Ten Testies

Sometimes our writers get carried away, write scandalously in reviews about the books they are supposed to be appraising with dispassion. Here are ten such bilious attacks that created fiery reactions from our readers. We include responses at the end of the excerpt.


They Can't Hide Us Anymore
Richie Havens
(Spike)
They Can't Hide Us Anymore contains an extensive list of Havens' twenty-three records, his backup men, his fourteen soundtracks, but it doesn't tell us beans about his soul. It gives us his Recommended Reading List, which includes Kahlil Gibran, Abbie Hoffman, and Dwight D. Eisenhower's final take on the military-industrial complex --- but there isn't a single insight into his own personal complex so we can figure out what makes him tick.

His path has been exciting. After all, he came out of one of the most desperate slums in America, and was smack dab in the middle of the music and social revolution of the 60s. His story certainly could have been as powerful as that of Malcolm X, or James Baldwin, or Richard Wright.

Instead, what we get is, "My father was a hard worker who made Formica tables. He was a pretty good musician too, a piano player with a feel for jazz." That's it for dear old dad. Did he talk to you Richie? Did he beat you? Did he love you? Did he ever have a heart-to-heart with you? Did he suffer for the kids, was he righteous, or did he go out and piss his money away on drink or the numbers? Where is he now? Did he like "Stonhenge," or did he find it stupid?

Havens tells us his mother worked "until I was nineteen." We should know a bit more about her too, right? Did she beat you, pray over you, cry over you, hate you, ignore you, love you to death? Was she touched by "Freedom," or did she figure you were just being a noisy kid again?

We find out about his wife and his daughters in the "Acknowledgments" section, but that's it. Is there love there? Hate? Anger? Does he do anything when he's with them outside of reminiscing about all the famous people he's known, and all the deals he's signed.

There are fourteen pages given over to Discography, but there's only half a page for his two brothers who are disabled. He spends 25 pages to give us the words to his songs, but says practically nothing about these two who grew up poor, like him, but now live out their lives in wheelchairs.

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A Whole New Life:
An Illness and a Healing

Reynolds Price
(Plume)
Price is not really a writer, certainly not an artist. He certainly knows how to put words on paper, in profusion, but, he is, in truth, engaged in the sausage business. He grinds out the stuff, ties it off with a bit of string, and sends it out to the world. Tolstoi or Nabokov or Singer (or Shakespeare, for that matter) could and did pull off such a flood of writings: Price doesn't have the write stuff.

Part of it is that something is missing in all this, something very important: probably his heart. Listen to this description of the departure of Dan, a young man who stayed with him through the early stages of the cancer --- through all the sickness, through the throwing up, the awful moods, the terrible drugs, the dreams of suicide:

    I felt a real sadness at watching him go. His undownable presence through seventeen months had literally carried my life across a bridge I might well not have crossed alone or with anyone else then known to me. We'd built a haphazard friendship between us that, now I could see, ran tall and deep. But I also shared some of the relief Dan must have felt in going on, a new sense of cleared space and fresh unpredictable air around me. For a short while to come, he and I would be friends whose faces summoned the memory of dire times. Meanwhile, we'd correspond about our work.

If I were poor old Dan, I'd be wanting to pop Price in the kisser for doling out such tired words after what I had put up with. There are powerful ways of describing friendship, and friendship lost --- but Price's wan sentiments cheat him (and the rest of us) of a sense of true caring.

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National Private Radio
The balls of great American radio were stolen away not by Newt Gingrich but disappeared in the early days when it was decided that public broadcasting would be built on the commercial model. Instead of the wondrous shit-kicking experimental radio coming out of England (the BBC) and Canada (the CBC) and France (RDF) and Japan (NHK) --- it was decided that NPR would be a gussied-up NBC, CBS, ABC. And soon enough, it began to follow their rules: don't rock the boat; don't get the natives up in arms; don't question the system; and most of all --- don't mess with the sponsors. Thus, NPR.

There have been many over the years who tried to change American radio. In the first years of KPFA Lew Hill created an impeccable American version of the BBC. There were community radio stations that opened the doors (and their microphones) to anyone who had something to say. Even now there are a few radio crazies around and about called pirates --- those nut cases who start broadcasting on a whim until the federal marshalls turn up with shotguns and convince them to turn off their transmitters. But none of these had the funding and quasi-governmental backing of NPR.

Where did it go wrong? For $100,000,000 a year, a quarter-million dollars a day, we get "The Savvy Traveler" and "Along for the Ride" and "Only a Game." It's only a game, right? And that hundred mil. Where does it come from, where does it all go? As they said in "Chinatown," if you want to know why everything is so weird, follow the money. Of NPR's budget 2% comes from the feds, 55% from member stations. The rest? Mostly foundations and Archer-Daniels-Midland, Exxon, GE etc etc. So many bucks invested in maintaining the status quo. Don't rock the boat.

