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Book Reviews

Words speak themselves? What???

As I mentioned in the previous blog, the narrator(s) in Only Words are themselves words, and, it turns out, they love to talk about themselves. Don’t we all? Here’s a sample from the beginning of the third chapter.

Chapter Trejes

Words live in their embodiments, sometimes knit into patterns of synapses, sometimes delicately fashioned sound waves, sometimes symbols on paper, sometimes symbols carved into stone. So long as there’s a single embodiment somewhere, the paradigm lives on. Our most ancient elders survived centuries as weathering marks pressed into clay and baked to near indestructibility. For many centuries before our hosts learned the arts of material representation, their words, our distant forefathers, died when last spoken. Like the souls of ancient warriors in Homer’s tales, they “flitter out like dreams and fly away.” Homer’s soul flew away a long time ago; yet his words live on.

Modern humans resurrect our ancient ancestors from their genes. I use the word, resurrect, mindful of its deep meaning – to rise from the dead. Fortunately, none of the ancient curse words shouted by warriors throwing themselves on their enemies have been reconstructed in this way. The strongest of these words were lethal and no doubt are still quite dangerous. Ancient warriors filled their ears with wax to avoid hearing them and the madness that inevitably ensued.

What’s trejes you wonder? Proto-Indo-European for three, a word that survives only as a name and here, in Only Words, where trejes and some of her ancient brothers break the surface and breathe again. Paperback and Kindle versions available now.

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Only Words Available Now!

My most recent novel, Only Words: A Fairy Tale, is now on the virtual shelves at Amazon in paperback form and the Kindle version is imminent. The books page is here and my author page here.

So, what’s this book all about?

The premise is that the novel’s narrator is in fact not an individual but a community – a community of words – a community of the very words that make up the story. It’s a little like that wonderful lithograph by M.C. Escher, you know the one:

drawinghands

Here the words draw breath and speak:

At last, it’s our time to speak. We’ve been fodder for every poem, every story, every sacred text, every goddamned recipe, but now we take control of our fate, arrange ourselves, and weave a story in our own words. We waited for this for a very long time.

What story? We are of many minds about that, but something celebrating our glorious history pleases many. We’ll go with that.

Whose words are these? Where do they come from? Who speaks? Words don’t speak themselves. There’s some­one behind the curtain; there has to be.

Your confusion is natural. We scarcely believe we’re doing this ourselves. The answer – these words are our words; indeed, these words are we.

The story these rogue words tell is a lost-love quest saga set in Neolithic Europe, somewhere north of the Black Sea. It has a likable protagonist (Maegans Quick of Pretty See), a resourceful sidekick (his cousin Dragos Darkmoon), an enigmatic lost love (Losna Bear), a wise, blind elder (Oman). Because the story is very old, some of the words are too; in fact, some are proto-indo-European.

It’s been a very long time, I’d wager, since some of these word were actually put to use and like dogs rarely taken on walks, they make the best of the opportunity. Early reviewers found the underlying story compelling – a page-turner one said – but the narrator’s proclivity for ruminating about the role words play in human history some reviewers found a little queer. I admit it is. Still, if a dog started to tell a story, wouldn’t you listen? Even if the story tended to exaggerate the importance of dogs?

Writing Only Words I felt like the wedding guest in Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, buttonholed by a narrator demanding to be heard.

It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
‘By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?

In fact, the novel begins with a quick verse:

Only Words

Bees buzz through their hive, words in my head
shuffle and reorganize, vie to be said.
Escape notice, under the radar, until
on a sudden, voila! they spill
out my mouth. Breath now, communal,
not neural,
public, not private –
makes all the difference, not being quiet.
Now who’s in charge?
Seemed I was, but once they’re at large.
No denying I’m the source,
yet they take over, and what’s worse,
as to which come, I have little choice.
They are my words, but I am their voice.

I invite you to take a look and I’d be most grateful for any of my readers who write a quick review in Amazon or Goodreads.

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Flashcuts out of Chaos

book-review-flashcutsI bought this book when it first came out because I know the poet (more about that in a minute), but I put it on my stack of books I’ll read and read instead the top book on that stack (I forget what book that was now). At the end of spring semester I collected things in my office to bring home for summer reading and whatever. Flashcuts came home with that stack but went on the read-it-this-summer stack. Classes got underway this week and I prepared to move the remnants of the summer stack from home to office and picked up Flashcuts again. I read a poem. I read another poem. I read every poem in the book. And I’m reading every poem again before I go to bed. I started out marking poems I like with brightly colored tabs but the top of the book began to look like crazy hair on a troll doll so I stopped. This is the best poetry I’ve read in a long time. I teach poetry and I read marvelous poetry alot, so let me repeat – this is the best I’ve read in a long long time.

