LitKicks Reviews (Part Two): June 2006

I’m very impressed by demons in. demons out by Travis Lawrence, who also runs a website called A Poet Instead. Lawrence’s words present simple, transparent epiphanies:

the city is crying
cop cars
ambulance, ambulance
falling to pieces
throw the bodies into sewer streams
wash away the skeletons of yesterday
cages upon cages
give us some air to breathe
ants bump together in single file lines

But it’s the sketches and illustrations that knock you out. Lawrence is an accomplished cartoonist whose work recalls Jules Feiffer and John Holmstrom, and the bug-eyed, poetic creatures that crawl around the margins of these carefully illustrated manuscript pages make each poem come alive. If you buy only one poetry chapbook this year, maybe demons in. demons out should be the one.

I had some trouble figuring out how to approach Frank’s War by Chris Boucher, subtitled “A Novel Inspired by 9/11 and the War Journal of Vietnam Veteran Fred Galus, Jr. Is it a novel or a journal? The arrangement is way too Borgesian for a stark story about the legacy of a soldier, although I applaud the efforts of the author, a technical writer living in Boston, to turn the found notebooks of his late father-in-law into a meaningful book. But it seems Chris Boucher has fictionalized all the war journal entries in this novel, and I’m not sure I wouldn’t rather read the real journal entries. I hope Boucher will persevere with this material, but he should publish the journals and write a novel, instead of trying to combine both into one slim volume of 104 pages.

I felt similarly frustrated with Stet by James Chapman, an undeniably smart and well-written book published by Fugue State Press. The title character is an allegedly legendary Russian filmmaker stuck in a prison camp, and the narrative recalls the moody philosophical musings of a typical Dostoevsky character:

The disposition of this planet is such that impractical people are cut out. If you are an eastern mystic and you don’t even know how to hold your alms-bowl right-side-up, you are going to be tried and judged by your own stomach.

But the publisher makes it very difficult for a reader to enjoy this book by presenting it without the slightest explanation or explication, either on the back cover or anywhere else. No publisher should underestimate the importance of a back cover introduction, especially for a book and an author that nobody knows anything about. Why do I want to dive into a thick block of prose if I have no idea what I am diving into? I look in vain for a frontispiece, an endpaper, anything for me to grip onto. I double-check — am I holding a galley instead of a finished book? No, this is the whole book. I hope some readers will decide to take the plunge into this volume, because it seems to have something to say, but I could not find an entry point and gave up after a few pages.

LitKicks readers may have already looked at Gus Openshaw’s Whale-Killing Journal, a comic novel by Keith Thompson that originated in a very funny blog and was a finalist for a Blooker Prize (along with LitKicks) earlier this year (LitKicks lost, and so did this book). The book is a lively spin on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, featuring a fearsome whale nicknamed “the blubbery bastard”. Some of the surreal jokes work (like a character named “Thesaurus”) and some don’t. A look at the blog gives you a good idea what you’ll find between these covers. Like Melville’s book itself, you’ll either like it or you won’t.

What can I say about a whimsical book called The Legend of Juggin Joe by Joseph Yakel? It’s told completely in hillbilly dialect, like so:

Joe picked up the first big jug an’ started blowin’. First time he done so, he durned near jumped outta his skin on account ah the “Hoot” that come emanating from that there jug. It wuz a mournful kind sound an’ skairt ‘im tah the point ah lookin’ round the shed tah see if’n there wuz a ghost er goblin ’bout.

Juggin’ Joe turns out to be a musical genius, up there in the hills. Well, hey, Garrison Keillor has made stuff like this work, and James Dickey has visited this territory before. I would like to see Joseph Yakel get somewhere with this endeavor, but I have to complain about packaging yet again. How many self-published or indie-published books never get to first base because of design/presentation problems that undercut any chance of success? It’s a shame. A book like this one should have a homespun country look, but instead the cover illustration is a computer generated portrait of the main character that does not match the tone or style of the book in the slightest. This turns out to be a fatal flaw, as the reader will feel dislocated before reaching page one.

It’s interesting that three of the above five books suffer from packaging problems. I have no lack of sympathy for anybody who endeavors to begin the thankless task of small press publishing, but it’s a shame when a publisher undercuts his book’s slim chance of success with poor design decisions. Maybe some of these authors and publishers should give their material a second try.

3 Responses

  1. quite a varietyI like the
    quite a variety

    I like the poem by Travis Lawrence, even without the illustrations, so I imagine I would like the book.

    Juggin’ Joe. I’m from the mountains of Virginia originally, and I can tell you, whenever you hear a strange noise, it might just be a ghost ‘er goblin.

    I remember reading about the Moby Dick-inspired book before. It’s a good idea. Other people have done updated versions of the Odyssey, for example (Joyce’s Ulysses and the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?), and Romeo & Juliet, so it’s fitting that someone has taken on Moby Dick.

    Levi, I took your advice a couple of months ago and changed the cover of my book, and man, it looks a lot better! It was a good idea.

  2. I’m glad to hear that you
    I’m glad to hear that you think it helped, Bill. When I critique a self-published book’s cover, I hope the author knows I’m not trying to be mean, but rather trying to suggest an improvement that could really make a difference. I think it’s a shame when writers put enormous amounts of time into publishing a book that fails to make the right first impression because of a badly chosen cover.

    Can you judge a book by its cover? Well, I don’t know if we *should* or not, but it’s a fact that we all do.

  3. how to pick a book to
    how to pick a book to read

    There should be a way to judge an “unknown” book before reading it. Or not? If yes, then let us consider the possibilities.

    1. A review of the book.
    2. Advertising.

    Are either of those worthwhile? Levi often finds the NYTBR lacking or missing the point. That would seem to be a strike against the book reviewer, but at least the reviewer can give you something to go by; a general feel for the book, if nothing else. But we can pretty much rule out advertising, as that is self-contradictory to any fair appraisal. No advertiser or front or back cover is going to say: this is a poorly written book and a waste of the reader’s time.

    3. Perhaps genre is a deciding factor. My sister reads those true life murder type things. So she scans the blurbs on her book of the month club and gets what sounds attractive to her interests. And she’s very happy with that. My father reads “silly” mystery stories as they make him sleepy before bedtime (he feels like he’s already read all the classics and has no need to further pursue that genre).

    (I only mention relatives as I have no reading experiences of my own.) Though personally I find the recommendations of Litkicks staff and contributors to be what sparks my interest for something to read if I should ever do so.

    4. I’m leery about the design of the book itself, as a determinant. Slick doesn’t appeal to me as much as simplicity does. But I suppose if I ever were to read anything, it’d be names I’ve heard of, or authors I’ve read in the past, like Gide, Zola, Kafka, Turgenev.

    5. Maybe one should consider – what is reading? Is it a shared solipsistic universe? Entertainment? Or a communal bonding?

    6. I’m more familiar with movies on television, but that’s a similar concept with perhaps similar results. Tonight’s choices were – “Waterworld” which is excellent and I’ve watched it several times; or “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” which is excellent, I’d watch that again. But I settled for “North by Northwest” as the ad said it takes place at Mt. Rushmore, which is near and dear to my heart. But instead of watching it, I sat at my computer and typed this.

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