Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Napier, Mouth for Picket Fences (2010)

Barry Napier, A Mouth for Picket Fences. Needfire Poetry, 2010. Pp. 88. ISBN 9781926912066. $9.99 print / $2.99 e-book.

Reviewed by Christopher Michaels

How do you review poetry? It’s such a subjective art, both in the writing and the reading. This wasn’t always true. Poetry was the primary form of stylised speaking and writing, as a performance art in the past; now, apart from its role in song, it’s a minority art mostly accused of being elitist. As a writer and appreciator of poetry I focus on emotion and passion and on these ways of experiencing and thinking about life, relationships and self. I like poetry with a strong emotional core. To me the power of poetry is its ability to point to the deep complexity of life beyond the limitations of words, its medium. For me another important quality of good poetry is the sense that it expands our language by playing with its metaphoric uses and the edge-meanings of it.

Barry Napier’s book is full of beautiful poetry in a modern free-verse form which fulfils these criteria admirably. Some of the poetry in the book continues the pattern of elitism of modern poetry in the complexity of its colliding imagery in ways that obscure meaning and feeling at first but then you learn his language. There is a sense of melancholy to his style which is not quite the enraged darkness we see in a lot of modern poetry, that slows you down to think and feel. He disrupts the blackest moods he suggests with gentle humour.

This is demonstrated in the very first poem ‘Hiding in October’. It starts with images of a one-track world and bored birds suggesting we have no control over the world and therefore life, but then he says:
“This was the same day you realized that a clock
has hands that can’t applaud
or hide themselves in coat pockets
or hold a baby, slick and new to the world.”
A humorous way of expressing the limitations of time yet filled with compassion. The poem is lovely and profound about the way symbol and organisation can overtake life by talking about how thin the calendar page is between September and November. The sad thought that a month is reduced to no more than a page in that calendar.

Another beautiful very sad poem from the first segment is the ‘Sentinel’. This one has no humorous relief. It is a short emotionally precise expression of self-destructive solitude, though it also seems to be about the loneliness old age and dementia. In contrast, towards the end of this segment, there is a rather sensuous contemplation on haunting, heaven and death, ‘We Will All Be Voyeurs in Heaven’, which nonetheless ends with:
“you will waste away in the shadow of life
The book is divided in three segments or chapters: ‘Normalcy’, ‘The Darkness Weighs Us’ and ‘(in)humanity’. To be honest I found it hard to know the relevance of the titles of the segments to the poetry within them. Normalcy has pieces, like the above three, which don’t necessarily seem to have much to say about normal life, unless he is saying normal life is melancholic.

The first poem of the second segment gives the book its name, ‘A Mouth for Picket Fences’, a description of mysterious evil, or is it God? This poem suggests a Stephen King-like story and character with an Old Testament complexity for the higher power. The strength of this poem is that he could be talking about marketing and capitalism just as easily as gods, demons and/or spirits. This poem has quite a different feel to the poetry of the first segment, there is a passion and clarity of opinion to it. The next poem ‘Morning Choir Practice’, a reflection on the sounds of a suburban morning chorus, returns to the melancholic feel of the first segment, but has a more judgemental sense to it. In away it seems to be more of a statement about normal life than most of the poems in the segment called ‘Normalcy’.

Most of the poems are about one page, short intensely emotional. ‘What We Know of Blackbirds’, at six pages, is the longest poem and picks up the theme from the sentinel of loneliness and aging. It uses the language and images of horror and mystery, reminding one of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Raven’, but is a contemplative exploration of hallucinogenic solitude brought on by profound grief. The choice of blackbirds as the birds of focus gives it symbolic depth. It could easily have been cliché, bringing on Stephen King, Hitchcock’s Birds and the Beatles, but the subtle understanding of the subjective, of feelings and the edge of sleep terror takes it into the realm of beauty.

