Archive for May, 2013

On Check Writing

Smiling nervously, a cashier
hands the check
and driver’s license over to
an assistant manager
who verifies a correct match,
then scrutinizes
the photo on my state-issued,
valid until 2016
means of identification, and
finally me, as if
I should admit to having
insufficient funds,
likely socialist tendencies,
and dandruff, too,
before nodding knowingly
as he gruffly asks,
“Is this information correct?”
In a cold sweat,
I confess, confess to it all.

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Rules of ’48 / Jack Cady

This novel began as a memoir, and then transitioned to a novel to better drive home the author’s intended message.  It is a story set in the summer of 1948 in Louisville, a working-class city south of the Mason-Dixon line.  Cady does a masterful job of recreating what the city felt and looked like sixty-five years ago.  The focus is on the racial tensions between whites and blacks following the Second World War, as well as between Christian and Jews.  It is a time when the nation’s blacks are beginning to demand an end to their second-class status and Jewish Americans are coming to terms with the recent German Holocaust.  The author presents a semi-autobiographical examination of what happened on a smaller stage in his hometown during this turning point of social activism on the part of the country’s minority populations.  Unfortunately, this blending of memoir and novel does not combine well on the page.  The two fail to fuse into a whole.  Taken separately, each has much to recommend it.  The story accurately captures, in personal terms, the racial tensions of the time.  It also vividly brings to life the sweaty reality of Louisville in the days before air conditioning  was common.  Yet Cady fails to deliver a seamless fit between the two approaches.  The result is a flawed novel that will still be appreciated by those interested in the development of the American conscience following World War II.

Late Morning Breakfast

Overnight, the wind has
churned and stirred the sky’s sticky batter
and we’ve awoken to
find muffins baking in summery sunshine.

No two look alike,
some rise with bulbous mushroom heads,
others, ironed flat,
lie like pancakes on that plate of blue slate.

Each has been sprinkled
with its own special ingredient; overhead,
one speckled with berries,
its neighbor glossy with a sugary coating.

Infused with caffeine,
we marvel at this bakery showcase now
rolling off the assembly line,
a parade of clouds drizzled with sunlight.

Off-limits to mere humans
who must settle for soggy bowls of cereal,
it is a breakfast feast
only the gods of Olympus will appreciate.

The Tiger’s Wife / Tea Obreht

Tea Obreht has delivered a truly stunning debut novel.  With a prose style that is vibrant, lyrical, and imaginative, she expertly moves between realistic and mythic storytelling to blend the two into a seamless whole.  Set in an unnamed Balkan country mending from the wounds of war, the reader is introduced to Natalia, a young doctor traveling on a humanitarian trip who learns her beloved grandfather has recently died in the country she is heading towards.  Investigating why he had left his home when suffering from terminal cancer, Natalia recalls the stories he told her of three separate meetings with “the deathless man.”  I guarantee “the deathless man” is a character that will long be remembered by readers of this novel.  But what Natalia has to piece together is a story her grandfather never shared with her—the legend of the tiger’s wife and the reason why he always carried a worn copy of The Jungle Book.  Obreht’s novel was chosen as one of the top books of the year by numerous publications.  I second their nominations.  The novel is a marvelous blend of current-day grim reality with folk tales that have survived through countless generations.  Tea Obreht is an author who emerges from the gate with an ambitious novel that announces the arrival of a tremendously gifted author.

Marshland Cathedral

Past the warehouse district
and through two stubbly cornfields,
but before the forest begins,
that is where you will discover it
protected by thorny weeds.

Not detailed on any map
and too insignificant to be named,
except for a few children,
most in the subdivision do not even
know of its existence.

As terra firma turns soft,
even over the din of a ring road,
you will hear it before
eyesight provides confirmation;
service has already begun.

Its privacy curtained by
cattails, you will find no doorway
and must push your way in,
clumsily interrupting that canticle
overheard on the threshold.

But stand perfectly still
and be patient, once you blend,
High Mass will continue,
as timid voices again merge into
a full-throated chorus.

The Moor’s Last Sigh / Salman Rushdie

The Moor, Moraes Zogoiby, is the narrator of the da Gama-Zogoiby family history.  It is a tale of matriarchs, premature deaths, and family disputes traced through four generations.  It begins with Francisco da Gama who establishes the family’s presence in the spice trade in British ruled India at the turn of the twentieth century.  Through the years, the family emerges as a dominant force in the business world of an independent India.  In the end, his father becomes a famous crime lord behind the business’s facade.  The focus is on Aurora da Gama, his mother, who becomes a famous national artist, supported by her Jewish husband, Abraham Zogoiby.  The Moor himself is the last-born child of four.  He comes into the world with a deformed hand and an aging disease where his body ages twice as fast as normal.  Yet in the end, he is the remaining member of the family’s crumbled dynasty. While it is the women of the family who dominate, the men behind the scenes play an important part in the story the Moor imparts.  It is an intricate tale that is multi-layered, and I found it engaging from beginning to end.  With references to ancient and modern cultures, Rushdie brings to the page the personal history of India during the twentieth century.  I had read several of Rushdie’s earlier novels and had been impressed by his extraordinary prose style.  But in this novel for the first time I was able to truly connect to the story he was relating.  For those who feel that Rushdie is too challenging an author to tackle, I recommend this book to prove otherwise.  His masterful wordplay, wit, and use of humor are all on display here.  In The Moor’s Last Sigh he has created a book not only magnificent in scope, but one that is readily accessible to the average reader. Combining the comic and fantastic, he delivers a story that will captivate and charm those who care to tackle this wildly inventive novel.

“Eviction Notice,” She Said

“Eviction notice,” she said,
keeping her distance as if I might be
a contagious disease.
“Be sure to leave the apartment
just as you found it.
And don’t be here noon, tomorrow.”
All night long, I am up,
scouring the basement, every dank
corner with a flashlight.
Whispering this persuasive refrain,
“come, come my lovelies,”
I entice and snatch what I can.
Job completed, what
the shadows have provided me is
carried back upstairs.
A victorious Pied Piper, whispering,
“home, home my lovelies,”
I’ll obligingly leave the apartment
just as I found it.