Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Funny and Gross

Book Reviewed: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach

I've been reading almost nothing but difficult contemporary poetry and fluffy historical romances lately, so it seemed necessary that I read something completely different from those two things.  Which is how I ended up reading Mary Roach's Stiff, a book about what happens to human cadavers donated to science.  I really like Mary Roach and her writing.  Packing for Mars is one of my favorite nonfiction books.  She writes about science in a way that is approachable, interesting, and funny.  Even though the subject matter of Stiff is a little gross, I figured it'd at least be a good time.

Which, of course, it was.  The book is fascinating, looking at the different ways human bodies are used for research.  There are also chapters about organ donation and body disposal, which sounds disturbing but is actually quite thought-provoking.  Best of all, Roach fills the book with lots of weird historical anecdotes.  Often, the anecdotes sent me down my own research paths, including reading interviews with a woman named Karen Greenlee, a famous necrophiliac who ran off with a dead man in 1979.  These stories bring the book's subjects into a more human perspective, letting the reader laugh or gasp in equal measure.  Stiff manages to expose a lot about death without ever seeming morbid or exploitative. 

My favorite chapter was "Crimes of Anatomy," which is about the way scientists have acquired human cadavers throughout history.  If there is one term in this world I love, it's "resurrectionist," the name given to body snatchers throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.  I was less impressed by "Holy Cadaver," which is too short and skeptical (a complaint I once leved against Roach's Spook) to make any kind of real impactDespite this one misstep, I think the book is quite good overall, although I'm not sure I like it as much as I liked Packing for Mars

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

This Week in Trashy Reads 2012 #4

Trashy Read 2012 #4: Trial by Desire, by Courtney Milan

After reading and loving The Governess Affair last week, I decided to take another dip into Courtney Milan's back catalogue.  Trial by Desire is only her second novel, but people love it, so I decided to try it out.  I had a feeling I'd like it; I just didn't realize how much.  I love this book.  As in, I am ready to declare it as one of my all-time favorite romances.

Ned and Kate Carhart got married when they were young and naive, but Ned mysteriously left for China only a few months into the marriage.  Three years later, he comes back at an inopportune time.  Kate has been secretly helping women out of abusive marriages, and she's in the middle of helping the wife of an earl when her estranged husband randomly reappears.  They are no longer the same kids they were.  Kate, after years of worrying that she was the reason her husband left, has an inner strength that she channels through her work helping others, work that no one knows about.  Ned, who battles depression (not known as such then, of course), has learned how to "tame his dragons" and is now ready to make things up with his wife.  But they first must learn to trust each other again.

This book has a lot going for it.  There's the fact that Kate is an incredibly capable heroine who doesn't let gossip and angry men deter her from what she sees as her calling.  There's the plot of the abusive earl and his wife, which works in perfect sync to the development of the main characters (trust me, romance novels don't always get this formula of external plot/internal character down quite right; this one does it perfectly).  And finally, there's Ned.  Ned might just be the most original romance hero I can ever remember encountering.  He's not the alpha male type we usually see in historicals, nor is he a victim of a tragic past, another historical cliche.  Instead, he has very real problems that he learns to deal with better.  Milan gets depression just right; she obviously understands how self-esteem plays into it and that people aren't defined solely by their down or up moods.  Ned constantly worries that he's not good enough, but Milan doesn't allow those worries take over his characterization.  Yes, he is afraid, but he's also charming and big-hearted and really funny.  In fact, Ned might be one of the funniest romance heroes I've ever encountered.  He's fully-realized and I have no trouble believing he exists, a rare feat in romance.

Courtney Milan is a really good writer.  She's good at pacing and plot.  Her characters are realistic, and she lets them come out through their humor and human moments, both good and bad.  Trial by Desire is some of the most rewarding fun I've had reading romance in some time, and Milan has single-handedly made me interested in romances again.  Luckily, both she and Loretta Chase have new books out this summer.  Best. Summer. Ever.