The last poem in the book is appropriately ‘Rituals of Farewell and Departure’. It picks up the feel and narrative style of the earlier ‘Mouth for Picket Fences’, though not quite as strong as it, in the sense that it tells the story of a mystery spirit, maybe death, moving though suburban and small town life; a
“single shadow sulks across town,
under layered shadows and a collective naiveté”
Barry Napier’s collection of around forty poems is a substantial work worthy of wider notice. It courageously explores areas of life that are left untouched by many other art forms. Its style and emotional qualities take it into much deeper territory than the horror or dark lit that the promotional back pages suggest. To review a book like this is a little unfair since some of these poems are worthy of long consideration, of whole reviews by themselves. If there is a criticism it is that the collection is unlikely to pull non-poetry readers from the general public, people who don’t already love and appreciate poetry, but that’s not its aim.

Another minor problem is that of consistent emotional tone, maybe this is about his voice and the publisher’s idea that it should all fit together thematically and stylistically but for me it makes it a bit flat. A poem in the last segment like ‘The Misogyny of Writing’ heads towards sensuality and love with humour but then ends with grave-robbing obsession. A beautiful rendition of an afternoon of lemonade and a daughter’s relationship with her mother ends with a wasp landing on a “glazed-over eye where it marched onward, unseen”. It is as if everyday life is not enough, not profound enough or worthy enough for poetry unless it points to death and grief. However, the fact is few ordinary people in everyday conversation chat comfortably talk about death and its emotional consequences, its relationship with love and loss. These are important parts of our human experiences and Barry Napier is unflinching yet compassionate and sensitive in his expression of the intimacy of these moments.

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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Baum, American Book of the Dead (2009)

Henry Baum, The American Book of the Dead. Backword Books, 2009. Pp. 248. ISBN 978-0578026930. $13.95.

Reviewed by Don Campbell

A simple cover, featuring a series of stylized cartoonish scenes, white on black, belies a complex tale of humanity’s ability to be both rational and stark raving mad. Baum, who is at work on a follow up story set in the same universe, makes this novel available for free download, as well as on sale as a traditional hardcopy; it is more than worth the cost. The American Book of the Dead is an apocalyptic tale of an apocalypse that hasn’t happened, does happen, doesn’t happen or might happen.

Eugene Myers is a failed author who simply wants to leave a mark on the world. His career is going nowhere and his family is falling apart. His marriage is rocky at best, and he has discovered his daughter is doing Internet porn for extra cash. Things look bleak for his life when the dreams start. Dreams of faces, places, names and addresses. Dreams of real people, people he has never met. He begins chronicling the phenomena and the state of the world, only to watch as everything he writes begins to unfold. Is he making the future, or just seeing it?

Baum sets the novel’s beginning in a near, all too believable, future where violence is commonplace, almost expected and Internet porn is just something college kids do, because to them it’s not really a big deal. It is easily a world that could believably exist a very few short years from now. The novel presumes that humanity is slowly going mad, society devolving all over the world.

Enter President Winchell, his father, and his cabinet, who believe completely that it is their job to bring about the End Times. Winchell the elder has secret information, things that only top level government officials know and he divulges this information to Winchell the younger upon his son’s ascendency to the seat of President of the United States. Aliens exist and they wish to help us become a better society. There is no hell. Everyone who dies goes to a peaceful place, free of sadness, pain, and doubt. Everyone who dies goes there. It is knowledge that would make war obsolete, killing an enemy would be pointless.

Armed with this knowledge, Winchell the elder seeks to, as Eric Voegelin put it in The New Science of Politics in 1952, immanentize the eschaton, which is to bring about a final stage of heaven on earth. It is felt, however, that getting people to come together, unified as a species, is more than difficult. Too many cultural and religious boundaries exist. Winchell the elder seeks to break these concepts with a massive and devastating war. Billions will die, but he knows, he doesn’t just believe, he knows what will become of them afterward. For those that remain, life will be harder, but this hardship will force a social evolution as nothing else possibly could.