Every now and again I think that it's all a delusion --- that something important and alive is happening out there in radioland --- that I just don't know where to look. Maybe they do it when I am asleep. I tune into "All Things Considered" and I hear bits and bites of news that I could get on any of the commercial stations, an extended review of rock records --- rock! --- or a mini-interview with someone in Washington who will appear next weekend on "Meet the Press." I hear a light-hearted feature on fashions, another (another!) peek at the stock-market, and a one-minute review of books. And I then know that NPR has gone the way that Devo used to sing about. They've devolved. The promise made to us so long ago is long forgotten.

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The Seven Ages
Louise Glück
(ECCO/HarperCollins)
We've often contended that poetry worth writing home about has to be wrapped up in a whoosh of words --- maybe like Donne's wonderful strange lines,

    I long to talk with some old lover's ghost
    Who died before the god of love was born...

or

    Busy old fool, unruly sonne
    Why dost thou thus...

Perhaps (we're thinking), it's time for Ms. Glück to take a year off --- to do the sabbatical in Vail, or Virginia City, or Vancouver --- wherever the hell tired-out poets go to get back in touch with the world, or with themselves. Perhaps, out of the hubble-bubble of the college life she could spend some time observing, at close hand, the world that she may be missing there amidst the dark winters and the soporific backbiting of the Ivy League.

Perhaps in Venice, or Victoria, or Vienna, she could have a chance to renew acquaintance with some of the language masters: e e cummings, Edward Thomas, the Bard himself, say --- all those who are in it for sheer hypnotic music, music we don't find much of in

    Time was passing. Time was carrying us
    faster and faster toward the door of the laboratory,
    and then beyond the door into the abyss, the darkness.
    My mother stirred the soup. The onions,
    by a miracle, became part of the potatoes.

The onions! The potatoes!

Perhaps it would help if some of us looney-cakes came along with her while she is out charging her batteries, help her get rid of what the blues singers call her "usta'-be" --- teach her how to be a bit more daft (contained lunacy always helps verse: see T. S. Eliot, John Ashbery, William Collins, Christopher Smart, Emily Dickinson).

Or, how about pumping up some good old-fashioned ire and bitterness --- like Keats or Larkin or Plath: Keats with his profound loathing of aging, sickness, dying,

    The weariness, the fever, and the fret
    Here, where men sit and hear each other groan...

Or Larkin,

    I listen to money singing. It's like looking down
      From long French windows at a provincial town,
    The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
      In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.

Plath? Well, maybe Glück could pick up a bit of spare change from Plath...and her old black shoe.

Louise Glück writes poetry, poetry that appears regularly in all the right places: The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Kenyon Review, The American Poetry Review. This is her eleventh book. She's won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the New Yorker reader's award. She teaches at Williams College.

Despite all that, at this point, the best thing we can find in The Seven Ages might be the name. No, not of the book --- the seven ages of, presumably, man. No, we're talking about Glück. As in Christoph Willibald. Makes us hope that, at the very least, someday she could stir up some inspiration from her great-great-great grandfather.

Now there was someone who knew what to do with words, words and music.

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Confessions of a PR Man
Robert J. Wood
(NAL)
We once had this vision of the PR man hired on in 1938 to explain to the denizens of the city of Auschwitz why they were going to have all this ugly construction work going on in their neighborhood.

"Don't worry," he says, speaking before the regular monthly luncheon meeting of the Auschwitz Chamber of Commerce, "We're going to bring in over six million marks worth of local construction --- carpentry, cement, wiring, fencing, housing, and towers. If you add the 1,000 new guards, officers, and clerical help on the permanent labor force, we're talkin' jobs that will be doubling the local economy." And the members of the Auschwitz Better Business Bureau look around and nod their heads and vote to give their personal backing and thanks to the national government for this newest project as they think of the Deutschmarks rolling in.

Now, we'd be the last to make any parallels between this and the various works of Robert J. Wood with his Byoir PR firm over the last thirty years --- but he does lay some unlikely strutting on us in this roman à thèse. Northeast Utilities wants to build a nuclear plant, and the neighbors don't dig it. Turn it over to Woods. He proves to those nervous nellies that radiation is no worse than slutswool under the bed; soon enough everyone wants their own nuclear plant there next to the backyard barbecue.

An "atomic radiation center" scheduled for construction by CIT Corp in Ohio? No prob, babe. Woods has these heavy-weight friends on the AEC, they'll pull some strings --- the radiation center gets built, and the citizens just love it. That bastard Jesse Jackson giving you a fit at the A & P, with his Operation Breadbasket? Not to worry: a few meetings with some friendly newspaper folks, a couple of arrests (complaints signed by a front man, not the Atlantic & Pacific), executives never at home when the opposition comes calling --- and A & P is out of the woods.

