Monday, January 14, 2013

Franzen's "Freedom," Review in Free Verse

Franzen Freedom in Free Verse

Patty, you pirouetted freely on the floor
Of a baller gym trying to escape the still-hot embers
Of free love freely robbed from you
Honeybee rapes the flower,
Robs the honeysuckle of that which

Heaven gave, and though depraved
Men who claim your fealty, family
Fails to carry swords for girls
Carries water for criminals
With bigger dicks and wallets

Walter, frozen like a shallow pond
In Iron Ranging winter raging
Through your backwoods blood, the
Booze and smokes of the Bemidji men
Who tie the women down with drink and

Servitude. The weight of constant winter
Silent spring traps you in a world of must
Until you find a free spirit free love freely
Given in sattvic smiles saturated with
Sex and satisfaction. Shiva sweeps in

Swollen roadbeds slippery tar and loosened
Gravel thrown from truckbeds full to
Breaking broken coal soot whiskey
Fly Lalitha, fly love free for though
You came to this overpopulated

Planet poised to choke on smoke
City soaked with human sorrow
You found freedom, love to borrow
Wresting Walter from his chains
Of filial obligation now you’re gone

Children live, triangulated
Joey individuated
Wrapped in teen lust, still a boy
Coupled free of Mom and Dad
Grab that prize! Trash her later

Make connection, take that contract
Find a way to cop free stash and
Money by the hundred thousand
Find the stench of rotting blood
Turns you back, pay ill with good

Rock star Richard
Fluid rake
Will you take
Her mistake
Thrown like waste
In the face
Of the chick
Who would stick
To the pick
Your guitar
Travels far
From the heart
Of your Walt
Though you love him
You betray him
With your radar cock
you slay him
Sets him free
To love and lose
And grieve

Yet another, a girl who might redeem
Brokenness, the wretched weight of empty
Space between the fibers raveling.
Free from guttering smoky flame
Of family’s woven wick, Jessica,

Your mother’s calling,
You are my mirror. Cast the light
Where I fail, hebete presence, to shine.
Hurl spears for me. Then salve
The wounds I caused. Put the pieces of Patty

Back together. Walter’s birds, however fragile,
Can not rise or sing with their savior
Limned on a cross with

Free to be who we aren’t
Freedom’s never free
For the cost is the loss
Of who we are

Saturday, December 1, 2012

When We Danced on Water, by Evan Fallenberg, a review

Dear Hitler:

If the word didn’t strangle me, I might thank you for creating a world that brought forth the legendary power and strength of my people. You yourself, through your propaganda film department, documented our ends, but you left it to masters of fiction like Evan Fallenberg to tell our stories of survival. You have created a universe of pain behind you. It’s not our deaths we rage against in the generations that follow; it’s the pain of the last three years, the last five years, the last twelve years, even, in the case of some of us, the last fifty or sixty years of our lives. You called us vermin; we looked our torturers in the eye and spat on them as we endured their blows.

Just ask Teo. Ask him, Herr Hitler, what he did the final moment of the War, when he escaped his six year slavery as the personal plaything of an obsessed monster, who rose to be your top Minister of Culture before this slavemaster was pressed into service as an increasingly overmatched lieutenant, Captain, Lieutenant General, and finally, escapee. Ask your Baron Friedrich von Sadistschafft how many boys he demolished on the way to his enslavement of potentially the best male dancer of his era, possibly even a rival to Nijinsky. Go to Israel, and ask Teo’s friend of his twilight, Vivi, whose life was dissolute, fading, even, at the age of forty-two, who met your survivor of Reichskutltursschafft and, fired full of passion, the holy twin of obsession, created legendary installations in defiance of everything you were and everything you twisted your people into becoming. Ask their child, conceived on the very last night of Teo’s life, the eternal tribute to the fact that you were defeated, whereas we were merely destroyed. From every destruction there are survivors, memories. From your defeat, a shame that no one nation could bear, not even one Germany.

