AQ14 Autumn 2015 Book Reviews
by Bryan R. Monte
Nights at Rizzoli by Felice Picano. O/R Books, ISBN 978-1-939293-67-1, 224 pages.
The Don’t Touch Garden by Kate Foley. Arachne Press. ISBN 978-1-909208-19-3, 61 pages.
The Magic Laundry by Jacob M. Appel. Snake Nation Press, ISBN 978-0-9883029-9-0, 134 pages.
When I was a Twin by Michael Klein, Sibling Rivalry Press, ISBN 978-1-937420-91-8, 63 pages
My mailbag was much heavier this summer due to readers’ responses to my short, diaried memoir of Philip Levine and the books I received from publishers and authors. I have had plenty to read and I have selected one memoir, one book of short stories and two books of poetry to review for a good mix of genres.
The memoir, Nights at Rizzoli by former New Yorker and now Southern California resident, Felice Picano, is a small, handsome book with beautiful cover art—NYC building fronts (front) and artists, (back) by Max Wittert. It describes Picano’s work at the Rizzoli bookstore in “snotty, pushy, Upper Midtown Fifth Avenue” (across from Tiffany’s) in the 1970s, the store’s multi-national, polyglot staff and their celebrity customers. These included among others Mick Jagger, Philip Johnson, Salvador Dali, Rose Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Picano presents most of these encounters with celebrities as things that just happened to him, not meetings he sought since he fails to recognize both Kennedys until well into their first meetings and, in fact, he turns down a date with Johnson at his “nine-room penthouse suite overlooking the city.” Then there are the more unusual encounters such as the man who was building a new house in Montana who asked Picano one evening for suggestions on what sorts of books he should stock there to make his artist guests feel at home. Seven thousand dollars worth of books later, Picano helped him find an answer.
At his job interview, Picano is asked to make suggestions on how the store can improve its sales—“get more intellectuals and college students coming in…by offering Garcia Marquez, Octavio Paz, Lezema Lima.” Rizzoli continues to expand as Felice convinces the store manager, Mr. M., to display English-language, best-seller books in the store more prominently, especially Jaws for which Picano makes a special poster composed of “a pair of snorkel goggles I owned, splashed…with nail polish and added in my old rubber swim fins…chewed up with a box cutter.” Picano also assists in setting up Rizzoli’s art gallery next door whose opening features Erté’s work and includes the appearance of the legendary dancer, Josephine Baker, who arrives in a white Rolls Royce.
In addition to his bookstore duties, Picano also describes his activities as a nascent gay activist, as the leader of the Purple Quill gay men’s writers group and as a volunteer in an ad hoc vigilante squad through which on “Thursday(s)” from “midnight to 3 A.M.” he protected the gays and their suburban daddies who had sex in the empty meat and produce trucks parked “beneath what was left of the elevated West Side Highway” from teenage gangs from “the projects above 14th St.” Picano’s partner in this squad was an Afro-American transexual called Marsha Johnson who “kept three sharpened-to-stiletto-point Afro combs in her big “do.”” Picano’s memoir takes you close to the action—physical, historical and sexual. His writing style is very clean and his description has just the right number of details to place his reader firmly in the milieu making his memoir not only informative, but also entertaining.
The second book is The Magic Laundry by Jacob M. Appel. This collection represents his third prize for fiction writing in about a year. Winner of the Serena McDonald Kennedy Fiction Award, The Magic Laundry is a collection of eight interesting and quirky short stories. By accident, I was sent a few extra copies. Appel wrote that I could keep the copies for myself. I wrote him, however, that I would give them to my workshop students with the adage: “This is how you write good short stories!”—and that’s true. These stories are composed of characters from many walks of life all dealing with life’s unexpected twists and turns—from within or without—a university professor and Darwin descendant, whose daughter returns home at X-mas break with an orang-utan she liberated from her university’s animal laboratory, a Turkish watchmaker in Brooklyn who decides to join the fight against the construction of a sports facility in his neighbourhood because leading the charge is a very attractive woman only to discover, accidentally, that he has a talent for public-speaking and politics, and the cover story about a man who wants a nice, quiet job so he can study the classics and play baseball, whose parents set him up in the coin laundry business whose machines mysteriously seem to heal people’s ailments, creating problems with his customers and competitors. This collection marks the post-Modernist end of the Hemingway code where heterosexual men avoid “talky time.” Appel’s main characters are well-rounded, articulate (at least internally) and caught in multi-tiered conflicts, whose outcomes this reader usually found (seven out of eight times) delightfully unexpected. If you want to know more about how to write contemporary fiction, read this book.