Note:  One weird thing I just have to point out.  All through the book, we get mentions of Ned's brown eyes, which Kate adores.  And yet the guy on the cover (who is kind of creepy, I think) has bright blue eyes.  Which is unfortunate, as brown-eyed heroes are so rare and so wonderful. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

You Know What's Kind of an F'd Up Place? Turn-of-the-Century Rural Wisconsin.

Book Reviewed: Wisconsin Death Trip, by Michael Lesy

A couple weeks ago I received an email from one of my professors that simply told me to find a copy of Michael Lesy's Wisconsin Death Trip.  She claimed I would understand why as soon as I saw the book.  So as soon as I checked out a copy from my campus library, I took a look.  And she was right: this book was exactly what I needed.  My poetry thesis has turned into a series of fragmented narratives and lyrical poems about the Huckleberry Queen, a local folk legend from where I grew up.  In fitting with the Queen's existence in "South Chicago" - the area where St. Joseph, Starke, and Marshall counties in Indiana met up in the 1800s and where roughneck huckleberry harvest workers often fought their way through the swampy terrain - there's a lot of blood and violence and hard labor involved in these poems.  And Wisconsin Death Trip is all about blood and violence and manual labor.

Wisconsin Death Trip is a series of texts and pictures from late 1800s/early 1900s rural Wisconsin (more specifically, the small town of Black River Falls).  Lesy collected photographs taken by Charles Van Schaick at this time, and then he added stories from the town, county, and state newspapers, as well as case histories from the Mendota State Hospital, an insane asylum.  Lesy also included passages from novels and poems, as well as brief histories that he wrote himself.  The result is a weird and startling collage that argues for the fact that rural communities were as capable of great psychological breaks and criminal activity as any city at the turn of the century.  News stories focus on children dying en masse of diptheria, women cutting their own throats, arsons breaking out in the dozens on a weekly basis, murder, and some truly strange tales of mental breakdowns and death by nature.

Wisconsin Death Trip is fascinating and eerie at the same time.  Sometimes, the pure absurdity of these true stories made me laugh in a mix of both humor and horror.  For example, there are stories here about a man who killed himself by digging a hole in the ground, filling it with dynamite, laying his head down on the hole and lighting it up, literally blowing his head off.  And the newspaper reports all these absurdities with a dry and even tone, as if there was nothing out of the ordinary about these things at all.  Van Schaick's photographs have the same effect.  He took pictures of things that were completely normal at the time - dead babies* in their caskets at a funeral, disgruntled-looking people forced into family pictures, men in blackface - without ever knowing how creepy these pictures would appear a hundred years later.  It's the ordinariness of the situations that render them so strange and bewildering now. 

I really enjoyed this bizarre trip into a world I have been trying to get at in my own work.  If you ever get a chance to get your hands on Wisconsin Death Trip, I highly recommend it.  It's unlike anything else out there and yet showcases a rural discontent that's more common than people are willing to admit.  Seriously; you won't believe this stuff until you see it for yourself.

Note 1: I only have complaint about this book - Lesy's writing.  His own writing doesn't come in very often, but when it does, it kind of sucks the air out of the room a bit.  It's a little dry and lifeless for such great subject matter, I think.

Note 2:  This stuff seems so alien to us modern types, and yet it hits close to home, at least for me.  I went home this weekend and heard my uncles sharing some truly bizarre stories about who murdered who in our small town while they were growing up.  It was so casual, the way they tried to remember the names of men who shot their own wives, or how they just threw out the name of the "Bloody Bucket" - a nickname for a local bar that actually sits on the other side of the wooded area behind my house. 

