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Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Face of Mars is in the Mirror: Poets, Please Be Selective!

 After reviewing this for The Bookplex, I decided to include this review on my blog because it might be helpful to poets.  It also might be helpful to readers looking for a way to understand and evaluate poetry.
I have always thought that poetry anthologies work best when they are selections from an author’s work. One approach is to base the anthology on a central theme.  Another is to organize the anthology into sections with each of them containing a group of related poems. 

 The Face on Mars is in the Mirror appears to include every poem that Wiskup wrote with no organizing principle.   There is a chart called “Theme Aggregation” which is only necessary because the anthology’s themes are scattered.   Wiskup also includes some of the original handwritten manuscripts with crossed out words, and a few examples of art from the author’s childhood. The handwritten manuscripts are difficult to read. Illustrations can enhance an anthology, but a higher level of skill would be expected by most readers.   

Fortunately, the cover is not a childhood drawing.  It piqued my interest by being both intriguing and rather chilling.   It made me uncertain about what I would find in this book.  


Many people argue that evaluation of poetry is very subjective, and that there are no standards for judging poetry.   I am of the opinion that there are differences between poetry and prose.  There are various techniques that are utilized by accomplished poets. 

 Wiskup uses rhyme throughout his work.  He also includes rhythm in his poems, but he does this less consistently.   In many of these poems the rhythm falters or vanishes entirely.  This can work if rhythm is abandoned for a single line at the end of the poem, but if it happens unpredictably in the middle of the poem then its flow is interrupted.  This becomes very noticeable when the poem is read aloud.  I considered these less successful examples of Wiskup’s work.

Word choice is also important in poetry.  Some poets choose their words to form patterns such as alliteration or assonance.  Wiskup sometimes uses alliteration, but it’s relatively rare in his work.  I noticed that some of the words he chose for rhymes appeared forced.  He seemed to place a higher priority on rhymes than on the ideas that he was trying to communicate.  This is unfortunate.   Rhyme is a tool that should serve the work.  It should never disrupt a poem’s meaning.   Wiskup often chose words for rhymes which had connotations that didn’t fit within the context.   There were also ungrammatical word choices in these poems.   These can be effective in humorous poems, but not in serious ones.   In addition, there were some misspellings that would not have been caught by a spellcheck program.  The poem “Hide and Seek” ended so abruptly that I was certain that some words must be missing. 

Some poems in this anthology struck me as written for self-encouragement or therapy.   I would encourage poets to keep these sorts of poems on their hard drives unless the technique is really strong.   It's possible that they could help readers with similar problems, but if they aren't well-expressed then they may not communicate what the author intended.

Yet there were a few lines in Wiskup’s work that I felt were really strong.  My favorite line in the anthology appeared in “Vacant (How They Live)”.  It was “the ego’s bones have gone frail and fail to dance”.  Note the rhyme and alliteration of frail and fail.  I also loved the concept of a weak ego being similar to someone with the condition of osteoporosis.  That really resonated for me.  It also summoned the mythic image of Death as a dancing skeleton.  The best poetry works on a number of levels.
"Destiny Removed" was flawed by mixed metaphors, but the last four lines were wonderful.  They could stand as a poem by themselves.  I also loved "You fill me up like a glass of water/Taken from the rainforest of disguise" in "Chameleons".  

Six of these poems stood out for me as particularly well-expressed in their entirety.  In addition to “Vacant (How They Live)”, I really liked “Visions”, “Miracle”, “Credit Card Soul”, “Stakeholders of Freedom” and “Black Op Séance”.   I wish that there had been more poems in The Face on Mars is in the Mirror that were as good as these.


Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Jam on the Vine by LaShonda Katrice Barnett--An African American Girl Who Grew Up To Be "The Voice of a Community"

 I feel this is an important book.  So I copied my review of Jam on the Vine from Book Babe to this blog.
I'm pretty sure that Jam on the Vine by LaShonda Katrice Barnett was on the Goodreads page for Balm which I reviewed on this blog here.  It was a book that was added by people who liked Balm.  Since I was looking for another high quality African American historical novel, I prioritized the book on my library TBR.  The protagonist is Ivoe Williams who wanted to be a journalist from an early age.  I've never read a historical novel dealing with African American newspapers.  So I thought I'd learn a great deal about their history and the historical context by reading this book.


The book starts in late 19th century Texas.  I am well aware that the issues which the current Black Lives Matter campaign focus on have a long history.  In the minds of some individuals, slavery was never abolished.  Black people owning anything, or having any degree of independence angers these people.  They don't want to accept that African Americans are human beings with the same rights as other Americans.  

 Ivoe  was born to parents who had been free all their lives.  Her  mother was an Islamic woman who owned land and had a small business.  She sold jam made from the tomatoes that she grew in her garden.  Everyone called her Lemon, but her birth name was Leila. Lemon's parents came from a Muslim enclave in 19th century Alabama.  To learn more about the history of African Muslims in the United States read Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas by Sylviane A. Diouf . Ivoe's father Ennis was a metalsmith.  Both were well regarded within Little Tunis, an African American neighborhood.

 Yet this community was an island surrounded by a sea of hatred. As a child, Ivoe first became aware of this when her school was burned down because a little black boy was seen reading to an elderly white woman. A generation earlier it was a crime to teach blacks to read.  Ivoe's writing ambitions were anathema in this context.

Since my last review for Book Babe dealt with a novel whose protagonist was a journalist, I noticed that like Rebekah Roberts in Invisible City, Ivoe's first attempt at an article didn't credit its sources.  It's important to point out that Rebekah had the opportunity to study journalism, so she really should have known better.  Ivoe never had that opportunity.  She did learn how to write better stories from Ona Darden, a woman who became very important in Ivoe's life.  Ona told her, "You are the voice of a community."  So Ivoe's journalistic career wasn't just about achieving her own dreams. She was representing African Americans.  Ivoe's sense of what it meant to speak on behalf of her people evolved over time as she matured.

The discovery I made in this book that astonished me most was that African Americans were engaged in sign carrying street protests against segregation in the early 20th century.  I had always thought that civil rights demonstrations began in the 1960's, but there was one described in this book that really did take place in 1905. There were all sorts of African American protests before the 1960's that were reported in African American newspapers like Ivoe Williams' fictional publication, Jam on the Vine. Some historical African American newspapers have been digitized. You can access them on the Library of Congress website

African American newspapers also reported on atrocities.The mass murders of African Americans and burnings of their neighborhoods in the early 20th century which are mentioned in Jam on the Vine remind me very much of anti-Jewish pogroms in Eastern Europe during this period. A great wave of  Jewish immigration appeared on the shores of England and America. At the same time,  a vast influx of African Americans arrived in the cities of the North. This was called the Great Migration which is often framed as a quest for factory jobs.  I realized with Ivoe that although such jobs may have been a consequence of this exodus for some, blacks were really fleeing for their lives.

I was very impressed with the coverage of issues dealt with in Jam of the Vine and their relevance to  Black Lives Matter.  I also loved the way the major characters and their relationships were portrayed.  Lesbian love was shown to be the equal of heterosexual love.  This is certainly one of the best novels that I have read in 2015.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Invisible City: Hiding Homicide Among The Hasidim

I'm copying my latest Book Babe post yet again.   There are things in this review that I wanted to share with the readers of this blog.

If I read an award winner or nominee, it's usually a remarkable coincidence.  I don't read books because they've been nominated for awards.  I've learned from experience that award winning books are rarely the kind of books that I want to read.  This applies to award nominated mysteries.  I don't care for the extremes in the mystery field--noir and cozies.  The awards are dominated by these polarized trends , and I prefer my mysteries somewhere in between.   I want realism, but I don't want the deep despair of noir.  I like sympathetic protagonists but I don't want the saccharine sentimentality that I find in the mysteries that are marketed as cozies. 