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Wasted:
A Memoir of
Anorexia and Bulimia

Marya Hornbacher
(Harper)
For those of us who are concerned with somewhat greater issues --- ecological destruction, the New Violence of America, disease and famine in the Other Half of the world --- a girl's rather Pollyanna self-destruct, her delighted description of the process (from refrigerator to vomitorium and then back to refrigerator again) tends to make us a bit impatient. The truth is that Hornbacher probably needed nothing more than a couple of whacks on the fanny, as she admits, implicitly, in her description of Lowe House, where she was locked up for awhile:
    In Lowe House, something happened, I've been trying to figure out exactly what it was. A looney bin is a fairly low-action place to be, not a lot going on, a whole bloody lot of time to sit and think. What I know is this: I went in with no emotions, no will to live, no particular interest in anything than starving to death. I came out eating. Almost normally.
She can't figure out "what it was," but it's as plain as the nose on her face (or the plate on her table). One who is treated with self-indulgence, by herself, by her parents, will, as always, test the limits --- even if the limits get close to suicide. Most children use temper tantrums or sulks to be heard. The more tyrannical children will use what goes in (and what comes out) of their mouths to boss everyone around.

If this is the writer who "defines this era for a future generation," let me off the bus. Please.

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Seven
Wheelchairs

A Life Beyond Polio
Gary Presley
(University of Iowa Press)
Presley's personal drama seems to be filled with more than the usual testiness. He dislikes every glance in the street. To the world he writes, "I am Gimp, a burnt-out case, and I must admit I am not interested in how you perceive me, how my broken carcass inspires your emotions."

The words he uses for and about himself are, at least for this reader, unduly harsh: "maimed and mangled," "a twisted brother," "this hulk" "an almost man," "a leper" with "all the warped qualities of my wheelchair personality." He refers to "my soul where the rage shark swims," the "boy's ghost in a man's body."

    Nasty fellow, this ghost of Gary past. I know. I lived with him for twenty or thirty years, listening to him whine.

All this implies a lack of love for himself and for others around us. If I can't love me, who is going to love me? goes the old wheeze. Even after Presley finds a woman to care for him, he manages to imply something tainted: "The world spins out of control anyway ... Blinded by loneliness and aching with desire, I used her need to fill my need, pulling her into my orbit with the passion I felt for her."

The surprise for this reader is that there is so little self-love in Seven Wheelchairs, despite the fact that Presley is, after all, still going on, and --- apparently --- going on strongly at the end of his sixth decade. By surviving depression, loss of faith in body, years of loneliness in the isolated world of small-town Missouri, and despite his self-denigrating words, something of a miracle has occurred.

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Life Class
Pat Barker
(Doubleday)
Today's New York Times has an article about American universities setting up multiple campuses overseas. In Doha, Qatar's capital, one can study medicine from Weill Medical College (Cornell University), international affairs (Georgetown), computer science and business (Carnegie Mellon), fine arts (Virginia Commonwealth), engineering (Texas A&M), and soon, journalism (Northwestern University).

The reason we bring this up is because we were thinking that if the University of Iowa got smart they would export their Graduate Writer's Program to England, linking up with Pat Barker's old alma mater, the London School of Economics. Ms. Barker could then return to school and study some of the basic elements of style. She might, for example, take time out to study appropriate vocabulary ... the simple choice of words. This means that in her next novel --- she's churned out ten now --- we would be free of such brain-twisters as "His trouser buttons strained to accommodate his postprandial belly;" "Those muculent eyes of his;" "The blood was thickening in his neck;" "Grayish-green eyes, the color of infected phlegm."

A walk through the woods can turn into an encounter with no little mucous: "Leaves brushed the back of his neck, he felt the wetness of cuckoo spit on his skin." Then there are the runnels, and those noisy napes: "...he noticed how the hairs at the nape of her neck, fairer than the rest, crept into the center, half covering the tender runnel of white flesh. When they first met, the nape of Elinor's neck had kept him awake at night."

When Ms. Barker embarks on matters of The Big Itch, whole sentences can torment us, turn clinging: "He [Paul Tarrant] freed his cock from the cling and torment of his underpants..." There can be subtle shades of purple, worthy of the earlier, wetter days of Penthouse: "...she kissed him there, licking and mouthing the purple, glistening knob."

    He lay half beside her, half on top, nuzzling her neck, shoulders, breasts, smelling the bitter almond smell of her nipples, brushing his face from side to side on her belly. A hot, briny tang was perceptible under the sweetness ... A goods train rumbled past.

