Thursday, April 28, 2016


I put off reading What's Wrong with Dorfman? as long as I could. Not because I was afraid it wouldn't be good. I knew it would be terrific, which is why I finally gave in and read it. I read it despite knowing that whatever was wrong with Dorfman would soon be wrong with me. I was right, of course. This is precisely what happened.
Dorfman wakes up disoriented, dizzy, nauseous, depressed, and has diarrhea. As I followed his symptoms in the book it became grotesquely clear to me I had them, too—except for the depression. The saving grace is John Blumenthal's devious comic sensibility. Every time I started feeling depressed along with Dorfman, I came to something that made me laugh. If only poor Dorfman could have read What's Wrong with Dorfman? whenever he started sliding into depression maybe he would have laughed like I did, and felt better. But let's get real.

Dorfman's dad is a doctor, a medical doctor. He is such a conscientious doctor he takes the blood pressures of Dorfman, Dorfman's sister and their mother several times a day. He admonishes the three of them repeatedly, whenever they are in his presence, even as adults, before meals and, in fact, whenever it occurs to him, to wash their hands and to make sure they work up a good lather with the soap. This reminded me of my own father, who constantly harped about washing hands. The only difference was my father never mentioned the lather part. But then my father wasn't a physician. He never took our blood pressure.
It seemed fairly evident to me, as it's probably seeming evident to you, that Dorfman's father--who does other nutty things, as well, such as following everyone around in his house turning out the lights behind them—that Dorfman's father is the reason for Dorfman's symptoms. That he is neurotic, just as my father was neurotic.
Living with such nuttiness it would be expected of Dorfman to be neurotic, too. Unless the experts have re-defined neurosis, or if in fact there even is such a disorder anymore. For the sake of coherence here, let us say there is indeed such a thing as neurosis. Let us say further it's pretty damned clear Dorfman and his doctor dad are both neurotic nightmares.
I'm not going to give anything away here and confirm or deny that what is wrong with Dorfman is caused by neuroses caused by his nutty father. That would be too easy. Dorfman himself would—and did--scoff at such a suggestion. He spends tens of thousands of dollars seeing specialists and undergoing every test known to medical science. He seeks treatments not recognized by medical science, such as a Chinese “herbal treatment” that might well have been based on dried “cow turds,” and torture prescribed by a chiropractic allergist.
John Blumenthal
It should come as no huge surprise that Dorfman is a hypochondriac. This means he is ambivalent with test results that turn up nothing frightening, such as cancer or an aneurysm that could kill instantly without a wisp of warning. He's relieved as well as disappointed. His recreational reading consists of “The Big Red Book” of diseases. He commiserates and talks of suicide with a down-on-her-luck actress named Delilah, whom he meets in his doctor's waiting room and who suffers symptoms identical to his.
Dorfman, by the way, is a down-on-his-luck screenwriter. While he suffers with the uncertainty of his intermittent symptoms—that's another thing, they come and go unpredictably—his screenplay, a comic cop story, is undergoing the horrendous Hollywood sausage grinder committee process that could ruin him for good if it fails, or save his career if it ever becomes a movie.
Yikes, my own neuroses (yes, me too), which I've pretty much maneuvered into dormancy over the years, are giving me flashback pains in the abdomen by my merely recounting what's wrong with Dorfman's life. I must go now before I contract sympathetic diarrhea.
Okay, I can tell you this: What's Wrong with Dorfman? has what I would call a happy ending. If it didn't I would not be sitting here writing this report. I'd be reading an outdated magazine in the waiting room at my doctor's office. In other words no matter what is wrong with you, you will find What's Wrong with Dorfman? not only safe to read but rather a hoot—so long as you read the whole thing straight through to the end.
An added benefit for me is that I now diligently work up a good lather with the soap when washing my hands. You should, too.

[for more Friday's Forgotten Books see the listing on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Monday, April 25, 2016

Play it, Sam

Would the divine were meek,
a power sublime disinclined to meddle
to quell our crises,
preferring supplication, to be needed so completely one offers up self
for the touch of grace?

Would reason be in play,
a mutuality of sorts,
open invitation: you seek us out, we take you in,
succor's yours, your soul joins ours,
all in kind?

