies in Communication. I think that Tabios’ use of these Word Problems is about the best use of them that I’ve seen in quite some time. The following section of the book is authored by j/j hastain, and is an extension/reply to Tabios’ “ORPHANED ALGEBRA.” Instead of the orphan as the starting point, however, hastain looks at the notions of body [in order to break down the rigid gender split //Male–Female// society now employs], modes of procreation, and, most importantly, Identity. The rest of the book, called “Process,” is a balanced blend of poetry and essay wherein the authors discuss their reasons for, approaches to, and philosophies behind not only this collaboration, but their life’s work. There are sobering statistics on the orphanage self-preserving “system” in our supposedly civilized society [not unlike the military–industrial and pharmaco-medicine complexes that need War and Illness in order to survive—systems that also feed the orphan-making system]. There is also a substantial essay penned by hastain that outlines new ways of looking at Gender, Identity, and the Body. The book closes as it begins—with the prevailing idea in Tabios’ work that “the poet only begins the poem” (p. 81). As did hastain, I have endeavored to extend this book-poem through this essay and I invite you to read the book and extend the poem even further in your own unique way.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

“Hell in a Motel”: A Review of Michelle Bowser’s Don’t Yell at the Damn Desk Clerk!

(Amazon Kindle [for PC, Mac, or smartphone with free downloadable app]. .99 cents) By Joey Madia I have long been fascinated by the genre-bending practice of fictionalizing one’s life experiences to turn them into “literature.” If we concede that ALL autobiography is to some degree fiction, as the human memory is dreadfully unreliable when it comes to the unfolding of events (we each cling to and exaggerate the details that meld best with our personality and values while downplaying or disregarding those that don’t) then this seems like a fair and useful practice in creative writing. In my writing classes, especially with middle school students, an exercise I find very useful is to have them write down in six to eight sentences something mundane that happened to them on a recent day. We then start to exaggerate two different elements, choosing from the Place, the People, and the Event (creating problems where there were none). I always have them keep one element the same throughout the exercise to keep the revised/exaggerated piece rooted solidly to the original. The end result is often wild and outlandish stories that get a few laughs and beautifully illustrate that the Exaggeration is really what makes any piece of creative writing work. According to the late, great comedian George Carlin, Exaggeration is the foundation of the funny little story we call a “joke.” Michelle Bowser’s Don’t Yell at the Damn Desk Clerk! makes excellent use of the Exaggeration, mostly through the characters, but also through the events (the place in this case stays the same)—the problems are never mundane and easily solved; they grow in complexity, yielding plenty of laughs and an elevator-load of sympathy for the poor night-shift clerk at an unnamed local motel. Yes—the night shift! We’ve all heard stories from our friends and relatives who have worked the graveyard shift at gas stations, Wal-Marts, and factories across this weird and wacky land of ours. This is the time when all the kooky dudes and wacky weirdos come out of their caves to shop and mingle. And if you’ve ever spent any time wandering the grounds in the middle of the night at a small-town motel, you know what a rich Petrie dish of characters and happenstances they yield (I’ve fictionalized and incorporated my own experiences as a traveler in one of my books). Split into ten chapters (strung together by a cumulative list of 17 sub-jobs that the narrator does as part of her main job as desk clerk), Don’t Yell at the Damn Desk Clerk! takes the reader on a funny, and often biting, tour of the world of the weirdo traveler and the troubles that come with trying to keep the vending machines, AC, and laundry machines all working while cranky curmudgeons crowd your desk with all their (mostly petty) problems. Through the course of the book we meet over-eager Black Friday shoppers, the rabble-rousing rednecks that represent opening day of Hunting Season, and nefarious co-workers and inept and penny-pinching management. There’s also a secret rendezvous gone wrong and, perhaps the stars of this Silver, Gold and Platinum motel saga—the Rip-Off kid and his grandma. Oh yes. And the crazy, rainbow spirit-dog, positive, Reservation Lady. And “zombies.” I think you get the idea. There were many times while reading Don’t Yell at the Damn Desk Clerk! that I laughed out loud. Bowser has an edgy, sarcastic sense of humor and a lively writing style that makes for quick and enjoyable reading. If you’re like most everyone else and have ever had a crappy job, this is a book for you. And if you haven’t, you’re probably one of the lousy-mooded travelers on which this book is based.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Monsters of West Virginia: Mysterious Creatures in the Mountain State by Rosemary Ellen Guiley