For those of us addicted to Chandler, bitter almond is sure to mean arsenic rather than a hot briny tang; but maybe that's the point. Teresa Halliday --- or possibly all the Barker womenfolk for that matter --- are to be considered as strictly poison, if they are not evolving into great, expansive lawns:

    He caught her smell --- peppery, intimate --- as she bent over him. The dark circle of a nipple pressed against the white lawn of her blouse. He detected, or imagined he could detect, that bitter almond smell..."

Finally, there's the matter of le baiser langoureux. The artist Kit Neville may be fleshy, soft, and ungainly, but he has a muscular tongue that he uses with the force of an Oxbridge oarsman heading up the Thames: "Nothing now except his strong muscular tongue thrusting against hers..."

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Dragon Thunder
My Life with Chögyam Trungpa
Diana J. Mukpo
(Shambhala)
There's a hell of a lot of preening going on in Dragon Thunder. The Naropa institute started out as a simple operation, but after a few years, Rinproche demanded that the students get fancy. There were butlers and ladies-in-waiting, cocktail dresses and high heels. The master and Diana spent a great deal of time flying around the country or taking vacations. Their children --- one who had a learning disability, another suffering from autism --- got passed around to others when it came time to take off for Nice or the Bahamas.

For fans of Tibetan Buddhism, there is no end of detail here on the Bodhidharma, meditation, Shambhala, tulkus, and abhishekas. But there is also too much drinking, too many scandals, and too much silk. Diana gets her claws into quite a few people on her way to the top of the dharma ladder, including her mother. Her passion for something called dressage can get tedious unless you are into horses doing a formal dance.

The most interesting parts of Dragon Thunder turn up in the first hundred pages, the details of her first meetings with Rinproche and the pain of high-class English education. In one school, they simply stuck the kids in bed at 6 P.M. That was it for the day. At another, Benenden, she was encouraged to do sports: "I managed to do an over pass and hit the teacher on the head with a lacross stick."

Once, in the midst of what one might think of as a sordid life together, Rinproche called her "a punk." She got right back at him. "I said, 'I may be a punk, but I'm not drunk.' With that, he tried to hit me, but he missed."

She won out at the end, though. He was having "severe blood-clotting problems" in the hospital. As he lay dying, "I went down to New York to attend a trade fair because I was opening a children's clothing store in Halifax."

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Telephone Ringing
In the Labyrinth

Poems 2004 - 2006
Adrienne Rich
(Norton)
Rich is evidently of the T. S. Eliot School of Footnotery, or maybe Tomfoolery. If the peons don't get it, stick in some notes on the last few pages to confuse them even further. For example, the note on "Improvisation on Lines from Edwin Muir's 'Variations on a Time Theme'" tells us that we should see Edwin Muir's Collected Poems to understand lines like standing under /the bruised eye-socket of late-winter sun. In other words, if you want to take in what I am putting out, do your homework, even with that ancient, winsome, but sometimes cryptically mystical Edwin Muir.

    This is not the room where tears have carven
    cheeks track rivulets in the scars
    left by the gouging tool
    where wood itself is weeping ....
    This is the room where truth scrubs around the pedestal of the toilet...

This has something to do, the notes inform us, with "U. S. Vice President Richard Cheney on NBC's Meet the Press, September 16, 2001." Ezra Pound, god knows, taught us that good poetry and politics --- no matter how bad or misguided --- should not and cannot mix, no more than apples, and oranges (or bad vice-Presidents).

    Silent limousines meet jets descending over the Rockies.
    Steam rooms, pure thick towels, vases of tuberose and jasmine, old vintages await the après-skiers.

    Rooms of mahogany and leather, conversations open in international code. Thighs and buttocks to open later by arrangement.

    Out of sight, out of mind, she solitary wrestles a huge duvet, resheathes heavy tasselled bolsters.

We are told in the notes to "See Carolyn Jones, 'Battle of the Beds,' San Francisco Chronicle, December 19, 2005." However, for some of us, a good poet should never rely on more than a reader's good sensibility, reasonable wit, and deep affection for the language in order to get the message. Who's going to pother through Google for an hour or so trying to find an article from a newspaper so many years back in order to figure out a patch of writing that has little charm and no life?

A few of these poems were previously published in the Virginia Quarterly Review, The Progressive, The Nation, and The New Review of Literature. To those who know, these four magazines represent nothing more or less than the original American Dead Poets' Society.

When we saw Rich's title Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth, we found ourselves wondering why, each time we picked up the receiver, all we got was a loud buzzing noise. We thought for a moment that she might have been associated with that collection of poetry --- a wonderful collection --- from ten years back, A Cricket in the Telephone (at Sunset). No such luck.

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