Friday, February 12, 2016

Voyage of the Sable Venus and other poems by Robin Coste Lewis

Voyage of the Sable Venus is Robin Coste Lewis’ first book of poetry.  It also just won the National Book Award.  That’s an impressive feat but that’s not why you should read this book.

The collection is split into three parts.  The first section consists of several individual poems.  Most of them are shorter and play around with form and construction.  Read aloud, some of the poems can sound like elegant prose but on the page the sentences are broken up with the last word often affixed to the beginning of the next line, changing the meaning of the abandoned line and the new one.  And the third section is a smaller collection of slightly wordier poems with less formal experimentation but the same amount of visceral emotion.  The second section is the title piece.  There is a note at the beginning where Lewis explains the rules she set for herself in writing it.  It’s constructed like a narrative poem but it doesn’t tell a simple story.  As a means of exploring how African-American women have been displayed in art, she set a highly conceptual conceit for this work.  She found art pieces (of almost all kinds) in museums and libraries around the world that depict African-American women or that were created by African-American women.  She then took the titles and/or descriptions that accompany the pieces and rearranged them into multiple poems.  Without knowing what she was doing, many of the poems read like engaging and rhythmic abstract poetry.  Knowing the rules, an entirely new level of meaning emerges. 

These are not love sonnets if that wasn’t clear.  Though, several of the poems in the first and third section express deep romantic or familial love.  And much of the second section creates the impression of understanding and loving your own identity.  The ideas and feelings represented in this brief collection run the range.  There might be a poem or two that could be read politely on a sunny day but most of the subjects require thought and discomfort.  There are violent images and what can only be assumed are personal revelations.  This is the poetry of high stakes.  Lewis’ skill and inventiveness are what separate this book from so many others.

If you like this book, you could try Collected Poems by James Wright, another poet who split the difference between playing with form and telling a story.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Miles Davis Plays for Lovers by Miles Davis

I don’t tend to listen to greatest hits albums.  They usually seem disjointed to me and the quality control is normally pretty lacking.  Luckily, Miles Davis Plays for Lovers isn’t a greatest hits; it’s a themed compilation.  This collection consists of ballads and romantic standards from several periods of Davis’ career.  It works well as a complete piece or if you dip into the titles you recognize.  Miles Davis was always one of the most forward-thinking musicians and bandleaders in jazz so he might seem like an odd choice for a collection of love songs but it all works very well.  These songs aren’t sappy cash-ins, they’re just another side of a multi-faceted musician.  Davis led some of the most legendary groups in music history and many of them are represented here.  Each track is given the full treatment and nothing feels rote or mailed in.

If you are planning a romantic dinner or even if you will be spending Valentine’s Day with your favorite bottle of wine, this album will be the perfect accompaniment.  There’s nothing harsh or atonal so it can work as background music but the playing is so inventive and the rhythms often so lively that you can pay close attention and be rewarded.  The band interplay is untouchable and the tracks chosen suit the mood as well as possible.  So if you’re a lover or just a lover of jazz, there’s plenty to find here.  I even recommend this to make your candlelight dinner a little more sophisticated than what the new Bieber album could muster.

If someone checks this one out before you get a chance, you can try Love Songs also featuring various romantic Miles Davis tracks…or you could get Bieber if you’re into that sort of thing.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered by E.F. Schumacher

Small is Beautiful came out in 1974.  You might think that a book about society and its relationship with economics would be dated within months, let alone decades.  Fortunately for the book, almost none of the points made lack meaning for the world in 2016.  Unfortunately for society, most of those points are about how our priorities are entirely out of whack.  One of the main tenets of the book is that thinking in purely economic terms cannot and should not inform decisions that have nothing to do with economics.  E.F. Schumacher writes of how when economics was first added as a discipline at Oxford University, it was done with trepidation.  The thinking was that this “new science” would creep its way into all others and its conclusions would supersede established sciences.  You need only look at the bevy of statistical predictors used in any sporting event to see that the trepidation was at least somewhat founded.  The crux of the book concerns size as the title suggests.  Schumacher argues that businesses and even social units need not believe that larger and more complex is better.  He shows in multiple ways how larger and larger entities tend to usurp the creativity and usefulness of any smaller unit encountered, whether this be a mammoth corporation that depersonalizes work or a bureaucracy that removes autonomy from smaller nation-states.

If it seems odd that a man who spent many years of his life working for the National Coal Board in Britain would write a book extolling the virtues of smaller work, less mechanization/automation, and safeguards for the environment, then don’t worry -- it is odd.  Schumacher understood all too well the dangers of aiming for infinite consumption in a finite environment.  He pulls from just about every discipline to make his case:  economics, sociology, philosophy, religion, even a brief recounting of Kafka’s The Castle.  He comes at a multitude of issues from a variety of angles.  One of the most impressive things about Small is Beautiful is that everyone can find something with which to agree (or, conversely, disagree).  In an election year, it is refreshing to read a book that doesn’t cling to an ideology as the panacea but lays out ways for humankind to care for one another and still conduct the business of the day.  I don’t expect to hear that message on the campaign trail but it’s nice to know I can find it on the bookshelf.

If you like this book, you might also like The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken or This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein, both available from the Virginia Beach Public Library.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Timbuktu by Paul Auster

Books told from a dog’s perspective can be tricky.  They can include goofy assumptions about how dogs perceive the world or they can imbue the dog with so many human characteristics as to make you forget the protagonist has four legs and a tail.  Luckily, Timbuktu avoids those traps.  Mr. Bones is a dog.  There are no two ways around it.  He does have a very wide vocabulary but even that is explained by the fact that Mr. Bones’ owner, Willy, talks to him like he’s a person.  He doesn’t use baby talk or made-up words; he speaks to him with dignity and respect.  He waxes rhapsodic like Mr. Bones is his oldest friend…because he is.  And Willy talks incessantly.  So this dog knows quite a bit about the world, which comes in handy because as the novel opens, Mr. Bones and his transient owner are walking through Baltimore on a mission before Willy’s awful cough sets him down for good.

