Indie Grab Bag # 2: March 2007

Here’s some more good books and chapbooks you might enjoy:

1. A Return to Mother’s Love is a fanciful surprise by Daniel Patrick Helmstetter. What looks at first like a regular illustrated poetry chapbook turns out to be a “concept piece”, a photographic/poetic record of a private art project involving children’s balloons. Daniel Patrick Helmstetter seems to like balloons a lot, and he seems to have a lot of friends who like balloons a lot too. We see photos of the author carrying a balloon around various cities. We learn factoids about balloons, which (we are told) can rise up to 5 miles in the atmosphere, at which point they shred into tiny spaghetti-like pieces that float back to earth. Damn. My only complaint with this beautiful poetry chapbook is that some of the poetry itself is rather trite. As an objet d’art, though, this is one of the better chapbooks I’ve ever seen, and there’s nothing wrong with objets d’art.

Mother’s Love has its own website. Or you could just go to Daniel Patrick Helmstetter’s myspace page and become his friend, because he seems like a friendly guy.

2. I have very mixed feelings about The American Dream by Mike Palecek. This is a fast-moving, hard-hitting political satire about a controlled suburb called Homeland. It’s Orwellian in a funny kind of way, as when we hear wacky modern echoes of Big Brother’s slogans:

Hats Are Caps
Work Is Play
Goodbye Is Seeya
Kinda Is Sorta
Streets Are Roads
Wrestling Is Rasslin’
Lunch Is Dinner

This is funny stuff, and I love the epigrams that litter the book, from Sally, Dick and Jane to Stephen Colbert, Kurt Vonnegut and Harold Pinter. All good, but does it work as a novel? Mike Palecek, who has written a whole bunch of underground-press novels, does not have a strong command of the reading experience he is providing. There are good bits, but I can’t find the glue holding it together. The American Dream kicks off with a whole bunch of material about Robert Kennedy, and yet nothing on the book’s back cover text or cover image indicates that this is a book about Robert Kennedy. As we read on, I can’t get a grip on who the narrator is or what’s going on. Am I confused? Is the novelist confused? The narrative veers and crashes, and soon the only Kennedy I’m reminded of is Ted — specifically Ted at the wheel of a big car on a dark night. I am truly sure that there is a good novel inside The American Dream but this is just too chaotic, the presentation is too sloppy, the printing quality is amateurish, and the whole thing has the potential to be much better than it is.

3. I’m sorry I’m not my usually cheerful self, but I’m also having problems with The Red Book by Ben Barton, a chapbook of plain-speaking, innocent poems, many of them only half a page or so long. The book is attractive and well-designed (especially if you like the color “red”), and all of the poems win points for clarity and simplicity. But I’m missing the depth of long, difficult words, the fascination of tough themes and cross-matched rhymes, the intensity of conflicted emotion. At their best, though, these poems are enjoyable to spend time with:

It’s taking its toll, I’m beginning to feel
That life is too short, too nose to the wheel
And I feel like Winona strolling the mall
But I wear the brightest smile of them all

4. Aaron Howard, who occasionally shows up here on LitKicks as a poet named mindbum, has launched a new publishing operation called Oilcan Press. I can’t find a web page for this low-tech underground outfit, but I hope you can find a way to get a copy of A Portrait Of New York By A Wanderer There by Edgar Oliver, who has been a significant and haunting presence in New York poetry and theater for many years. Edgar Oliver specializes in surreal washes of emotion:

I was made from the muck inside my mother somehow,
My father opened a door in an old house
and saw a staircase.

Oliver’s typewriter-typed and ink-splattered (or is it blood splattered) texts are well-matched with patchy collage backdrops featuring newspaper articles, photos, remnants and sheet music. I wish there were an Amazon page for this chapbook, but for now the only way to get a copy is to send an email to pledging to snail-mail 10 bucks. While we wait for the website to get built, here’s something about Edgar Oliver.

5. Holding Hands With Reality, a poetry chapbook by Curran Jeffery, offers straightforward free verse mostly about the struggle to keep one’s head together in the modern world. We hear about political aggravations, family tragedies, and we observe an old man in a restaurant whose mind is slowly slipping away. One poem describes a playground full of blind children, and the next instructs the reader in how to talk to trees. But reading these poems, I regretted not being given any information at all about the poet. Whether this was an intentional omission or not, I think it forced me to squelch my interest at a point when I was just becoming curious enough to wonder who the human being behind these aphoristic verses was.

That’s it for the Indie Grab Bag, people. You know I’ll be back with more stuff soon. If you want to send me your own review copies, check the info on the right nav panel. Please be forewarned that I’m way backed up and I may not be able to write about what you send me at all. But I’m always worth a try.

7 Responses

  1. The American Dream by Mike
    The American Dream by Mike Palecek

    Thanks for including this book in your Indie Grab Bag #2. I wish the comments had been more positive, but I’d rather have candor than empty praise.