We, the readers of Evan Fallenberg’s masterful tale, will feel the passion that Fallenberg nurtures, from the Teo’s first studio, the parks and balustrades of Warsaw, to the school in Copenhagen where he would emerge, ready to take over the Reich’s balletic imagination, to Teo’s capture, enslavement, and violation at the hand of the evil of this culture officer’s obsession. We will walk the streets of your Berlin with Vivi, the Israeli whose life, and passion, had fallen out of focus at the hand of another German, who could not shoulder your burden alone. We will feel the would that seared your city’s heart for thirty years. We will follow Vivi back to the streets of Tel Aviv where, through her association and eventual romance with Teo, discovered a wellspring of passion inside herself and went from coffee-shop waitress and dilettante to the artist to whom presidents paid obeisance. Finally, I call on your rotten bones to twist and cry out like the Biblical victims of Dathan and Abiram, wailing your apologies to the grave while Teo’s and Vivi’s son Nathaniel, “Given by G!d,” dances in some decades on your metaphoric and real grave.

We, the survivors, their grandchildren, their neighbors and the descendants of their neighbors, read the words masterfully imagined by Mr. Fallenberg, and we give praise for passion, for it is passion that creates true art.

You can watch Evan Fallenberg read from his novel When We Danced on Water at the PEN Written on Water festival at

Friday, November 30, 2012

The Footbridge, by Josh Chapman: a Review

When the first squishy boy/girl scene flew by, I was thinking, “Oooh, and I getting old or what?” I think it’s “Or what,“ in the plot-rich but character-deficient The Footbridge by Josh Chapman. The plot is simple – got your temporal relativity boots on? Girl and boy are best buds since pre-K. Both become movie goodlooking teenage characters. Then, we get the old double narrator trick, in which the boy’s narrator is omniscient  - except for one huge blind spot. He’s crazy about the girl, and she’s crazy about him, but since he’s the jock, she’s waiting for him to make the move.  Neither character can see that the other is feeling deepening emotions, because they think of each other as they ware – and the risk of losing the friendship is a risk too big to take.

Kelly, the guy, may as well be a cardboard cut out of the jock character – but he foreshadows the repressed, unemotional, Jack Kemp sort of guy that he will develop into – in the sequel. Sally, the girl, is total emo at its worst. Her mom had her in high-school, or rather, conceived her in high school and then dropped out. The entirety of the first act is spent with Sally comtemplating suicide. That’s what you do as an emo girl.

Chapman sets himself a challenging task by attempting the double narrator trick. I tried that at the beginning of my own romantic fiction novel – until my writers’ group talked me down. They assured me that one of my narrators would get stuck with an unsympathetic character. Kelly is worse than unsympathetic. He’s BORING. He’s just too perfect. I want to decapitate him with his own lacrosse cross. Sally is her own kind of caricature. When reading the chapters narrated by the two separate narrators from their limited point-of-view,  I felt that the stories were alive, but not the characters. Add Alex, the role-playing dweeb, and Lauren, the trusty best friend, and I was tempted to set this one aside.

Now to the more interesting part – the plot. We find out that Sally isn’t a depressed emo girl because she was born to an alcoholic teenage mom whose seducer was a one night stand. It turns out that as the soldier of the next generation was making its way up her mom to form Sally, her mom observed something unspeakable. For the next seventeen years, an evil cabal of real estate demons, perverts, and low-level medical assistants conspire to make Sally’s mom a falling-down drunk and to make Sally so depressed that she cannot raise her head out of the botulized stew of her own life to pose a threat.

The accident that changes everything is that a temporal rift develops over the footbridge that Sally crosses every day to get to school. Now, Sally has a chance to change history, because her mother and the sperm source went to her high school eighteen years earlier. Now it gets good. Now we find out very quickly what the motivations of all the awful people of Sally’s present day lives are.