Even though the old adage goes: “Never judge a book by its cover” the cover of Michael Klein’s new poetry book, When I Was A Twin, is certainly very attractive. Looking like “Wolverine goes to Fire Island,” Klein stands tall on the front cover with his brushed back hair and beard and big hands, wearing a P-coat on a wooden boardwalk which winds out towards the ocean. This is another exquisite cover from Sibling Rivalry Press—cover photos and art by Shef Reynolds; cover design by Seth Pennington.
The poem “Harmonium” begins this collection. It’s a haunting update about what has changed in the poet’s world and life (with a reference to Allen Ginsberg’s trademark harmonium playing at his readings) since the death of the person to whom it is addressed. The poet mentions Bruce/Caitlan Jenner’s transition, gay marriage, not going to cinemas anymore to watch films and: “Websites: So many websites like radium./There’s a website that consists entirely of lists/Whenever I look at a list with names on it/I think of death and awards.” With this poem, Klein deftly introduces the three subjects—death and lists and fame—which his book explores throughout.
His structural alternation of block prose poems with more experimental list poems, whose imagistic links change sometimes from line to line, and his use of these two forms to explore subjects such as film, theatre, actors, actresses, and horse racing, caught and kept my interest through the entire book. And the list poems with their fast changing-linking-build-your-own-narrative, rather than covering up or confusing the subjects actually strips away and clarifies them. Klein, like Trinidad in this issue, also has a poem about 9/11, “The planes I said and then the nothing afterwards,” which describes the cruel chance that determined who survived that day: “Did they ask for more/living at the intersection of alive and not living?” and the bewilderment of those survivors who lived to see the disaster wrought by Hurricane Sandy a few years later: “And now, or just last week, more disaster: the predicted water/took up something furious to wreck the houses down in Queens.”
But it is the sorrow for a sibling slowly drowning in depression at a distance which is the main theme of this book, an experience rendered painfully accurate in “The Motivation of an Actor”
….I watched my brother live, but couldn’t touch the flame around his life. And I didn’t want to be absorbed by art. I didn’t trust art to throw me back….
Klein’s poetic rendering of his relationship with his twin brother rings, unfortunately, very true to my own with a schizophrenic, artistic relative.
And I do have another confession to make. Even though I’m gay, I must admit I have more of an affinity for Klein’s poems about horses “Other Horses” (experimental poem) and “The Lives of Horses” (prose poem) than for those about the theatre and film, “Music for the Theater” and “Giuliette Masina” having gone yearly to watch a cousin compete in the equestrian arena at the state fair. I do still, however, enjoy Klein’s list poems such as “Things that Might Be True” and “The Medium” having also started to write my own series about past boyfriends and therapists and why things went wrong.
When I was a Twin is a book of well-written poems, some more challenging and experimental than others. (which, in my opinion, is exactly what a poetry book should offer). I think readers will experience much leesplezier (reading pleasure) as we say in Dutch from this thin volume of poetry, which I wholeheartedly recommend.
Last is a poetry book by British-born, Amsterdam resident and local treasure, Kate Foley. The Don’t Touch Garden is a compilation of poems from six of Foley’s previous books. These poems are about birth, adoption, childhood, family and and the search, albeit too late, for one’s biological parent. This new edition of these poems by Arachine Press is bound in a cover which includes a photo of a garden with a gate and a bench which, despite the book’s title, seems to welcome one in. This book, like Klein’s, is small enough to fit into a coat pocket and is the type of book I would read and meditate on when I was younger as I wandered around my town “looking for the trapdoor out of suburbia.” In “Bison” Foley comments on her almost lifelong lack of knowledge of her biological parents: “My pre-history is as blank as a people without pots/or bones.” Or with advancing age, suddenly finding our parents in the mirror as we begin to resemble them unwittingly physically and psychologically. The poem “Paradox” also discusses this voyage of discovery of parentage: “Mirror, mirror on the wall/the old joke goes/I am my mother after all.//but which ?” It also illustrates her advice in the introduction to this volume: “to parent the face we find in the mirror.” It is a brave book, which recreates what some children growing up were probably told to (and would like to forget), but which others feel impelled to explore to understand who they really are.
The Don’t Touch Garden includes poems about war-time Britain, (the title poem being the longest and the most interesting in this collection to me due to its historical nature), poems about young parents, “Corchipoo,” (including a young child overhearing her parents having sex) and an abusive, adoptive uncle “The Man on the Bike.” In this poem, the adoptive mother asks: “Tell me! What did he say?”//She means ‘What did he do?’” The tensions between wondering about who her birth parents were, to trying to find a place in a home where she doesn’t seem to fit due to her expanding poetic perception and her parents’ more restricted worldview (whom she takes care of as they age) continues throughout the book including the poem, “The End of a Long Conversation” where Foley meditates on her parents’ death and final separation without a proper good-bye. The Don’t Touch Garden is small, beautiful, thought-provoking book, which should be in every English-language collection about adoption and searching for one’s true parentage.