Winchell the younger, however, seems to wholly miss the point of there being no “correct” religion and sets about the task as more of a religious crusade. At first he sees himself in the role of a necessary Anti-Christ and then, later, decides that he may be the actual Messiah. His father supports this delusion at first for he feels it is necessary to get the American people to back what seems to be an insane war, but comes to realize his son has his own personal agenda.

Written in a self-aware, sometimes humorous style, Baum portrays protagonist Myers as a genuine human being, filled with the sort of traits we all share, even the ones we don’t always want others to see and never give voice to. His constant discomfort at his role as either author or prophet of the apocalypse feels genuine; his desire to not have the constant responsibility is understandable. The reader finds Myers easy to identify with and therefore his actions, whatever they may be, seem reasonable.

On the flip side of this is the almost cartoonish demagoguery and naiveté of President Winchell. It is unclear whether Baum intends him to be a parody of former President George W. Bush, but it certainly feels that way. It is difficult to tell whether the man is insane, stupid, or both. He is easy to hate but also easy to pity. He truly believes in what he is doing, but is unwilling to accept all of the information his father provides him. Like any good zealot he cherry picks what parts of the truth to believe in and twists each revelation with his own personal interpretation based on his preexisting beliefs. He is the closest thing the piece has to a true villain, and though he may be completely mad, unlike predecessors such as Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, or Mr. Burns he may actually be the closest any one madman has been to correct. His father, who approaches the whole situation with a more logical, less narrow minded view, pulls all the strings perfectly right up until it is time to bring the survivors together, at which point the puppet decides to assert its own will. When President Winchell meets his eventual fate, it is easy to, if not sympathize with, then at least pity him.

At the core, the novel is a story about mankind and the need for change. Myers wishes to change his life, his world, and begins the novel in effort to vent this desire for change. Though things seem bleak, the novel manages to hold on to a certain hope in the intrinsic goodness of people, but also seems to feel that without a some catastrophic event forcing total social reevaluation, the human race is ultimately going to continue to degrade. While the Winchells’ plan for war may be unfathomably destructive, even Myers is unsure whether or not it is needed. As casualties mount, first thousands, then millions, and ultimately billions, the cost in lives forces the remaining few to reassess social priorities in a way that it seems little else could.

I don’t mean to say that I agree that an apocalyptic war is the only way to bring about change but… well maybe I do. Policies, however well meaning, will be resisted. Politics are a constant battle between left and right and I don’t think it matters what side of that line you may fall on, we can all probably agree that government may have lost any real interest in governing and is instead more interested in playing a game of thrones. Religion has ever been a huge dividing line, the words of one prophet or another fought over as it has been for centuries and likely will be for centuries to come. Cultures will always try to preserve themselves, which isn’t a bad thing by any means, but it does leave one to wonder if it isn’t just another way we separate ourselves from one another. “Separate but equal” sounds good in theory, but even while many are perfectly fine with it (I count myself among that number), there are just as many who regard that separation with suspicion. While you may define this as largely just the ignorance of the uneducated (as I do) it is difficult to come up with any real piece of social engineering that could break through that ignorance.

This is where the war comes in. Keep in mind that the ideas here come with the caveat that it is known utterly and without question that the survivors will reach a new stage of enlightenment due to their shared experiences and those that fall will absolutely go to “heaven”. Operating with that as a known set of parameters, can I at least see the argument that the war is a valid means of social change? Sure. Even the protagonist Myers wishes there were another way, but seems to accept that there may not be. If the power were put into his hands to try a different route, would he take it? Absolutely. That does not mean, however, that it is impossible to accept the apocalypse war as a means to an end.

The ground covered in the novel is not particularly new. Plenty of apocalyptic novels have covered it before. 1949’s Earth Abides, in which humanity is all but wiped out by an unknown virus and must be rebuilt, focusing specifically on one man as an architect of a new society explored it. 1977’s Lucifier’s Hammer in which a massive comet slams into the Earth, reshaping the landscape, burning away or drowning much of the life on the planet, causes the priorities in the lives of the survivors to be completely rethought. Even in Cormac McCarthy’s unbelievably bleak novel The Road, The Boy has been raised in a burnt and ashen wasteland, filled with every manner of human horror imagineable, but has been instilled with and clings to a very palpable sense of right and wrong. We wonder sometimes if The Man is doing the right thing by sheltering The Boy in this way, if he is not in fact teaching The Boy to be weak in an age meant only for the strong, but The Boy seems strong with conviction, even bending his father under the weight of it. The Boy represents an ideal that persists even in the face of overwhelming misery and violence.

