Thursday, January 14, 2010

Staircase of Roots by Janet Winans

Staircase of Roots
Janet Winans
Off the Grid Press
ISBN 978-0-9778429-0-30-3
$15.00 2009

Janet Winans opens a window, she gives us glimpses of her observations, provincial observations similar to Chagal’s paintings, the reader can float in and out.

“Balance is immutable. Even-
handedness, punctuality, his lawyer ways.
Brown shoes with brown suit, black with
blue or gray, striped tie symmetrical
boring, I complain. But fair,
no argument. Like truth and time.”

The poems are stable, secure in their presence, yet, can be, “unseated by a smirking boy.” Winans imparts a sense of place without losing what it means to live in a myth or to be relegated to a mythological presence. Winans sees clearly. She writes without having to trick us with sentimentality.

“Our patterns,
chains and circles,
stars, whole constellations.
Muted rose and gray
your shades;
my yellow, red
and blue symmetrical.
As if engraved
the children’s, parents’
births, deaths, marriages
in running stitches,
day, month, year.”

Irene Koronas
Poetry Editor
Wilderness House Literary Review
Reviewer: Ibbetson Street Press

Wednesday, January 13, 2010



Reviewed by Manson Solomon

During World War II, American servicemen left their mark in the form of the now famous “Kilroy Was Here” graffiti scrawled on walls all over Europe, wherever the GI’s had been. There is a variety of conflicting legends regarding the origin of the practice, and the places where the drawings of the cartoonish man peering over a wall were to be found, but the essential message was unmistakable: “The Yanks were here, we made a difference, we were real, we were triumphant!”

The fourth story in Theodore Stryker’s collection of Short Stories, Essays and Other Writings, entitled “The Second Sinking of the USS Arizona,” poignantly chronicles the thwarted effort by Jim Healy, a decorated World War II veteran, to honor a fallen comrade who had gone down with the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor. Jim journeys all the way to Hawaii only to find, ironically, an impossibly long line of Japanese tourists waiting to view the Memorial, and he has to catch his plane back to the States without accomplishing his mission. Subsequently, upon hearing of Jim’s death, the author, himself a veteran, seeks to make amends for his friend’s disappointment by going out to Hawaii and scrawling on the Arizona Memorial wall, with his wife’s eyebrow pencil, “Jim Healy was here.”

The central message of the book, as the back cover tells us, is that the author, Ted Stryker, “though he did not set out to write for publication, as he approached the end of his life . . . felt a need to leave something behind, hopefully something of value.” Such is the spark for many a memoir: to reassure oneself that one’s life had meaning, that one was indeed here.

So what are to make of this collection of short stories (which we are told in the usual front page disclaimer are fiction, “products of the author’s imagination,” but which we are also told in the back of the book “accurately record events in his life”), and essays (which are manifestly the author’s own opinions) and “other writings”?

Firstly, it is clear that the Stories are not pure fiction, but are drawn from the author’s own experience, whether directly personal or overheard or read about. Perhaps the “fiction” disclaimer gave him license to do some creative embellishing, but had they not been based on significant real-world events, what would he be leaving behind? Literature? No, these stories are not the stuff of literature; the professional craftsmanship is not there. As memoir, imprints of the man’s presence in the world, they are interesting and entertaining, and perhaps valuable, as he had hoped, but they are not literary in any sense. To appreciate the stories, and connect with the man’s life, one has to overlook the clich├ęd writing.

The Essays, being the author’s views on matters of the day, will be of great interest to the author’s children and grandchildren, staking out Grandpa’s claim to have been a living, breathing human being with opinions, telling them what sort of man he was -- but they are not abiding contributions to the debates which will live on in the public mind. Ditto the “Other Writings.”

In short, this poignant memoir, while unlikely to light a great fire in the world of literature, will nevertheless undoubtedly stir the hearts of those who knew Ted Stryker personally, and in that sense he has indeed left behind “something of value”, as he hoped.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Review of TOURIST AT A MIRACLE by Mark Statman

Review of TOURIST AT A MIRACLE by Mark Statman, Hanging Loose Press, Brooklyn, New York, 88 pages, 2010, $18

By Barbara Bialick

Just look at the son’s-eye-photo of Mark Statman on the back of this colorful, well-designed book. He’s a happy man, with good job, wife and son, even translates Lorca! But he’s still looking with the wide eyes of a poet—and a fun dad.

I’d like to see how this smooth but polished poet writes the passion of Lorca… Statman says “the danger is not/that he’ll take over/my poems/but that when it happens/I won’t know/image of cow, of horse…/so when someone points it out/I won’t see—already eaten/devoured”.

I don’t see evidence of devoured by Lorca in Tourist at a Miracle, but rather a pebble-smooth style that you can read quickly from beginning to end, maybe too quickly, without noticing many symbols or startling imagery. But when I go back over individual poems, I definitely find some favorites:

“Changing”: “the stores in/my neighborhood in Brooklyn/are always changing/a flower store/becomes a bookstore/a bookstore/becomes a cell phone store/a vacant lot a drug store/…one change after another/in the changelessness”

“You’re in Love”: “It was worth it/just for when it happened/for the certainty/of how you’ll feel/when it happens again”

“The Happy Problem”: “why do you think/that just because you say it/it’s true?”

