Monday, May 21, 2012

The Day the World Ends

By Ethan Coen
Broadway Paperbacks, 121 pgs
Submitted by Random House
Rating: 2

The Day the World Ends (Poems) is a thin (literally and figuratively) collection of poetry brought to us by Ethan Coen, celebrated writer of screenplays for movies such as Fargo, The Big Lebowski and Raising Arizona. What most of us don't know is that Mr. Coen has also published volumes of short stories and poems such as Gates of Eden: Stories and The Drunken Driver Has the Right of Way: Poems.

I have been a fan of Ethan Coen's films for years and I wish I could say that I had enjoyed his poetry. I wish I could say that he has broken new ground or made a contribution to the art form or was at the very least reaching for something, even something intangible. But alas, what we got is mediocre at best. I suspect that Mr. Coen's name gets him published when lesser mortals would not be. The Day the World Ends (Poems) has very little to offer. The huge majority of the pieces in this book are scatological, concerned with buttocks, genitalia, various and sundry sex acts and feces. There are pages and pages of limericks that might have been written by a 13-year-old boy, crass and profane.

BUT it wasn't all bad. I'd like to single out a couple of poems for further consideration. On Seeing Venice for the First Time is a spare, fitting tribute to the author's first visit to the city. He is almost speechless and it made me smile to think of him there, a sophisticated artist done in by the romance of Venice. To the English Language bows to the power of words, the power of naming and the comfort taken from knowing that someone else has felt the same as you feel and wrote it down and survived. This poem is a throw-away but has my favorite title: When My Marbles Have Left Me Will You Have?

So, I cannot recommend The Day the World Ends (Poems). Mr. Coen's short stories have garnered better reviews so you may want to try those. In the meantime, make some popcorn and turn on Netflix.
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Friday, May 18, 2012


By Tomas Eloy Martinez
Translation by Frank Wynne
Bloomsbury USA, 273 pgs
Submitted by Bloomsbury USA
Rating: 3

Everyone in this novel is loco, at least one taco short of a combo plate. Personally, I have a soft spot for Latino cultures, our neighbors to the south, and Mexico is breaking my heart. I would rather vacation in Peru than in Germany so please don't think I'm prejudiced. Still and all, everyone in this book is insane: the general, the doctor, the mapmaker, the mother, the wife and etc.

Emilia Dupuy's husband Simon Cardoso disappeared in Argentina and has been missing and presumed (or known, depending on who you're talking to) dead for 30 years when she spies him in a restaurant in New Jersey. He has not aged or changed in 30 years, exactly the same. They go back to her place and spend the weekend together. Or maybe they spend the rest of their lives together. Or maybe they don't go back to her place. Maybe Simon is a ghost, or maybe he doesn't exist in any form on any plane.

During the seventies and eighties Argentina suffered from a military dictatorship that had lots in common with the Third Reich and Franco's Spain. Thousands of people were "disappeared." Emilia's father was the chief propagandist for the the general and his regime. In the book the dictator general is referred to as "the Eel" and the appellation is pitch perfect. Simon mouths off one night during dinner and this appears to be the catalyst for everything that comes after.

Emilia and Simon are cartographers and are sent to a remote region to map and are captured by the army, suspected of being subversives. They are separated and interrogated. Emilia is released. What happens after that is murky to say the least. Is Simon released? tortured? executed? There are witnesses who say they witnessed Simon's death or saw his body. Emilia gets anonymous messages claiming he is alive and living in Caracas or Mexico. She spends the rest of her life, as far as we can tell (for not much is actually known), searching for him.

I have had a difficult time deciding what the rating for this book  should be. I very much enjoyed the parts in Argentina and the intermittently comedic treatment of the totalitarian regime. I found Emilia's search tedious at times. Mostly this book made me feel impatient. You don't know whether you're coming or going, which way is up? I realize that this is probably what the author intended but geez. It reminded me of the "the big lie" philosophy of the Nazis. Who are you going to believe? Me or your lying eyes?

The author of Purgatory was born in Argentina and was forced to live in exile during the military dictatorship. He has written other internationally acclaimed novels such as The Peron Novel and Santa Evita. Senor Martinez was professor of Latin American studies at Rutgers University until his death in 2010. A quote from page 221 about what is lost with death: "If we could recover the unwritten books, the lost music, if we could set out in search of what never existed and find it, then we should have conquered death."

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Blue Sabine

By Gerald Duff
moon city press, 315 pgs
Submitted by the author
Rating: 4

Gerald Duff has mad skills. Blue Sabine is lyrical, it reads like poetry but in a good way. This is the story of the Holt family as they relocate from Louisiana to Texas after the Civil War and unto the present day, told by the voices of its women, who have always been the strength of Texas. Everybody knows that, right?

Don't come to Blue Sabine for plot or climax or denouement or any of those usual things, though you'll find plenty of protagonists and antagonists (sometimes the same person is both.) Come for the characters and the stories they tell. Each character is a melody joined by the chorus of stories they tell about themselves and each other. Our stories are how we know who we are, the first lessons we learn about family and how to behave or not in the big wide world.

If you are a Texan you will recognize this family because it is yours. It is certainly mine. I have an Aunt Abigail who likes to hold forth as the authority on all things appropriate and inappropriate. I have a Great Grandfather Amos Holt who has turned to God and become a preacher mostly because he is overwhelmed by the women surrounding him and finds God more comprehensible. I have a Cousin (you must capitalize "cousin") Nola Mae whose faith resides in her beauty and style and worth on the man-market (a time-honored tradition among southern women) and whose children have sometimes taken a backseat to her personal ambitions. I would like to note that we don't have anyone who was blinded by a pimp for insulting his hooker. Not that I am aware of. Not yet. Meanwhile, it is my personal ambition to be more like GrandMaude and you'll just have to read Blue Sabine to know what I mean.

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