Even in stories where a full-on apocalypse is not on the setlist, there plays a similar song. Theodore Sturgeon’s short story “Unite and Conquer”, published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1948 has mankind uniting against an engineered alien threat. This would later become the basic plot of the Outer Limits original series episode “The Architects of Fear” starring the late Robert Culp which in turn would inspire comic book creator Alan Moore to write the now classic Watchmen graphic novel (in the film version you can actually see the Outer Limits episode playing on one of Ozymandius’ monitors).

It would seem that many writers agree that a paradigm shift of this magnitude would require an equally massive catalyst. The subject matter has been covered again and again. Baum does manage to put a rather pleasant new twist in the tale but in the end it’s the same lesson we’ve been trying to teach for who knows how long. Race, religion, culture, or country we are all humans and have, at our core, the same strengths and weaknesses. The lesson always seems to be that we should try to leave behind this focus on our differences, and instead concern ourselves with the similarities. It’s a lesson taught in many different ways, but it’s always the same lesson. It’s a pity it’s one we seem to have so much trouble actually learning.

Like two great men once said: Be excellent to each other, and party on, dudes.

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Sunday, August 07, 2011

Whitten, Life and Death of a Sex Doll (2011)

Zoe E. Whitten, The Life and Death of a Sex Doll. Belfire Press. 2011. Pp. 178. ISBN 978-1-926912-37-0. $11.99.

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

The time: the future; the place: not so different from our own. Zoe Whitten’s vision in The Life and Death of a Sex Doll contains very recognisable social features including malls, blocks of flats, grumbles and gossip at work—but with very much cooler gadgets (an embedded telepathic communications device from Apple is naturally named the iPath, and sophisticated android home helps, sexual partners and pets are widespread). Here we plunge into Whitten’s highly allegorical tale about family, sex, gender and self, when lonely Kelly buys and modifies a sex doll to become her companion.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Lund, First World: Covenant (2011)

Mark Lund, First World: Covenant. The Ashton Times, 2011. ISBN 9780615491752. $0.99 Kindle.

Reviewed by Jonathan Cullen

Any significant historical event is inevitably paired with its ugly sister: the conspiracy theory. There was no bigger historical event of the 20th century, and perhaps in human history, than the 1969 Apollo Moon landing. A shockingly pervasive minority maintain that this event never occurred and was instead an elaborate hoax. As recently as 2009, in a poll by Britain's Engineering and Technology Magazine, a full quarter of respondents thought that John F. Kennedy’s dream of a lunar mission never happened. (In perhaps a scathing indictment of the British education system, the same poll revealed that eleven of the 1009 people surveyed thought that the Toy Story character Buzz Lightyear and jazz musician Louis Armstrong were the first humans on the Moon.)

Mark Lund’s 2011 novella, First World: Covenant, explores the Moon landing conspiracy theory, but not the one we might expect. China’s unexpected announcement in 2018 that it is launching a manned mission to the Moon sets in motion a clash of competing secret world organizations. One is an alien presence that has permeated Earth’s governments and global economy. The other has been poised for decades to prevent further manned lunar missions in order to guard a secret that would shatter the realities of all of Earth’s inhabitants.

The story engages a number of current issues: the end of NASA’s Shuttle program, China’s growing power, our diminishing trust in government, and even the US debt woes. The thread woven in First World reaches back to the Apollo space program (and really even further still) and implicates past US Presidents and other world leaders. Its basis is audacious and inventive.