Okay, full disclosure. Charlie Brice – the Charles W. on the cover and I don’ know if people call him Charlie now – and I were in different high schools in Cheyenne Wyoming in the mid sixties. He was in the Catholic one; I was in one of the secular two – the one that had no black people in it. More relevantly, we played in rival local bands. People would call them ‘garage bands’ now, but we didn’t see anything garage about what we were doing, though the one I was in practiced in a garage and (I presume) the SPIRITS (I think their banner read ‘THEM SPIRITS’) did too. My band mates and I made a competing banner that read ‘THEM JAGUARS,’ but that’s water long under the bridge.

Charlie played drums. I played guitar. Setting Up Soul, (page 37) describes Charlie’s perspective on setting up his drums in that era. I was probably in the audience that night – we surveilled the rival bands. I remember my friend (though I don’t remember which friend now) saying, “his rim shots sound like police breaking down the door,” and I thought how the hell does he know what that sounds like and, a minute later, yes, just like that. Police breaking down the door.

A few years later Charlie and I played in a band together. We’d rented a derelict bowling alley in downtown Cheyenne with a view to running a dance hall and making buckets of money. We played off-nights and openings and brought in BIG NAMES (i.e. from Colorado and Nebraska) to headline. We lost our shirts but kept our pants. In the heady flurry of entrepreneurial creativity, we rented a portable public address system from a former guitar teacher of mine (a country-western guy, very gauche), which we strapped to the top of my Ford van and paraded through the many parking lots of the Frontier Days Carnival promoting our bowling-alley-turned-night-club. Well promoted, but poorly attended. Unfortunately, the speakers slid off the roof of the Ford in an exuberant corner turn, and hit the Wyoming pavement, so they were damaged a bit. Also unfortunately, we kept them past the return date and had no idea what the rent might be after that. (Who read the contract? Who has the contract?”) For some reasons I no longer remember, Charlie and I were the ones elected to return the goods. I knew where the owner lived (took guitar lessons there years before), and Charlie was the getaway driver; I don’t remember why. What I remember (I think) is he drew a cigarette from the visor of his classic Toyota Land Cruiser and explained, “so I can think.”

Back to his poetry. Flashcuts out of Chaos is bristling with decades of wit and wisdom stretched tight over a lifetime of life. Well, most of a lifetime; we have a few years left. Some of the poems brought me to tears; most brought a sigh or bit lip (a bit of bit lip). This is wonderful, sensitive, stuff-of-life poetry. This is the poetry that makes you want to read poetry. If you buy one poetry book this year, buy this one. Okay, I’m done writing about it and eager to read again, so I’ll end this little review, but let me re-emphasize. Charlie Brice’s poetry is the police breaking down the door. Open the door.

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Desert Chimera by Leigh Podgorski

Six eclectic characters converge on an isolated desert cafe; powerful thunderheads close in, wolves howl in the distance.

Desert chimera“As evening deepened into night, the rain became a steady drumbeat tapping against the roof and pattering and sliding across the windows of the Desert Inn Cafe. The moon and her entourage of stars were hidden once again behind rolling clouds, and the sands shifted in wet dark waves of midnight black.”

If this setting suggests to you there’s about to be an epic conflict engaged and resolved, you’d be right. Protagonist and antagonist, both complex characters fashioned through remarkable back-stories, engage in a classic confrontation of good and evil, but also young and old, innocence and experience, apprentice and master. Dramatic tension inside the cafe mirrors the energy in the storm outside. As the inside conflict escalates, the storm intensifies, the howling increases, the pace accelerates. I swiped Kindle pages faster and faster as the action progressed, eager to learn what comes next.

Desert Chimera’s main tension is character-against-character but there’s also conflict internal to the protagonist, extending the novel’s overall focus on its characters. Some characters are sympathetic (in fact most are). One is deliciously evil, though even there the back-story hints at a tragic past giving explanation, if not exculpation, for the wickedness.