Would this be culling,
recruiting kindred spirits from the random multitude
with still the same old signs that point the way from primal
to live with love
or die?

Friday, April 22, 2016

Snatch X

Accepting the likely identity of the wetness on his cheek--his right cheek, the sensation having appeared it seemed in the hollow just below the malar bone and trickled to a pool at the jaw--relieved with a certain doleful satisfaction his initial quest for resolution, and impelled the segue into a more pressing realm. Whose blood, and how did it get there?

The answer depended in large part on context, he knew, and with this understanding came the astonishing discovery he had no clue as to where he was or even who, his inward focus so intense it excluded all else. The terrain on which he found himself, allowed for no conscious navigation, no initiative to examine sequence or linkages. An awareness did exist, but it was subtle and elusive, a passive cognition with authority only to interpret, to question, hypothesize and form tentative conclusions. What seemed to be memory fragments appeared and vanished with no apparent affinity. An incrementally expanding hunger for pattern made its proximity known through the chaos. Yet a countermanding energy struggled away from all restraints, all familiarity.
Tension between the push and tug of these forces burgeoned and ebbed without apparent rhythm, and this uncertainty created a dichotomy of its own that both pleased and jarred the nerves, requiring of him an acquiescence with no semblance of expectation or chagrin. As a babe, he wondered, in the womb.

Thursday, April 21, 2016


Jackstraw is the perfect tonic for this election year of our discontent. Tired of worrying (or hoping) an obscenely rich populist presidential candidate will upset our traditional two-party system by running on a third-party ticket? Watch through a rifle scope in vicarious delight (or horror) as obscenely rich populist presidential candidate Hamilton Keyes's head explodes on a dais next to his drop-dead gorgeous running mate who has already taken a bullet just beneath her magnificent bosom and is lying crumpled at his feet the moment his candidacy comes to its abrupt conclusion in a tiny fictitious Latin American “republic.”

The person actually looking through the rifle scope when this happens is Thomas “Jack” Jackstraw, a soldier of fortune looking to make a last big score with an eye toward taking the loot and slipping into obscure retirement. We are with Jackstraw when he pulls the trigger, and we watch with him as Rachel Leah Valentine collapses after the bullet strikes her chest. He then sees another bullet, not his, turn her running mate's head into a pinkish cloud.
Jackstraw has presumed his assignment to fake the assassination of Rachel Leah Valentine, whom he'd fitted with body armor ahead of time, is a set up. He figures he's marked to be killed afterward as a patsy. Earlier he had helped capture four U.S. missionaries whose release the U.S. candidates had “negotiated” to boost the popularity back home of their American Patriotic Party. He knows too much.
He had a plan to elude the police waiting for him in the building from which he'd shot the vice presidential candidate. He had not anticipated the second shot, the killing shot, fired from a room adjoining his and forcing him to improvise his escape. After breaking into the next room and killing the police and real assassin there, he unbands the $250,000 cash downpayment for his services and dumps the loose bills out the fourth-story window into a swirling breeze to distract the crowd that had gathered to see the U.S. candidates. In the ensuing hullabalooo we make it to safety. But Jackstraw, the novel, is far from over.