    That said, I’d like to shift a good bit of the blame from the writer (Mike Palecek) to the editor (Yours Truly, Chuck Gregory of CWG Press). My job was to find that good novel that you say is hidden inside his book, and publish that. That’s what I thought I had done, but you disagree. That’s ok. Disagreement is good. Without it there wouldn’t be much for anyone to say. It’s certainly a necessary part of freedom, both of speech and of the press.

    I believe that the reviewer read an ARC of The American Dream and the printing quality of that was indeed amateurish. I very nearly fired my printer because of that, but I gave them another chance and the actual book looks great (IMHO). I did describe the flaws at some length in my cover letter sent out with the review copies. Often reviewers don’t bother to read cover letters. I know. I review books, too.

    The narrative is indeed chaotic but that is by intention. There are some shifts in point of view but each chapter should be consistent within itself. Most of the book emanates from some outside observer who is describing events as they unfold; there are some exceptions where we are provided with the inner thoughts of one of the characters. The protagonist is somewhat confused about what is happening to him and that produces a bit of confusion in our impartial observer. I felt that this confusion, this chaos, was a necessary part of Mike’s style for the book.

    This is not a book about a Kennedy, be it J, R or T. There is a very personal commentary before the novel itself starts, and there is quite a bit of material there about America’s loss when the Kennedys were shot down. This agonizing retrospective is intended to set the appropriate mood for reading the rest of the book. It’s not mentioned on the back cover because it’s not what the book is really about.

    Those interested may purchase the book directly from the publisher (me) at

  2. Chuck, thanks for stepping up
    Chuck, thanks for stepping up and posting this explanation. It sounds like I was looking at the earlier version, since I didn’t see these quotes from Howard Zinn, etc. I’m really glad to hear you spotted these printing problems as well, and that you fixed them in the released version.

    However, I would definitely suggest in the future that the practice of sending out imperfect galleys to book reviewers does *not* make sense for indie publishers, since it’s all too easy for a book reviewer to mistake the galley for the actual book. I think review galleys make sense if you are an established publisher like Random House or Doubleday and you are publishing well-known authors on a set schedule (in which case the galley is necessary so that the actual book reviews can appear at the same the final book is released). Nobody is going to mistake an error-filled Random House galley for a published book, but it’s all too easy to mistake an error-filled CWG Press galley for a published book. And, since indie publishing does not revolve around calendars and schedules and pub dates the way corporate publishing does, I don’t think there’s any benefit gained from sending out the galley in advance of the actual publication — an indie publisher should only send out the final product for review.

    Okay, enough on that … I can easily accept your comments about the narrative’s intentionally difficult structure. I’m not sure if you or the author were aware that my particular tastes as a reviewer skew towards clear narratives, and that I am never fond of difficult-to-understand prose (just read one of my rants about Thomas Pynchon if you don’t believe me). This is probably a matter of personal taste. The author’s cleverness did shine through, but as a reader I just did not feel motivated to persevere with this story based on the problems I had with the first few pages. I have no problem believing that other readers will feel differently.

    Anyway, Chuck, thanks for your brave response and I will be happy to review more of your books in the future, if you can stand it.

  3. InterestedAll this discussion

    All this discussion had piqued my interest in The American Dream. I’m going to head over to the CWG website as soon as I finish typing this.

  4. ‘Brooklyn’ said: “However, I
    ‘Brooklyn’ said: “However, I would definitely suggest in the future that the practice of sending out imperfect galleys to book reviewers does *not* make sense for indie publishers, since it’s all too easy for a book reviewer to mistake the galley for the actual book.”

    In retrospect, I agree. I’ll be far more careful in the future. If anything, I’ll send unbound galleys to make it completely obvious that it’s not the finished work.

    ‘Brooklyn’ also said: “Anyway, Chuck, thanks for your brave response and I will be happy to review more of your books in the future, if you can stand it.”

    You can count on it. Thanks again.

  5. I’m glad to hear that!
    I’m glad to hear that! That’s the whole idea of this infernal feature …

  6. The Red Book by Ben BartonRed
    The Red Book by Ben Barton

    Red being my favourite colour and all, I feel myself drawn to this book – love ‘Winona’ or whatever it’s called and the rest on the website…
    I want to ask what is so wrong with poems having ‘clarity’ as you say? I think it is one of the best qualities a poem can have. If you can understand, or even better – feel – what the poet was saying, that to me is a perfect poem.

  7. I’m glad to hear that, Screw.
    I’m glad to hear that, Screw. But I think you’re misquoting me — I said Barton’s poems “get points” for clarity, which is a quality I certainly like. I then said I regret the lack of depth, which is my main problem with the book.

    Anyway, my biggest hope is that these indie reviews will help the writers I’m reviewing sell books.

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