Sunday, May 19, 2013

Poetry by Request from a Boulder Street Poet

While visiting with family in Colorado, a bunch of us went up to Boulder for the afternoon, and wandered up and down the delightful pedestrian-only main street, replete with bars and cafes, bookstores and interesting shops, and a street musician or performer of some kind every 100 feet or so. 

I stopped by a tall, thin young man who sat stooped over a rather old portable typewriter, with a sign declaring he would write a poem upon request. He asked me a few questions about what I had in mind; I said things like: autumn, birch trees, or aspen trees, with all those bright golden leaves falling on the bare ground, a grove quiet and eternal, as if you were the first person to walk there in a few hundred years. And this is what he wrote, and I've tried to duplicate his line breaks and spacing:

 and aspen and birch grove in autumn

       yellowed leaves
    fall like
       ashes scattered
    to the ground

       by an old preacher
    humbled and
       sweetened by his
    years of

       no longer holding
    on to his
       robes to justify

       doing an ancient
    job with
       wrinkled hands
    and ageless

       ready to fall
       regret into
    the roots 
         of next year's

--allan andre     boulder, co    5/18/13

Monday, May 13, 2013

Frances and Bernard: A 20th Century Epistolary Novel

Frances and BernardFrances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I finished Frances and Bernard last night, staying up past midnight to read it. Although not fond of epistolary novels, Bauer is such a great writer that the letters just flew by and were a delight to read. I should also say, there was much to slow down for and savor. I have always loved the stories of Flannery O'Connor (the model for Frances) but have never read any Robert Lowell ("Bernard") poetry (I will now). This short book was a wonderful journey into the minds of two exquisitely intelligent people. Bauer captured great depth and nuance in the correspondence between them, and with a few select friends as well. It made me long for those halcyon days of pre-computerized communications known as written letters - I wrote many myself, and have a collection of letters from friends and family from the 1960's and early 70's. This is a stunning, memorable book, and should be read by everyone who is or intends to be a fiction writer.

The other completely fascinating element of this book is the discussion of religion, mainly being Catholic. Bernard is a recent convert from nominal Protestantism, Frances an Irish cradle-Catholic. They debate the existence and meaning of God, sin, faith, the Holy Spirit and "spirituality". Frances is adamant in her practical, unsentimental approach to the spiritual, frequently deflating Bernard's flights of religious fancy. As a Catholic myself, I found it intriguing and thought-provoking.

One amazing sentence from the book remains in my mind, written by Bernard in dire circumstances in a mental institution: "I sleep the way some people commit suicide."

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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Woody Guthrie's Novel - Haunting and Lyrical

House of Earth

By Woody Guthrie

House of Earth by Woody Guthrie
“Life’s pretty tough—you’re lucky if you live through it.” This quote from Woody Guthrie sums up the outlook of the characters in House of Earth, Guthrie’s sole piece of major fiction in a long career of writing music and lyrics. Unlike Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, this book is about the “stubborn dirt farmers” who stayed in the Great Plains because they loved it too much to leave.
The opening lines are hauntingly musical: “The wind of the upper flat plains sung a high lonesome song down across the blades of the dry iron grass.” It is the song and the story of Tike and Ella May Hamlin, who live in the Texas Panhandle as tenant farmers, struggling to live and living with the hope and dream of actually owning their own land someday, and with it, a house. Not just some wooden house, food for termites and easily despoiled by wind and rain, but a “house of earth”—made of adobe.

Tike and Ella May are rough, straightforward folk, and it’s easy to like them. Guthrie had an excellent ear for capturing the vernacular, rendering the phrases of a culture as well as the thoughts and feelings behind the words. Some twenty pages into the novel is one of the most sensual and astonishing descriptions of two people making love that I have ever read; it’s completely unexpected; it’s tender and crude; it’s pragmatic and yet overwhelmingly romantic. The scene is some twenty pages in length, and is worth the price of the book all by itself. But there’s more to read, more heartbreak to experience, more joy to feel, and more Woody Guthrie to listen to in the rest of the story. Very highly recommended.
This review of mine was first published at

Friday, April 12, 2013

Review: Creole Son: A Novel of Degas in New Orleans

Artist Edgar Degas is justly famous for his many lyrical and revealing paintings of ballerinas, but in Michael Llewellyn’s Creole Son: A Novel of Degas in New Orleans, we are presented with a fascinating portrait of the sometimes irascible but emotionally restrained artist himself. Having left Paris after the horrors of the Prussian invasion and the terrifying slaughter of the Paris Commune, Degas sought solace in his mother’s birthplace of Le Nouveau Orleans, among the aristocratic remains of the Creole population brought low by the ravages of the Civil War and the oppressive Reconstruction Era. Llewellyn, who lived in New Orleans for a number of years, writes convincingly of a chaotic, sensual, dangerous and exotic city that is seething with racial tension, criminal politics, sexual license and moral ambiguity. Degas finds himself both repelled and intrigued by the chaos of a people trying to re-build their city after the devastation of war, lamenting what has been lost and trying to avoid inevitable changes. When I started the book, I had no idea it was going to go to these dark places, but with Degas as a companion, it was enthralling to experience the strange and haunted streets and cemeteries, Mardi Gras balls and brothels, as well as the intimacy of his daily life in his mother’s family. Llewellyn crafts a strong and persuasive argument for New Orleans having brought Degas to a new and daring way of painting, experiences that freed his artistic abilities as much as they opened his heart and soul. The descriptions of how Degas thought, observed and painted his subjects are finely wrought and very well written, showing detailed knowledge of the artist’s style and methods. A book to be savored.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Josh Ritter Concert at Fox Theatre, Oakland

Two weeks ago, I didn't even know who Josh Ritter was, and last night I went to see him at the Fox Theatre in Oakland, California because I won two tickets as first prize in a writing contest. A wonderful local indie bookstore--Book Passage--held a short story contest that had "music" or "musicians" as its theme (< 2500 words) and it just so happened I had a story with that theme, "The Sound of Dreaming" so I dusted it off, sent it in, and lo and behold, I won! Dining before the show at the fabulous Flora right across the street from the Fox, a good friend and I (a couple+ cocktails the better) ambled over to the Fox, found our seats perched at the edge of the bar/mingling platform and with a great center-stage view of not only the stage but also the soundboard and lighting mix panels (which I love to watch), and settled in for the show.