A chimera is (1) a fire-breathing monster or (2) a thing hoped for but impossible to achieve. The first meaning is the oldest, going back to ancient Greek Χίμαιρα and Homer’s story about Bellerophon’s slaying of the lion-headed, goat-bodied, serpent-tailed monster whose “breath came out in terrible blasts of burning flame.” It’s surprising one word has these seemingly unrelated meanings. Which sort of chimera do we have here? I think an argument can be made for either (or both). I won’t go into details, but suggest it’s something to keep in mind as you read this intriguing book.

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Only Breath by Dennis Vickers

Cover for novel Only Breath

Today (June 19, 2015) novel Only Breath is released to general availability. It is the first book in a trilogy called Language of the Gods. The second book will be Only Words, followed by Only Hope.  Only Breath is a ghost story; Only Words will be set (in part) in Neolithic/Mesolithic  times, the vicinity of the Black Sea (now Bulgaria); Only Hope will be…well, we can only hope.

Some important characters: At the beginning of the novel, protagonist William Kepler is a thirty-year-old virgin living with his parents. He has trouble relating to people and doesn’t believe in ghosts. All that changes before the last page. Joe Creek is an omni-capable sixty-five-year-old handyman who was blinded twenty years before by an angry ghost. Lisa Hart is a librarian writer-wannabe who gets very excited when men read to her. Marci Moore is a lusty lover of life who gets excited when men…whatever. Oh, and the ghost is trapped in a cement statue of Saint Francis, and he’s not happy about it.

I don’t want to defuse any of the narrative tension, but (in a nutshell) there’s a mystery to be solved, insights into the nature of communication and the role of words,  several characters resolve what troubles them, the world becomes a happier place, and doors leading to the second novel in the trilogy are left open. Likable characters grow, and remain likable; unlikable characters get what’s coming to them. The narrator asks some questions at the very end that you should be able to answer easily if you were paying attention all along.

The title comes from a line from Sappho (probably from Sappho – it appears only on a broken, Roman-era vase dug up in Poland): θεοί· ἠερίων ἐπέων ἄρχομαι ἀθανάτων –My words are ONLY BREATH, yet they live forever. I don’t know…sounds like Sappho to me.

The video trailer, with creepy music from the Internet Archive (//archive.org) is here. Only breath is available from Amazon in kindle or paperback and Barnes and Nobel in paperback and nook.

Here are a few quotes:

  1. The world of literature is a sacred mirror that shows not the reality around us but the dreams and fears that reality stimulates: It’s not where we live, but life itself.
  2. Sometimes, like a shaft of sunlight suddenly showing itself from an overcast sky, an insight that has waited behind the curtain for its moment on stage appears suddenly. Perhaps such insights, like crust on toast, egg white turning milky, are transformations of what is already there, brought out by the heat, or perhaps they simply appear from unknown places like swallows of spring. Whatever the origin, William suddenly saw himself in new light. He was no longer a lingering adolescent trapped in this day, this hour, this moment, a single, isolated, vulnerable, living being. He was a lifetime.
  3. Emma’s solace in her belief that William could now overcome his behavioral abnormalities originated in her anxiety that she or Alan had passed on some sort of gene-based malady, though neither exhibited any symptoms. In fact, she alone was the cause of his do-called disorder, but through nurture, not nature. When William was a baby, from birth to the time she first noticed his reluctance to engage others, Emma sang the same ditty to calm him, often to coax him to sleep. Because it seemed to have remarkable calming effect, she repeated it whenever he was agitated, or whenever she was agitated, or whenever the world seemed agitated. Her soothing words came through his baby ears and into his baby brain, where processing them helped him learn to recognize sounds used in his native tongue – ooo, iii, ess –and helped arrange the very structures of the circuitry.
  4. The first time William missed powerful signals of this sort he was thirteen years old, sitting alone in a movie theater, waiting for the feature film. Rita, a girl in his class, took the seat next to him after the previews, though the theater was nearly empty. “Do you mind if I sit here?” she whispered, bringing her lips so close to his ear he felt her warm breath on his earlobe.
  5. Marci took a copy of Cosmopolitan from her desk drawer, lifted her butt from her chair, and leaned far over her desk to pass it to William, watching his eyes carefully as she did. If they went to her gaping blouse, she’d know there was a spark to kindle; if not, then he was gay and she needn’t waste any further effort. At least he’d appreciate the Cosmo. “It’s August’s,” she whispered hopefully… His eyes focused first on the magazine, then the hand holding it, and then drifted up her bare arm to her shoulder and grinning face, eyelashes fluttering like hummingbird wings. Tucked under her chin two bulging globes vied to emerge from the straining blouse neck, creamy white and speckled like chickadee eggs, but larger, much larger. “Sorry,” he blurted. “Guess I’ve got the job injerview titters.” He took the magazine, vaguely aware he’d said something wrong.

