Reviewing independent, small press and self-published books is kind of like judging the first round of American Idol. You never know what to expect next, but everybody’s trying really hard, and when somebody is actually truly good it’s an occasion worthy of applause. Luckily, I have a few writers to applaud below.
1. Lance Tooks is a veteran cartoonist, and the Lucifer’s Garden of Verses series of graphic novels represents only one fraction of his life’s work. Tooks’ comix offer an interesting merger between apocalyptic fantasy and hiphop street humor. It helps that he draws people with such warmth and affection. I find his books very pleasing, even though my literary antenna has never really been tuned to graphic novels. I find his thoughtful blog even better, even though he only seems to update it once a month.
2. I’ll say it over and over again: if you’re a small publisher, appearance counts. Ken Waldman’s poetry chapbook Conditions and Cures looks great (the cover seems to evoke for me an old 70’s country-folk record album), and this helps me look upon the poems inside with favor. Ken Waldman writes with taste, humor and expert rhythm. The author is a bluegrass musician, and you can hear the banjo rhythms in moving sequences like this:
Most evenings, she practices martial arts,
the slow process a physical cleansing
after speedy freeway days. A tensing
and an untensing. Sometimes, as she starts
a kick, she’s in the dirt bikes and go-carts
of junior high. Or flashed forward, dancing
a dance she’s not supposed to know. Sensing
the future, she remembers to breathe. Hearts
are like hands, she thinks, as she makes fists,
then releases, clasps thing fingers as if
in prayer. She almost feels her right hand insist
a man awaits — this man dreams her — as her left
demands she continue. All night, she fists
and unfists, fists and unfists, fists and unfists …
3. Darrin Duford‘s Is There A Hole In The Boat? is an account of a haphazard but rewarding journey across the nation of Panama (without a car). Duford is a talented travel writer, and does a good job of mixing political/social context with human observation. I’m not sure what it takes for a travel writer to break through with a book like this one, but I hope Is There A Hole In The Boat? finds a way.
4. I always want to see an independently published book succeed, and I have to complain when I see an author or small publisher use self-defeating tactics. I was initially intrigued by a gloomy gray paperback with a woebegone suburban ragamuffin on the cover called Almost Columbine, by Alexander Hutchinson. The back cover promo text promises a realistic high school story with echoes of Colombine-like violence. We’re off to an okay start, but then I’m stopped dead by a bunch of frontpaper and introductory text explaining that this volume is the second volume in something called “The HAWKS Series”, and that it continues the story of an earlier volume titled “The HAWKS Foundation Mission One” (this volume is apparently “Mission Two”). It’s not a good idea for a publisher to alienate readers of a new book by making them feel stupid for not reading the previous installment. After this off-putting introduction, I found it difficult to get into the story. I do believe Hutchinson is working up to a heartfelt and possibly important statement with this material, so I hope he will try again.
5. I don’t usually review music here, but I’ve done poetry shows with Baltimore’s native poet (and frequent LitKicks Action Poetry contributor) Mark “Wireman” Coburn, and I’ll make an exception for Play That Funky Raga White Boy by his Raga Celtic Delta Blues Band. This ensemble sounds sort of like Michael McClure and Ray Manzarek, Captain Beefheart, Ravi Shankar and Howlin’ Wolf all together in a mellow elevator. I’m not sure if the Mississippi delta runs through Baltimore, Maryland or not, but this troupe makes it sound like it does.
The Indie Grab Bag ain’t empty yet, folks! Come back tomorrow for some more titles worthy of checking out.