Josh Chapman clearly shows promise. I couldn’t stop reading the book after the dweeb character gets sucked into 1995. As a reader, I just shouldn’t be manhandled into investing an hour or two in wooden characters and predictable dialogue before the good stuff starts. The plot was thrilling – once I got there. I can see the movie in my imagination, and it’s better than the book.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Best Book for Very Old (and some very young)

“Nothing, nothing I try, nothing I say, nothing I do, gets through to her!” How many times have we, the sandwich generation, heard this lament from our friends, our bridge partners, our work colleagues, or even ourselves? The problem is that our aged parents are confronted with the growing loss of mental capacity. Not being a clinician, I am not able to say what degree of self-awareness the increasingly demented family member retains, I know that the children or caregivers of elderly people facing dementia do not enjoy “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

So what do we do? How do we make the hours we spend with the elderly any form of a reward – or at least, not so punishing to our hearts and to our psyches? Music therapy is great, and we know that music makes a connection. In his new book, Blue Sky White Clouds: A Book for Memory-Challenged Adults (2012, Rainbow Ridge Books), Eliezer Sobel creates a storyboard of twenty-six evocative photographs in which the story ranges far, far beyond the four or five 48-point words captioning the picture.

When I first tried to use the book with a senior, I chose for one example the picture of a row of pines blanketed in snow, arising from a deep cottony landscape with the ever-so-common grey winter sky, rendered much more friendly by the black-and-white format. I was able to create a conversation about visiting a friend’s house for Christmas. My elderly friend selected one of the trees in the picture and imagined decorations. I know that I could have led an entire therapy session if that were my profession, using Christmas ornaments, gingerbread cookies, and candles, then going deeper into a patient’s own background to make deeper and deeper connections. My friend was able to read the caption out loud, and with the book open to that picture, remain engaged for  fifteen minutes. What a gift!

Because I am an older dad, I was able to test out another hypothesis. I have long known that the cognitive abilities of children far exceeds their reading level or even their linguistic capacities. Might the rich, real, pictorial stories rendered in Sobel’s book hold the attention of people at the opposite end of the age spectrum? My own daughter, at five years of age just beginning to read, was able to turn to any picture and with some help, read the caption. More importantly, the pictures evoked stories, coming out almost without prompting from a little girl who has suffered from expressive language delay. Ten minutes talking about a brilliant black and yellow butterfly on a purple and white iris.

I am suggesting, although I don’t have research to back this up, that these evocative, rich pictures of the great and small, the very old and very young, the tiny and the vast, reach in and touch the cognitive function and emotional processing of the very old and the very young in a way that is usually reserved for the music therapist. At 26 pages, the book is more than manageable to the reader, and offers the caregiver the opportunity to connect in a rich and vital way.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Writing Blogs Made Dead Simple

Ever want to know what is behind those AOL/Google/Yahoo headlines, like, “7 Ways to Better Sex tonight!” or “101 Techniques to Raising a Healthy Teen,” or “Crazy New Weight-Loss Bean?” There is a science to this, and Nick Thacker wants you to know how to use it. If you are blogging for a job, Thacker can help you get more sales. If you want to penetrate the blogosphere without selling a product, even better. Finally, and I will revisit this later, you can follow Thacker’s suggestion to build up a community that will help you sell books and help other writers. Let me put this in my opening paragraph: or The books are also available on Amazon.
Thacker chose for the first book in the Dead Simple Guide to address the topic of headlines. I don’t care if your goal is to sell toothpaste, you will fare poorly if you use a headline that folks will blow past when they search to find you – or your competitor. When I’m searching, if I think an article will not help, I’ll leave it unread – and move on, seeking a more likely-looking answer. Don’t you? Shouldn’t you invest some time making sure that you would click on your article, advertisement, or blog post if you were doing the searching? In The Dead Simple Guide to Amazing Headlines, Thacker helps you think through this, and provides shortcuts if you choose to use them.
Now you have your headline, or at least, you can conceive of a headline that would sell your next blog post. Now what? You can make your site awesome, make your content brilliant, and still attract nobody. I know. That’s me. In the second book, The Dead Simple Guide to Guest Posts, Thacker walks you through the process of creating community, which causes people to  link to you, host your guest posts, and cross-promote your blog. What is missing here is how to create the code on your site to do what you want. For example, I don’t know how to sell my own book (on on my own Blogger page. Hmmm.
The third book in the trilogy, The Dead Simple Guide to Pillar Content, shows that Thacker is really a novelist at heart. “Creating Pillar Content.” Ever heard of it? I hadn’t, either. Pillar content is why your blog exists. You need to make something stand out to let people know who you are and why they should care.  Thacker explains why you, a novelist, should write about your philosophy of writing, how you develop your characters, where your plot ideas come from, essentially who you are as a writer. Thacker explains that, whether you are writing a blog on fishing or on writing, that you make the “pillars” of your blog out of content that will draw readers.
Is this collection a real hack, meaning an elegant and quick solution to an intractable problem, to your marketing and blogging issues? If, like me, you don’t know much about the bits and bytes of what to do to achieve your blog goals, maybe not. But for anyone with web design assets, or even a few hundred bucks to handle the tech stuff, Thacker’s trilogy will set you on the right path.
Don’t forget to buy my book 3 Through History: Love in the Time of Republicans, at Thanks for reading!