Ritter is a very engaging and simpatico performer, starting out alone on stage with a plugged-in acoustic guitar, and his band members join him one by one. Great drummer and keyboardist! The enthusiastic audience knew all the songs and applauded the opening strains of favorites. His songs are melodic and all about love--here, gone and to come. A thematic keynote was sounded in one song titled "Hopeful" -- my friend commented that she found all his music very positive, gentle, encouraging and update -- something that struck both of us as unusual for this generation's music (Ritter is in his late thirties). But at the same time, there was another song that seemed also to be a signature piece--its refrain was "Don't you leave us in the dark" followed by repeated crooning of "ooh-ooh-ooh" which the audience lovingly joined.

A similarly sweet ballad, "Change of Time" was also an audience favorite; here's a little clip, Ritter is singing "Time, Love...It's only a change of time."

Like a robust wine (or, alternatively, an artisanal hearty soup), there were tastes and flavors of influences from music of the 70's and 80's which my friend and I, being women of a certain age, could easily identify--to the point that upon hearing the opening organ riff on one song, we turned to each other and said in unison, "Like a Rolling Stone!" Other notable musical references were: Tom Petty, Paul Simon, Gordon Lightfoot, the Doors, and Mark Knopfler. But this is neither a judgment nor a criticism. I imagine it's virtually impossible not to sound a little like the great musicians who've gone before you (ask Brahms about "Beethoven looking over his shoulder"). It was actually enjoyable to hear whispers and ghosts of classic rock and roll alive again and thriving in the ever-evolving sound and lyrics of succeeding generations. 

Ritter is a natural storyteller, like Bob Dylan, and with one song titled "Folk Bloodbath", I was reminded both by the music and the lyrics of Dylan's great "Tangled Up in Blue." Sweet and strange the story unfolded, but I felt as if Ritter was not reaching his depth potential, as if he hasn't quite lived the story he's telling here--but I'm looking forward to his music and stories in the years to come, when more experience and just more travelled miles on the earth will bring his potential to greater fruition.

(Note: the opening act--Sea Wolf--was really good if a little too loud for my taste, but very well-done and heartfelt. VERY cool.)

Friday, March 1, 2013

Book Review: The Max Liebermann Mysteries

Sixth in a series starring psychoanalyst Max Libermann, a “consulting” psychiatrist to the Prague police department, Death and the Maiden does not disappoint, whether you’re new to Max or have been long acquainted with him and his detective friend Oskar Rheinhardt. If you’ve never read one of Tallis’ mysteries, I urge you to start with the first one (A Death in Vienna) and read them all, although I started with the sixth and it was so immediately engaging that I quickly went to the library and got all the previous books and read them, one after another. In Death and the Maiden, as in all the books, music and opera—with real-life conductor/composer Gustav Mahler at the helm of the Vienna Opera House—play a major role. The plot circles around a dead diva and widens to include high-placed politicos and even royals, creating treacherous sinkholes that threaten to engulf both Max and Oskar.

Tallis clearly loves Vienna, and he spares no mouth-watering detail when describing the pastries and whipped-cream-coffees that Oskar and Max frequently devour while pondering the clues and suspects. The city of Vienna, some ten years before the Great War begins, is also described so colorfully and clearly that you truly feel you are there, even including the growing threat of anti-Semitism, for which we shudder on Max’s behalf. In addition to Mahler, Sigmund Freud is a recurring character, the “great man” of his field whom Max visits and admires—and he’s always telling groan-worthy Jewish jokes, very funny. Well-crafted mysteries and murder stories, serious and very likeable characters (including a very interesting love interest for Max) and complete immersion in early 20th century Vienna combine to make this series a really satisfying read—and it’s been optioned for television, which should be fun, too.

Review originally appeared in the Historical Novel Society Review, 2013.
Death and the Maiden (Early 20th Century Prague) A Max Liebermann Mystery
Frank Tallis (Random House: New York, 2012)
ISBN: 978-0-8129-8334-0

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Book Review: Laws in Conflict

Laws in ConflictLaws in Conflict by Cora Harrison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The latest in the series The Burren Mysteries about Mara the “lady judge” (or the “brehon” in Gaelic) crackles with suspense and good humor as Mara and her scholars of the law school visit Galway, the English-only stronghold in the south of Ireland. What starts out as a mission of mercy to reclaim an aged, mentally ill countryman from the clutches of “English law” turns into a full-blown murder investigation, with Mara and her crew exercising their charm, wits and intelligence to solve the puzzle and save an innocent life. I’ve never read Harrison’s novels before, but I’m going to go back and start with the first one, My Lady Judge, and settle in for a long, satisfying journey to the 16th century world she depicts so well. Each chapter starts with a quotation from a law book or scholarly tome of the time that is enlightening and fascinating as it explores the many differences between Irish and English law customs and reasoning. Harrison is clearly on the side of the Irish when it comes to a choice between, for instance, use of the death penalty or belief in the power of repentance and restitution, and her brehon Mara makes it more than clear why the Irish way is better. A great read, informative and entertaining from start to finish. (original review published in Historical Novel Society Review, Dec. 2012)

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