Invisible City by Julia Dahl was nominated for an Edgar in the first novel category.  It's somewhat grimmer than the mysteries I tend to like, but I was intrigued by the background of the protagonist, reporter Rebekah Roberts.


   Rebekah was brought up by her Christian father, but her mother, Aviva Kagan,  had come from the hasidic Jewish community and left it behind. Apparently, she was ambivalent about this decision because she soon left her daughter behind as well.   Ambivalence about my Jewish heritage is a situation that I identify with and understand.

The hasidic community call themselves haredi.  This literally means "those who fear" in Hebrew.  The implied connotation is that they are those who fear God. Yet it seemed to me that Dahl does portray haredi as generally fearful.    Their distinctive 19th century Eastern European dress makes them the most visible Jews and a special focus of prejudice.  Prejudice is catalyzed by fear of what is considered strange and unfamiliar.  Closed off communities like the haredi tend to cultivate their unique identity as a survival strategy. So the haredi are insular because they are afraid of the outside world, but those in the outside world who are most inclined to attack them are afraid of how different they are as a result of their insularity.  Fear begets more fear.  Fear was the reason why the haredi tried so hard to conceal murder in this book.

Invisible City centers on the killing of Rivka Mendelssohn which might easily have become an anonymous crime statistic in New York City.  The victim was a warm outgoing woman who wanted to help people.  She also strongly supported the rights of individuals to choose how they live and what they believe which ran completely counter to the haredi ethos.

There were a number of  characters in this book who were alienated by the lack of freedom among the haredi.  The most indelible are Rivka Mendelssohn and Aviva Kagan who never actually appear, but are nevertheless vividly portrayed through the memories of the people who knew them.

 Saul Katz is another of these disaffected characters, and he is very prominent within the storyline because his community contacts were invaluable for Rebekah Roberts.  In fact, without Saul Katz Rebekah wouldn't have gotten anywhere with her efforts to find out the truth about Rivka Mendelsson's death.   Saul is a compelling character, but Rebekah's unquestioning trust in Saul shows her naivete.

Frankly, I didn't think much of Rebekah.  I'll grant that she's young and new to journalism. Yet I wondered how it was even possible for her to become a stringer for a newspaper in a major market which would be highly competitive.  She should have needed to start her career in a smaller market like Oshkosh or Juneau. She also made mistakes that even a beginner shouldn't have made.  Having anonymous sources that need to be protected is one thing, but having anonymous sources because the reporter forgot to ask who they were is just incompetent.  I can understand why the author chose  Rebekah as the viewpoint character.  So much information that readers might need to know had to be explained to her.  Yet she totally lacked professional credibility.   She does learn from her mistakes and presumably will be much improved in the sequel.  In Invisible City, I didn't find her interesting and wished that I was reading her mother's story rather than hers.

Still it was a good mystery.  I kept reading because I identified with Rivka Mendelssohn, and wanted to see justice done in her case.


Thursday, July 16, 2015

Where Shadows Linger: Courageous Lesbians Immigrate to Australia Post WWII

The first book I read by Mary D. Brooks was Awakenings, the fourth volume in the Intertwined Souls series, which I reviewed on this blog here. The reason why I went back to the second book afterward is because I read spoilers in Awakenings that revealed the entire plot of the first novel in the series, Blood of the Greeks.  This is one of the perils of reading out of order in a series.   Where Shadows Linger takes place in Australia.  The Sydney Harbour Bridge illustration on the cover is a nice reminder of the book’s location.  Awakenings didn’t really deal with the lives of the protagonists in Australia.  I also had never read a book set in post-WWII Australia, so I thought I would learn about the historical context from this novel.  I received Where Shadows Linger for free in return for this honest review.  I also reviewed this book for The Bookplex.