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Submission, by Amy Waldman

Where were you when JFK was shot? Martin Luther King? Bobby Kennedy? Where were you when Neil Armstrong took “one small step for man?” When Nixon resigned? When the Soviet Union imploded For two generations, these essential “Where were you?” questions were eclipsed by, “Where were you at 9 AM on September 11, 2001?” For Amy Waldman, author of The Submission (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011) , she was building up the journalistic skills of a major reporter and the writing chops of the author that she becomes within these pages. As a bureau chief of the South Asia office for the New York Times, she found herself embedded in the conflicting cultures that led the story of  the memorial design competition that led up to the tenth year anniversary. Waldman is enough of a New Yorker that she could capture the view through the eyes of demagogues, widows, and Muslims. The demagogues live behind pen and microphone. The widows have the conscience suit covered deep, and the Muslims? Both the winning designer and an unlikely spokeswoman arise from the American Muslim community, with the twist that this Muslim is also a 9/11 widow.

Claire Burwell holds the lone seat on the memorial selection jury reserved for families of the victims. An Ivy-educated woman of independent means, her husband was very wealthy from his work at Cantor Fitzgerald. The jury added her because she was presumed to serve as a barrier between the artistic taste of the jury and the raw emotion of the other survivors. At the  other end of the spectrum is Sean Gallagher, a handyman living in the basement of his mother’s house in Brooklyn. Sean’s brother Patrick was a firefighter pulverized under the collapsing South Tower. Sean had build a small career being Patrick’s voice from beyond the grave. Mohammed (Mo) Khan, a prominent architect and a secular Muslim, won the anonymous competition with a garden that emerged geometrically from the irrigation canals up to the metal trees made from 9/11 rubble. When a grasping, aggressive journalist from a notorious tabloid discloses the religion of the competition winner, the city falls under another attack, this time from within.

Would the memorial garden ever be built at all?  Gallagher plays his status as the brother of a fallen hero into a speaking career with minor celebrity status, all in the name of preventing a Musilm architect from building an “Islamic garden: as a “martyr’s paradise.” Claire struggles to balance her own integrity with the raging voices of the other families. Mo fights everyone’s attempts to vilify the design by attacking the designer, or more specifically, the religious heritage of the designer. At a crucial moment, Asma, an undocumented Bangladeshi Muslim widow of the attacks, risks all she has to speak her truth at an angry gathering of the families of victims.

Ten years and two wars later, Waldman’s novel, The Submission, tells the story of a nation struggling to affirm the principles that extremists love to hate. The Submission speaks to the morals of a people whose pluralism, tolerance, and understanding were pushed to the brink of collapse by attackers whose main objective was to make the country whose ideology they hate destroy itself from within.