(2021, Stackpole Books,, $12.95, ISBN: 978-0-8117-1028-2)
[Disclaimer: The final chapter of this book, “The Enchanted Holler,” details many of the paranormal experiences my family has had on our 3 acres in north central West Virginia. I will not be discussing this chapter in this review and I do not believe that this precludes me from making a fair judgment about the rest of the book. JM]
There is an illustration going around Facebook recently that lists the qualifications of a Paranormal Researcher in the past as compared to now. As one can imagine, in this age of ready (but often questionable) Internet “data” and a glut of paranormal shows on cable television, anyone with a camcorder, an EMF meter (which a 10-year-old friend of my daughter’s recently got as a Christmas present), and some curiosity, what passes as a Researcher/Investigator is nowhere near as rigorous as it used to be.
True professionals do the leg work—literally—traipsing the natural landscapes and man-made locations where sightings are reported to have happened and spending countless hours in libraries and archives reading past accounts and, even better, interviewing witnesses.
True professionals in the field of Paranormal Research must do many things well: they must understand basic scientific principles, which can account for phenomena otherwise mistaken to be “paranormal”; they must be historians, anthropologists, and sociologists; they must also be adept at the skills of the writer and storyteller.
Most of all, they must be willing to be disappointed, or to not hold expectations that their forays into the field will bear tangible fruit.
Based on all of these criteria, I can highly recommend any of the previous 50 books written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley, and this new one is no exception. Why? Because I have been fortunate enough to be in the field with her on numerous occasions and to have read many of her books, and she meets all of the above criteria to an impressive degree.
In Monsters of West Virginia, Guiley investigates a wide array of Mountain State creatures and entities, from the two most famous—Mothman and the Braxton County (or Flatwoods) Monster—to some lesser known, but no less interesting, local legends.
In the five years that I have lived in West Virginia, my work has taken me to a majority of the places that Guiley chose to write about, and her feel for each locale is right on the money.
The 12 chapters covering each exotic entity are a balanced mix of field work, and firsthand and published accounts, and Guiley has a knack for not poking fun or pushing any one explanation or thesis too hard; this elevates her above many of her peers in this area of study, and is a main reason why I tend to use her books over others for my own research. In the rare cases, such as in the chapter “The Yayho: West Virginia’s Bigfoot,” where she favors one position over another (i.e., that Bigfoot and other creatures of its ilk are multidimensional beings and not from this planet) she enlists the help of other world-renowned researchers such as Nick Redfern.
In addition to the monsters already mentioned, there are excellent chapters on “Monster Birds, Thunderbirds, and Flying Reptiles,” “The Grafton Monster,” and “White Things and Sheepsquatch,” among half a dozen others.
Although particularly appealing to those interested in the Appalachian culture, chock full as it is of paranormal and folk stories, Monsters of West Virginia is fun, light reading for anyone interested in the myriad monsters that have roamed (and are roaming still) our world—and, perhaps, beyond.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

A Poet’s (Very) Public Passion

A Review of The Poet’s Daughter, by Parvaneh Bahar with Joan Aghevli (Larson Publications, 2011,

This thought-provoking book, subtitled, “Malek O’Shoara of Iran and the Immortal Song of Freedom,” tells the story of Iran’s great political activist and foremost poet of the twentieth century, Malek O’Shoara Bahar, through the eyes and experiences of his daughter. In a time when all the world is focused on the future of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran and the Arab Spring continues to change the course of history in the Middle East, Bahar’s tribute to her father (which doubles as a personal memoir) recalls to the reader not only the circumstances that created the current situation in Iran; it also demonstrates the great power of poetry to help foment change in political activism.