* It was actually quite common for families to have pictures taken of their infants or toddlers after they died.  In fact, parents often propped the babies into lifelike poses, just so they could have a normalized picture to remember their child by.  Some time ago my parents and I sorted through a huge collection of old family photographs at my grandparents' house.  There was a black and white photograph of what looked like a sleeing baby sitting in a walker-like contraption.  "Oh, that baby is dead," my grandma said off-handedly.  I don't know where that photo has gone since then, but it still sits in my mind as fresh as the moment I saw it, about ten years ago or so. 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Poetry Round-Up

Books Reviewed: A Green Light, by Matthew Rohrer; Apprehend, by Elizabeth Robinson; Brutal Imagination, by Cornelius Eady

I read so much poetry these days that I can't possibly blog about each book. So every once in a while, I do these round-ups to let you know what I've been reading lately. Here are three books I've read recently:

A Green Light:  This is another one of the books my friend Drew lent me for the summer.  I liked it well enough, although it hit me as being a little contemporary-poetry-business-as-usual.  But I find that most poetry books can be saved by one stellar poem or two, and that happened here.  "Hone Quarry" is a series of 15 shorter poems about nature and lost love.  It's a lovely series about the way we try to reconcile our human experiences with the bigger world around us and how nature fails to comfort us completely.  So while this book as a whole was kind of whatever, "Hone Quarry" put it more firmly in the "like" department.

Apprehend:  I picked this book up at AWP because I thought it looked interesting, with Robinson exploring language and linguistics through poems that evoke fairytales.  This is part of the Fence Modern Poet Series and lots of people seem to like it.  I am not one of those people.  I recognize what is brilliant about Robinson's work, and I could see why other people loved the book.  But in the end, I'm the type of reader who wants to feel something, anything when I read a book.  And this one failed to do that for me.  I might recommend it some people I know who might enjoy it, but I probably won't be picking it up again anytime soon.

Brutal Imagination:  My workshop professor recommended this one to me way back at the beginning of the semester, and I just now got to it.  The book is split into two sections. "Brutal Imagination" is a series of poems from the voice of the black man that Susan Smith blamed the 1994 murder of her children on, a man who never actually existed.  They explore race and media in really interesting ways, and the relationship between the criminal, real Smith and the incriminated, imaginary speaker is complicated and messy and fascinating.  The second section is "The Running Man," which is a series of poems that were used as the libretto for a 1999 jazz opera of the same name.  These poems take on a series of voices, that of the Running Man and various members of his family.  I actually enjoyed this section the most of the two.  The poems were more lyrical, the language more coaxing.  There's some really lovely stuff in these Running Man poems.  Overall, the book as a whole was quite good.  And I wouldn't mind someday getting to see The Running Man on stage.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

This Week in Trashy Reads 2012 #3

Trashy Read 2012 #3: The Governess Affair, by Courtney Milan

I read a couple Courtney Milan books back in January, and I loved them.  So when I heard she just  released a new novella that's meant as an appetizer for a trio of novels out later this year, I jumped on a chance to read it.  I downloaded The Governess Affair and read it within a matter of hours.  I flippin' loved this little story. 

Serena is a former governess who was raped by the horrible Duke of Clermont.  Now pregnant and broke, she sits outside his house everyday, hoping to force him into providing a life for her child.  The Duke sends his right-hand man, Hugo Marshall, to deal with Serena.  Hugo has fought (literally, at times) for everything he has, and he will do whatever it takes to make the Duke happy enough to keep making money off of him until he can start his own business.  But he finds he cannot "deal" with Serena as well as he would like, especially once he realizes what has happened to her.  Instead, the two of the fall for each other, etc.

I loved the two protagonists, even if the novella form doesn't allow them enough room to be fully fleshed out.  Serena is determined by not stupidly so, and Hugo tries really hard to tough out any soft spots he fears he might have, a well-worn romance trope that I adore.  Their relationship feels organic, despite happening in only a third of the space of a normal romance novel.  Milan is a very good writer (she's second only to Loretta Chase as being my favorite historical romance writer), and she knows that humor and pathos must be balanced out just right in order to create a winning story.  Also, she writes some of the more original sex scenes I've seen in romance - not dirtier, just better-told.  The foreplay scene in this one is so sweet and charming that for once I actually did more than just skim it, which is really rare.

So yeah.  I loved The Governess Affair.  A lot.  You can bet your sweet bottom that Milan's next book, a continuation of this series, will be on my Kindle the day it comes out.  And in the meantime, I'll be catching up with some of her back catalog. 