The first-person narrative Ron Faust uses in this final entry to his fifteen-novel oeuvre works counter-intuitively well in distancing us from Faust himself. Thomas Jackstraw gives us opinions on such as personality, politics, government, and morality that in lesser writers are apt to come across as a virtually transparent veil for his or her personal outlook. I attribute this distance to Faust's artistry in creating a character so intimately believable we find ourselves merging with Jackstraw's sensibility. We forget he's really Ron Faust.
Not that we know much about Ron Faust. The most interesting thing—the only thing--besides his writing? He pitched minor league baseball in Louisiana a couple of seasons. Born in Illinois, 1936; died in Wisconsin, 2011. No obituary. The guy was more elusive than Pynchon or Salinger. More puzzling, his work went largely unknown despite being compared by critics to Hemingway, John D. MacDonald, Hunter S. Thompson and Peter Matthiessen. Scott Turow, bestselling author of Presumed Innocent, said of Faust: "A writer of enormous talent, a stylist to admire and a storyteller of great power."
Dumbfounded that although I'm a Wisconsin native and work as a writer, I first learned of Ron Faust only two years ago on Ben Boulden's Gravetapping blog.
Jackstraw wasn't published until two years after Faust's death at age 75. This makes me wonder if he'd had trouble finding a publisher. The idea such might have been the case saddens me. Makes me angry. The novel is too damned good to be deemed unmarketable by any publisher, and we know marketability trumps all other considerations these days. No grey area there.
Yet, had Faust hung on five more years he might have had his first bestseller with Jackstraw. I think you would agree, if you've been following the ongoing White House scramble these days and are as frustrated, disappointed, and angered as I get almost daily as each new unimaginable revelation plays out on the Internet. Here's some perspective from Jackstraw:
It seemed to me that she had easily won the debate, but to the political reporters she was glib, facile, reckless, uninformed—a "loose cannon." The media corps seemed to uniformly despise Rachel and the APP, and could scarcely conceal their scorn for her supporters. They deliberately antagonized her. It was a daily game of let's-see-if-we-can-make-the-candidate-lose-it. Rachel fought back in her cool, ironic style, and won over some viewers enraged at how the commentators ganged up on her.
When a male TV journalist asked her if she opposed homosexual relationships, she replied: "For you, no; for me, yes."
Another reporter wondered how she, a single woman for so many years, satisfied her physical urges. Rachel said, "Some physical urges I suppress, like now—I'm not going to slap your face." Then she smiled, which allowed her to get away with such a comment.
"People say you're too sharp-tongued," a female reporter said. "People say you're too pointy-headed," Rachel replied.
A political opponent was quoted as saying that if Rachel Leah Valentine were elected president the country would soon be at war or, "God forbid, in an economic depression."
"It sounds," Rachel told reporters, "like he's more afraid of losing his money than losing his life.”
But eventually the scandals, the semi-substantiated rumors, the constant attacks by the media and political opponents began to erode her support. The APP's poll numbers dropped—down to 19 percent of the electorate, 17 percent, 14 . . . Rachel, evidently accepting defeat at last, became anarchic and cheerfully vituperative.
She called both print and broadcast journalists"corporate lickspittles." She said she had never met a journalist or news anchor who wasn't an intellectual and social parvenu. As for free speech in America, Rachel asserted that you got what you paid for. She said that the big corporations and the Republicrats were united in opposing anyone or anything that threatened to interfere in their private monopoly game with America's wealth. She said that her political opponents knew that if you lie down with dogs you'll get up with fleas . . . but if you lie down for the Corporate State you'll get up with money. She said that the multi-national corporations—with their media lackeys—and the Republicrat politicians together operated the world's biggest whorehouse, and the citizen had only to ask whether he was going to be screwed fore or aft.
Wait...didn't I just read that on Huffpost?

[for more Friday's Forgotten Books see the listing on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Thursday, April 14, 2016


What Came Before is the first novel I can remember that within no more than ten heartbeats after I finished it I went back to the beginning and started it again. It was that good. Also, the tangle of mysteries was so subtle I had to re-read the “teaser” prologue to nail down what who I was pretty sure was who and which whom was in fact whom. And once I started reading it again, I simply couldn't stop. I kinda hate when that happens, because my stack of to-reads is so tall it could topple and injure me at any moment. But I simply couldn't stop. What Came Before is that good.
It confused me at first, I must admit. But as I kept going I eventually understood the problem: I was inside the narrator's head so completely I started wondering if I was the one going batty rather than her. Like this:
If I’d only used the coin-operated washing machine here at the apartment instead of using the Maytag at my house, the woman wouldn’t have found me.
Stop. Focus on today. Grocery store, essays, this afternoon’s ceramics class, the feel of clay between my fingers. A shower. Get back to normal. My new normal now that I’m “on leave” from my husband to – do what? Find myself? Oh, God.
I glance at the clock – 8:15 – and flop on my back, let yesterday unreel itself against my eyelids: Phoenix was barking in the side yard. Me in sloppy sweats, grabbing wet clothes from the washer, suddenly interested in escape, not dry socks, I slammed out the front door of my house where I should be living, but don’t. And then the slip of paper floated from the doorjamb onto the porch, settling, thin and persistent, at my feet.
See? Was I facing a possible gender crisis if I kept reading? It worried me a tad, I must admit, to identify with such a flaky female narrator. What saved me was forcing myself to identify indirectly with the husband, thinking maybe he had slyly persuaded her to go “on leave” from him to give him some – what? Peace? Nah, I didn't do that. I just now thought of it. What saved me, kept me reading despite my worry the narrator would scramble my mind like hers, was wondering just what in hell was on that slip of paper that “floated from the doorjamb onto the porch, settling, thin and persistent,” at her feet.
Gay Degani