Not unlike Pablo Neruda who said to the Chilean forces sent for him by Pinochet: “Look around—there’s only one thing of danger for you here—poetry” or Federico Garcia Lorca in Spain, Malek O’Shoara Bahar was not only a gifted poet, but a passionate activist and scholar who spent time in prison and exile for his beliefs about democracy and self-government. Parts of his poems, which are now used as songs for the Arab Spring, are strategically placed throughout the book, and although their translations into English render them somewhat less rich than they might be in their native language, one still feels the depth of belief, the commitment to social justice, and the artistic philosophy they contain.

From the time he was 18, when he sent his first poem to a ruler of Iran (which garnered him the title “Prince of Poets” and a small stipend from the shah) to the time of his death in 1951 from tuberculosis, Bahar was not afraid to speak out against tyranny and actively compose a vision for the Iran he wished to see. He was a co-founder of Iran’s Democratic Party and publisher of several subversive newspapers—all at a time (the early twentieth century) when Britain and Russia were exploiting Iran’s wealth and its rulers were selling the soul of their country to the highest bidders. Bahar’s experiences at this time, in and out of favor depending on the diplomatic breeze, can only be likened to a candle in the wind. His resolve—his constancy—during this time of “The Great Game” (as coined by Kipling) shows a courage most often attributed to men like Gandhi, King, and Mandela.

His periods in prison over the course of decades ultimately cost him his life due to the poor conditions ruining his health, and there were times where he was nearly killed outright. (In one instance the assassin killed the wrong man.) It is sometimes hard to understand how a father and husband could put his family in such peril—subjected to the authorities busting down the door in the middle of the night and dragging him off—but the great names come to mind again—Gandhi, King, Mandela—and it becomes clear their was nothing else he could do. It was his destiny, and a path his family willingly walked along with him.

The early chapters of the book recount, amid so much turmoil, a house and home-life idyllic in their simplicity and deification of such pillars as nature and family. Although they had very little money, the Bahars had an exquisite garden and one of the most extensive libraries in all of Iran (both of which were lost when the family was once again exiled). The author writes of a close-knit family where both father and mother were respected by their children and one another. Her descriptions of the foods they grew and ate speak to a life lived close to Nature and Spirit and based in a deep and abiding love.

That love, both long-lasting and not, is a central theme of the book, which recounts in detail not only the courtship of her parents, but Bahar’s two failed marriages. She says on page 56, “I always hoped that I would find a man who combined the qualities of my father and Mehrdad [her brother], but I never found one who came close.”

Indeed, it would be nearly impossible to compete with the deep well of passion and love Malek exhibited to all those he met. In one instance, like the Bishop of Hugo’s Les Miserables, he gives money [instead of candlesticks] to a thief who had stolen rugs and other valuables from their home just days before.

Within a few years of her father’s death, her second husband’s work with the IMF and World Bank brought the author to America, where, due to her husband’s position in Washington, Bahar navigated high-class social and political circles and met more than one president and/or first lady. It is at this point that the book shifts its focus to the domestic and social struggles the author faced as she sought an education and, ultimately, an escape from her controlling and philandering husband and her heartbreak at learning that America’s treatment of minorities—and women—was in many ways worse than the oppression she had witnessed in Iran. This last third of the book details her triumph in learning English, assimilating into American society while remaining true to her cultural roots, and her obtainment of both undergraduate and graduate degrees. Through it all, her father’s words and wisdom give her strength as she participates in the civil rights and women’s movements.

The Epilogue brings the journey full circle, as Bahar recalls the events of the 1979 Iranian revolution (well-known to Americans because of the simultaneous hostage crisis) and her subsequent trips to her home country.

For reasons she makes clear, she has not gone back since Ahmadinejad was elected president.

The book has a carefully selected section of black and white photographs that are helpful in getting to know even better this courageous and important family, both to the history of Iran and to social justice activism around the world.

The Poet’s Daughter helps to bring to light a man whose name should be uttered in America in the same breath with those three pillars of the human struggle for equality mentioned twice in this review.