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Poetry Round-Up

Books Reviewed: Father of Noise, by Anthony McCann; Mercury, by Ariana Reines; Bluets, by Maggine Nelson

I read so much poetry these days that I can't possibly blog about each book.  So every once in a while, I do these round-ups to let you know what I've been reading lately. Here are three books I've read recently:

Father of Noise:  I picked this book up at the AWP conference bookfair in March, probably because I liked the factory buildings and the man on fire on the cover.  I'm a sucker for industrial imagery.  When I started Father of Noise, I wasn't sure what to think, but eventually the book taught me how to read it.  I didn't love this book the way I've loved some of the poetry I've recently read, but I certainly liked it.  McCann has a very natural, laid-back style and a strong central voice.  The poems have a really easy sense of place, which I appreciated.  Poems like "Stark Weather" and "The Young Investigators" get at the American landscape by using very simple imagery and condensed space.  Whether writing about Nebraska or New York City, McCann is always in control of his words and white space.

Mercury:  Oh boy.  Our poetry professor assigned this book for workshop, and none of us liked it.  Reines is a big deal in the contemporary poetry world, but this book just doesn't quite work.  It's huge (230+ pages!), overreaching, and not particularly interesting.  That being said, I've been told to read Reines's The Cow this summer, so you'll find out how that goes in a few weeks. 

Bluets:  My much-better-read poet friend, Drew, gave me a pile of books to read as homework this summer.  The first one I picked off the pile was Maggie Nelson's little collection of lyrical essay-poems about the color blue.  This is more than just a study of color, though.  Nelson writes about a lost lover, a friend's spinal injury, and depression through the prism of her obsession with the color blue.  It's really beautiful in parts, and it has a kind of working logic that's completely natural.  Nelson is smart and honest about emotional states, but she never teeters over the border of becoming precious.  There's a lot to like here, and I will probably be recommending this to a few people in the coming months. 

Note:  With summer and its unlimited reading possibilities here, as well as the lists of poetry books friends and professors have sent my way, there will probably be a lot of these Round-Ups in the next few months.  Consider that advanced warning for all of you non-poetry-reading Not Your Mama followers out there.

Contemporary Noir Done Again

Book Reviewed: Driven, by James Sallis

In January I read James Sallis's neo-noir Drive, and I loved it.  It was fun, expertly paced, violent, brutal, and surprisingly moving at times.  Since then, I have also become a big fan of the film version of the book.  The film version of Drive is really stylish, and although it differs greatly from the novel, it managed to pin down the awesome noir tone just right.  Rarely do I love a book and its film adaptation equally; this may the only time that this has happened to me.  Anyway, I was surprised to find out that Sallis just published a sequel to his now-famous book.  I saw it sitting on the New Books shelf at my library, and I grabbed it right up.  When classes ended last week, I knew Driven had to be the first book I would read for fun. 

Driven takes place seven years after Drive ends.  Driver has now taken up the name Paul West, and just as he thinks his life has gotten somewhat more normal (including an engagement to a super-understanding girl), things go bad again.  Driver looks for revenge and finds that things aren't quite what he thought they were, much like in the first book. 

I have to admit I didn't enjoy this sequel as much as I enjoyed Drive.  The writing is still excellent - with those brisk and cutting little sentences, but I just didn't get the same feeling of total immersion here.  I know I will love a book when it makes me ache inside - not necessarily with emotion, but with the ache of being so completely inside someone else's creation and knowing I no longer have control over what it does to me.  Drive made me ache.  Driven does not.  The plot wasn't quite as tight, even hard to follow in spots.  And the bittersweet tone that Drive managed so well felt a little more forced in this book.  It was fun to read, but it wasn't as satisfying.

Note:  I thought the ending of Drive was great, that it ended the book on the exact right emotional and intellectual beat.  So I wasn't exactly clamoring to know more about Driver, even though I loved him as a character.  Maybe that's why this sequel just didn't quite get to levels of greatness for me?