Such is the genius of Gay Degani that despite a knack for transferring to our sensibility her protagonist's incessant mental agonies over every little thing she compels us to reach beyond the struggles of inertia and impulse for whatever lies just around the next corner. Like the armed robber staring into the barrel of Dirty Harry's .44 Magnum wondering if there's one last cartridge in the cylinder, we “gots to know” what in hell is on that slip of paper.
And before long we learn how the narrator's head came to be the mess it's become, and by now we really like her and we're more than happy to climb in and help her try to straighten things out—vicariously, anyway, although I did find myself from time to time using the sort of psychic English one employs with scary movies. No! Don't open that door! DO NOT GO DOWN THERE!! That sort of thing.
Want a quick peek at backstory? OK, just a quickie now. The protagonist, Abbie Palmer, was four-years-old when her Hollywood starlet mom committed suicide, turning on the gas oven and sticking her head inside. Abbie has a vague—very vague—memory of someone carrying her to safety from their home. Now, forty-eight years later, she's a college English teacher, mother of two, and the vaguely dissatisfied wife of a successful lawyer. Thinking the well-dressed woman who knocks on her door is yet another reporter wanting to dredge up memories of her famous suicide mom, Abbie uses profanity in ordering the woman to leave. The handwritten message on the slip of paper the woman stuck between the door and the jamb before she left says My mother is your mother. Abbie is white, the woman: black.
Were What Went Before a soap-sponsored radio melodrama the organ music at this point would swell with a sort of dum da dum dum effect. And I likely would flip the dial. That I kept on and on and on, even reading it again, despite that initial less-than-subtle dum da dum dum effect in my head, should tell you either I am a tad soft in the head or What Went Before is one helluva fine read. Either or both are possible, of course, but, soft or not, my head has handled enough novels over the years to be able to tell the seeds and stems from...whatever. As Cheech or Chong, or both, would have put it back in the day, What Went Before is good...stuff.
As with most debut novels of this extraordinary achievement, writing it was not the author's debut putting words into print. Many come to the novel after developing and honing their skills writing short stories. Gay Degani is long accomplished in the art known as “flash fiction,” which is gaining wider recognition by the hour among aspiring literati. I'm so new myself to its appreciation I shall describe it as a sort of poetry without the esoteric language, rebellious punctuation or artsy arrangement of lines on the page. It is prose exquisitely trimmed and compressed to exclude all but the very essential tenderloin of a scene or story.
Bringing this skill to her novel, Degani gives us crisp, fat-free writing that keeps the mind alert, agile, appreciative and, best of all, racing along to find out what there is to find out. Even the publisher—Every Day Publishing—is in on the flash fiction thing. Here's the company's explanation:
Every Day Novels combines the bite-sized craftsmanship of flash fiction with the depth and complexity of a novel — perfect for busy readers looking for a short tidbit of fiction each day, who also appreciate the greater plot and development of novel-length fiction.
For me, though, the “short tidbit...each day” advertisement didn't apply. I simply could not stop reading, tidbits be damned.

[find more Friday's Forgotten Books reviewed at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog:]


Monday, April 11, 2016

Snatch 9

Thing on the cheek. Been there forever. What the hell? What is it?
One of those things you finally pay attention to, knowing somehow it's been there all along but has never drawn your awareness enough to take into account. Now that it has, it's front and center, so much so its mystery obsesses him to the exclusion of all else. Blocks context, immediate memory including whatever outlook held sway.