“Tourist”: “hubo un milagro, she said/a miracle/…I didn’t know/if I wanted to go/I already knew/I wouldn’t see what she had seen”

Statman has written several other works, including THE ALPHABET OF TREES: A GUIDE TO NATURE WRITING, LISTENER IN THE SNOW: THE PRACTICE AND TEACHING OF POETRY, and he co-translated with Pablo Medina, Federico Garcia Lorca’s POET IN NEW YORK. He taught for many years for the Teachers and Writers Collaborative. Currently he is an associate professor at Eugene Lang College of the New School. He is a long-time resident of New York.

Monday, January 11, 2010



Sitting here with this book in my lap, I am assailed by the memory of a painful phone call from my son. Last winter he put in a stint in Hollywood at Kennedy-Marshall, the producers of Steven Spielberg’s movies, and of last year’s Oscar-nominated The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Perhaps the memory was triggered by the fact that Brad Pitt, who played Benjamin Button, appears in the second chapter of Pilarski’s book. (” ‘Look! It’s Brad Pitt!’ Jodie whispered her scream [sic]. . . In fact, it was not Brad Pitt they saw . . . But the differences made for two very different men. Where Brad Pitt had romantically intense blue eyes, Dan’s were dark brown, with an almost metallic sheen, so that when looking him in the eye one only saw a reflection. Where Brad had full lips, Dan’s were sparely chiseled. Where Brad exuded an athletic ease, Dan moved with reserve. But one thing was certain: the man the ladies sighted was about to become one of the most important men in the world.”

More likely, though, the memory was triggered by what caused my son’s anguish. “Dad,” he agonized over the phone, “all these hopeful guys have sweated blood on their scripts, they have put in years, and within just a few minutes of beginning to read, I can tell whether they are any good or not. Some so obviously don’t cut it that I have no choice but to axe them immediately, and they will never even get a second read, never see the light of day. I feel so bad.”

Like my son, when I pick up a book riddled with superficial banalities, flat, cartoon characters, clumsy, implausible, breathless dramatization, I am tempted to just toss it. When one reads lines such as the above regarding Brad Pitt, or the opening paragraph (which, as every novelist knows, must set the tone for what is to come) --

“It was an idyllic summer afternoon as he stood on the balcony of his house in a tony district of New Jersey. He was looking down into a lush valley of green that surrounded a small, beautiful suburban lake. Under a flawless blue sky, here and there a butterfly shimmered as it flitted among the myriad flowers basking in the glorious warmth.”

-- does one really need to read any further?

One already knows that what awaits are such gems as: “The sky turned ominously gray and powdery”, or “Cold fear gripped him . . “, or “The soot was in clumps traveling like torpedoes towards the house . . . spewing darkness in every direction.” (These, by the way, all appear on the first page.) One has to have the courage to delve all the way to page 6 to find “For an almost-60-year-old Jan didn’t look bad at all. In fact his stocky, muscular build gave the impression of a vitality that was more appropriate for a man in his mid-forties.” How about “And, as if on some prearranged schedule, a sailboat would pass and silhouette itself against the melting orange sun that poured itself like shimmering red liquid into the pink-gray horizon.”? Or “When provoked, he used his piercing glare as a weapon. Those exposed to it felt immediately uncomfortable and were filled with a sudden desire to run, to escape.” “Women loved to be around him, especially younger women who, inexplicably, found his confident serenity irresistible.“ “The scent in her wake was the scent of fresh cut pears. His eyes remained on her wake for a few seconds after she’d disappeared around the corner and he smiled, shaking his head. What a woman! And where the hell is this going?” “As he drank her soul through her eyes, he was suddenly taken aback: Those eyes of hers, those irises, they were the ones from his dream.” And so it goes on.

One is soon treated to a parade of unidimensional characters, the requisite beautiful women, rugged men, an Israeli enchantress, Maasai warrior, intrepid, charming CEO (the author’s alter ego), mysterious encounters in hotel rooms and planes, the usual thriller gamut. Within the first 30 pages, one is whisked in and out of Aruba, the Pentagon, Spain, Tel Aviv, Lebanon, Teheran (caricature of Ahmadinejad, who really surely needs no caricaturing), Kenya, Granada, etc etc. And a comic-book plot line, events that could never have taken place in any world that any real human inhabits. What happens next? A car chase, a bomb scare, an explosion or two, an assassination, whateva? You get the drift. This is the stuff of pulp fiction, action movies, airport bookstores.

The publisher’s blurb tells us that “Chinese Chess is an enthralling combination of well-crafted characters and perfectly detailed events. Pilarski masterminds an American investigation that will leave even the highest investigators intrigued.” Huh? Perhaps if you love pulp fiction, you will consider these cartoon characters “well-crafted” and the unreal comic-book events “perfectly detailed,” and as for the “highest investigators” . . . ?

But perhaps I am not the best person to review this kind of writing. Perhaps the best-seller thriller pulp genre should not be judged by literary standards. Perhaps it’s not art, not skill and writerly sophistication that this material should be judged by, but whether it can be turned into an escapist James Bond action screenplay. By that standard, perhaps there is more to Chinese Chess than meets a literary eye. Mine anyway.

-- Manson Solomon