First World has a plethora of appealing themes for the reader to consume. The battle of clandestine world orders is intertwined with alien infiltration, Watergate, and secrets passed down from one world leader to the next. Mark Lund walks that thin line that is every conspiracy story’s challenge. On the one hand, given its magnitude, it is realistic that the cover-up would be tied to many world leaders, powers and historic events. On the other, the key to a plausible conspiracy story is to avoid entering Forrest Gump territory and linking the characters and plot to absolutely every significant event in the last forty years. First World walks this line successfully by keeping the correlations relevant to the lie the public has been told.

An important aspect of science fiction is pushing the limits of innovative and plausible technology. It’s admittedly unfair to expect mind-blowing new tech from a story set only seven years in the future. Nevertheless, First World offers up a few tantalizing nuggets such as a second generation anti-gravity space shuttle and implanted communication devices. I read these descriptions with great interest but in some cases Lund reaches a bit too far in an attempt to relate these devices to today’s known technology. The mention of a “Bluetooth successor”, for example, grabs me by the collar and shakes me out of that all important suspension of disbelief. Lund expertly describes the technology, and in my view such references are unnecessary and detract from the story.

As a reader, First World did leave me with some wants, a few of which are inextricably linked to the conspiracy theory paradigm. Lund’s story is very plot driven and a lot happens. However, the answers to many of my questions have apparently been left to the sequel. Tantalizing the reader into picking up the sequel is an art and it is easy to over-promise and under-deliver in a first book of a series. Although it’s more than desirable to leave us wanting more, an opening book should be a complete story arc unto itself. I think First World could have given up a few more secrets and still kept me salivating for the next volume. Most sections and chapters end with a cliffhanging question. That technique could have been used more judiciously.

It’s telling that former President Richard Nixon plays a significant role in a story built on a web of lies. In Ranking and Evaluating Presidents: The Case of Theodore Roosevelt, presidential biographer and Pulitzer Prize winner James MacGregor Burns aptly describes Nixon by saying, “How can one evaluate such an idiosyncratic President, so brilliant and so morally lacking?” It’s perhaps even more telling that Nixon’s legacy and the epitome of clandestine illegal activity, the Watergate scandal, is footnoted as a necessary evil in First World’s schemes. Is Lund arguing that certain truths are best withheld from the public for our own good? Can leaders who face complex political and economic realities in an age where the public expects full and immediate access to information justify deception for the greater good? Are they not simply protecting the unwashed masses from themselves? Unfortunately, without some of the answers to the many questions that this first book raises, it is difficult discern whether First World is offering any such comment. If it is, there is definitely an opportunity in the sequel to flesh out that premise. If it is not, it might be a missed occasion that could still be seized.

A lot of the information we receive is by way of exposition of past events. I find factual revelation through the actions of characters more engaging. This also allows us to relate to the cast at the same time.

And there are a lot of characters. There were a few spots where I had to flip back to remember where this particular government or military official fit in. This might have been because I read it over several sittings, but I was in the weeds a bit. The protagonist, however, Kathleen Gould, is absolutely memorable and interesting. Our introduction to Gould in her kitchen having coffee is very benign and every-day. This contrasts vividly to her fundamental impact on world history and direction. The scenes involving her are the most appealing.

A novella is not long and there is always the temptation on the part of the author to get on with the plot too quickly and therefore miss opportunities to use engaging stick-to-your-bones language. While there are several memorable and clever turns of phrase in First World, and Lund clearly has that capacity, I wanted to see more of such flourishes. There was also an occasional frustrating mix of points of view in the same scenes. This is particularly jarring in a conspiracy theory when knowledge of a secret by one character is very much what separates her from another character who is blissfully ignorant. Being in both heads renders the scene harder to swallow.

Overall, First World is an exciting take on the Moon landing conspirary genre and I would pick up the sequel, First World: Synedrion, due out in the fall of this year. However, I hope to see a tightening of the points of view, an increased confidence in the use of bold turns of phrase and a cutback in ever-escalating cliffhangers. A nod is warranted to illustrator Marek Purzycki and his beautiful artwork that accompanies First World.

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