Paul Auster has pulled off quite a feat in this short novel.  He has written a clever, self-aware animal that at no time takes you out of the story.  Reading a dog’s narration of dream-like visions carries with it the possibility of causing you to stop and chuckle at the absurdity.  But nothing in this book feels absurd.  Mr. Bones is likable and feels real.  Of course, his inner monologue is a bit more sophisticated than I assume my dog’s is but there are sly touches that remind you that this character isn’t a person and thus interprets our world differently.  The most endearing thing, to me at least, is how Mr. Bones knows that Willy is a screw-up but he’s still loyally devoted to him every step of the way.  None of Willy’s mistakes give his friend pause.  Mr. Bones loves Willy unconditionally and that’s the most important trait to get across in a dog.

If you like this book, you might also enjoy The New York Trilogy also by Paul Auster, available from the Virginia Beach Public Library.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Don't Suck, Don't Die: Giving up Vic Chesnutt by Kristin Hersh

I didn’t mean to have a theme this week but Sunday is Valentine’s Day and I realized that everything I am reviewing is kind of about love.  There’s nothing schmaltzy but consider this your disclaimer.  Enjoy!

Vic Chesnutt was one of the greatest songwriters ever.  That might seem strange to read if you’ve never heard of him but it’s true.  He was never really famous; he never had a number one hit but there is a very short list of people who could craft a song as well as he could.  So if he was so great, why isn’t he a household name?  Well, because his melodies weren’t easy to pin down (though he wrote plenty of catchy ones) and his voice could break into a whine and his lyrics were knotted with meaning and multiple complex emotions.  He wasn’t easy.  And that is the one thing that comes through crystal clear in Don’t Suck, Don’t Die.

Kristin Hersh is a very talented singer-songwriter.  She has fronted the bands Throwing Muses and 50 Foot Wave and released several solo albums.  She has even written a well-received memoir.  But for the purposes of this book, she was close friends with Vic Chesnutt.  She toured with him multiple times and probably knew him as well or better than anyone apart from his wife.  The book consists of an impressionistic recounting of the time she spent with Chesnutt, mostly on the road.
This is not a traditional musician biography.  It isn’t a biography at all.  It’s more of a letter.  It’s even written in second person – to Vic.  Hersh doesn’t go out of her way to explain anything to the reader.  Her audience is Vic.  This gives the book a voyeuristic quality, like you’re a fly on a very interesting wall.  The stories and streams of consciousness can be hazy but not as though looking through the fog of memory, more like you are overhearing the conversation and the inner-thoughts of two good friends.  Hersh does not hold back.  She lays herself bare, exposing every rough edge she or Vic possessed.  Vic Chesnutt took his own life in 2009 but instead of eulogizing her friend, Kristin Hersh wrote down much of what she did say and all of what she wanted to say to him.  And she did it in an unsparing, poetic manner befitting of the friend she loved.

If you like Don’t Suck, Don’t Die, you might also enjoy Chronicles – another non-traditional account of a talented songwriter, only this one is written by the songwriter himself, Bob Dylan.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell

The Penguin Lessons

The Penguin Lessons is a heartwarming account of a young school teacher and the years he spent in the company of a small Magellanic penguin named Juan Salvador. The author, Tom Michell, now in his 60's, recounts his time as a counselor/teacher at a boarding school in Argentina in the 1970's.  On his last day in Punta del Este, the author stumbles across a beach full of oil covered penguins, the result of lax regulations at the time regarding oil freighters. One lone penguin clings to life.  Several bottles of detergent, one container of butter, and one finger nip later and a bond has been formed.  Juan is smuggled across customs and into Argentina where he lives among the boys in a boarding school teaching important life lessons and providing comedic relief along the way.

Being a penguin fanatic myself, I was very excited when I happened upon this book on a display featuring animal themed travelogues. Michell does a beautiful job of depicting the bond that exists between humans and animals while detailing the unique relationship that formed between Juan and members of the boarding school. While short in length this memoir is full humorous anecdotes, insightful details into the political and economic landscape in Argentina in the 1970's and of course fascinating facts about Juan's species.  

For other penguin lover adventures, be sure to check out Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence, and Emperor Penguins by Gavin Francis and Fraser's Penguins: a Journey to the Future in Antarctica by Fen Montaigne.  

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson

Be honest. Have you ever felt like killing someone? And did you want to badly enough to plan ahead and meticulously plot out your enemy's demise? According to lovely sociopath, Lily Kintner, some people simply do not deserve to live. The world would be a better place without them. After ridding humankind of a few of these types during her lifetime, Lily has developed a taste for doing away with individuals who, in her opinion, add nothing worthwhile to the planet. When she meets wealthy Ted Severson in an airport bar and they get personal over a couple of martinis, Ted confesses that his wife, Miranda, is having an affair and that he could just...kill her. Lily, of course, offers her help and expertise to the very surprised Ted, who eventually decides to accept. What transpires as a result of this fateful encounter is filled with unpredictable twists that will have you hungrily turning pages long past bedtime!

Using a style similar to Gone Girl, with each chapter representing the point of view of a different character, Swanson has created a spellbinding story that brings to mind the classic Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith. After reading The Kind Worth Killing, you might be in the mood to wind down with a movie! If so, try A Perfect Murder or Double Indemnity, two highly enjoyable films concerning murderous spouses.

Dotsy Harland