Conclusions leap to and fro. A tear. No. Would have dried long ago. And what emotion might have caused it that wouldn't outlast something so mundane as a tear? Water? From where? And only one drop? Nonsense. It's imaginary by now, whatever its cause. More than memory. Sparked into permanence by the stark effect of its appearance, its utter contrast with the context it supplanted.
What could do this? Something primal, had to be. Wriggled down through an evolutionary strata to a once vital nerve center, an ancient survival algorithm so smothered by centuries of social priorities its signals are all but ignored outside the most clamant demands. Relief, maybe, from some unacknowledged primal torment? No again. Relief is fleeting. This continues to disturb, if only by implication, with its essence: the livid power of a single drop. It could be blood.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

WILD SWANS: Three Daughters of China – Jung Chang

Most often when I review a popular book I liked, I look to the negative amateur reviews rather than raves. This is more so I'm not influenced by the words and sentiments in the raves, such as “page turner” or “tear jerker” or “really fascinating characters,” and the like. I want the review to reflect my own reading experience, not the viewpoint of others. The pans are usually good for a laugh, and they often give me a starting point for my own assessment of the book.

I've come to Wild Swans late, learning of it only recently from a friend who lived in China awhile teaching English. Ordinarily averse to reading books others recommend to me (probably an ego thing) this time it worked, in part I suspect because my friend in describing some of the fascinating revelations it contained tugged back the hem of a curtain I hadn't realized was blocking my view of a land and a culture far beyond anything I had imagined. Many of the handful of disappointed readers bemoaned that Wild Swans didn't excite them, didn't have enough dialogue to suit their taste for action. They compared the book to works of fiction or fictionalized biographies. They must have missed the parts describing the incomprehensible horrors the Japanese committed on the Chinese in World War II, and then by the Chinese themselves in the subsequent struggles for political control and ultimately by the prevailing Communist Party and by the regime headed by Mao Zedong, a certifiable madman who relentlessly set his subjects against each other by the millions, urging them to torture and beat each other to death and drive one another to insanity and suicide.

I'm surprised anyone who claims to have been bored by author Jung Chang's descriptions of such horrific atrocities as "singing fountains", in which Red Guards split victims' heads open to entertain onlookers with the subsequent screaming and geysers of blood can read at all. Or maybe they miss the dramatic foreground music that prompts them to glance up from their cellphones in time to catch violent depictions on their wide-screen TVs.
Jung Chang builds her story, an account of China's tumultuous history during the 20th century, around the lives of three generations of women--her grandmother, mother and herself, the "wild swans" of the title. Eventually allowed to leave her politically oppressive homeland for England as a visiting scholar, she began writing Wild Swans after a visit of several months from her mother. Finally free of the restrictions to talk about anything that might be perceived as showing China in a negative light, Jung Chang's mother starting telling her daughter things she'd bottled up most of her life. She talked almost nonstop, even when she couldn't be with her daughter. Jung Chang said her mother left some 60 hours of taped narrative before returning to China. I could go on for pages describing the horrors these women suffered and the incredible heroism they displayed under conditions brought about by the most wicked behavior the human species has ever displayed.
Jung Chang
This statement is bound to arouse suspicion that I'm a political shill or at least am exaggerating beyond reason, but from reading Wild Swans I can say with complete confidence that Mao Zedong was a genius of the most evil design ever seen on the planet. If only for the sheer magnitude of Mao's murderous subjugation of China's hundreds of millions, Hitler and Stalin were pipsqueaks in comparison. As Jung Chang observed, Hitler and Stalin relied on elites and secret police to enforce their totalitarian regimes. Mao cowed and brainwashed his subjects with cunning, bringing out their worst instincts toward service without question of his every whim. One consequence was the starvation of millions during a famine brought about solely by Mao's vanity and ignorance.
My vague, naïve sense of China left me woefully unprepared for Jung Chang's deceptively dispassionate revelations. Her straightforward, uncontrived presentation, which has a diary feel at times, gives the horrors she describes a poignancy that wrenches the heart. Not that all is ghastly and bleak. Alongside the indelible image of the "singing fountains" is her childhood remembrance of having deliberately swallowed an orange seed. A family member had warned her not to swallow the seeds or orange trees would grow out of her head. She admitted having trouble getting to sleep that night worrying about it.
I prefer this memory to the other, although I know both will remain ever with me. 

[for more Friday's Forgotten Books see the listing on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]