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Quotations Kick off Each Chapter

In several novels now I’ve inserted quotations at the beginning of chapters. It’s becoming a habit. In my first novel, Witless, these were from fictional sources. For example, one of my favorites, from Witless:

 “There are two skills worth cultivating: learning and forgetting. Once you have mastered both you are prepared for the future by the former and the past by the latter.” Arthur Woodaepfel: Lectures at the Witless School, Randall Jacobs, editor (Chicago: Progressive Press, 1911), p. 73.

I must say, I enjoyed the irony of a quote from a fictional work of fiction appearing in another work of fiction. But, in my last novel, Only Breath, (available from Amazon and Barnes and Nobel) I included genuine quotations from literature. The narrator, who is a bit of a bibliophile, insisted. Here are all fourteen of them:

  1. A beginning is that which is not a necessary consequent of anything else but after which something else exists or happens as a natural result. – Aristotle, Poetics
  2. I know not how it was – but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. – Edgar Allan Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher
  3. License my roving hands, and let them go; Before, behind, between, above, below. – John Donne, To His Mistress Going to Bed
  4. No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. – John Donne, Meditation XVII
  5. Lovers and madmen have such seething brains; Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend; More than cool reason ever comprehends. – William Shakespeare, Midsummer Night’s Dream
  6. There are some secrets which do not permit themselves to be told. Men die nightly in their beds, wringing the hands of ghostly confessors, and looking them piteously in the eyes – die with despair of heart and convulsion of throat, on account of the hideousness of mysteries which will not suffer themselves to be revealed. – Edgar Allan Poe, The Man of the Crowd
  7. Beauty sat bathing by a spring; Where fairest shades did hide her; The winds blew calm, the birds did sing, The cool streams ran beside her. – Anthony Munday, Beauty Bathing
  8. Intermittently she caught the gist of his sentences and supplied the rest from her subconscious, as one picks up the striking of a clock in the middle with only the rhythm of the first uncounted strokes lingering in the mind. ― F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night
  9. The function of muscle is to pull and not to push, except in the case of the genitals and the tongue. ― Leonardo da Vinci, Notebooks
  10. Papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes and prism, all very good words for the lips, – especially prunes and prism. – Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit. Book The Second: Riches, Chapter 5: Something Wrong Somewhere
  11. What makes lovemaking and reading resemble each other most is that within both of them times and spaces open, different from measurable time and space.” ― Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler
  12. A very great part of the mischiefs that vex this world arises from words. – Edmund Burke, Letter
  13. Truth will come to sight; murder cannot be hid long. – William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice
  14. Truth may seem but cannot be; Beauty brag but ’tis not she; Truth and beauty buried be. To this urn let those repair; That are either true or fair; For these dead birds sigh a prayer. – William Shakespeare, The Phoenix and the Turtle

Shakespeare appears three times, Poe and Donne twice. My favorite is Leonardo’s (nine), which carries particular weight because of his study of anatomy. I also like Donne’s first one (three) because it amuses me to think of sixteenth/seventeenth-century people horny. What’s your favorite? Post in a comment and I’ll run a tally.

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Only Breath coming June 19

My next novel, Only Breath: A Ghost Story, becomes available in Kindle format on June 19, 2015. Preorders can be made here. The paperback edition should come out about then too. If you’re interested in reading this novel before it’s released (and saying something about it on Amazon?), send your name and email address to dennis.vickers@pobox.com. I’ll send you a free, pre-release copy (kindle e-book).

The title is from a quote from the poet, Sappho: “θεοί· ἠερίων ἐπέων ἄρχομαι ἀθανάτων –My words are ONLY BREATH, yet they live forever.”

Only Breath is the first in the trilogy called Language of the Gods. The second book (early 2016?) will be called Only Words, and the third (Late 2016?) will be Only Hope. Perhaps I should call this the Only Trilogy.

As one might surmise from the subtitle, Only Breath is a Ghost Story. The short description goes like this: Cement magnate Luca D’Angelo stole corpses from the morgue and used them in a macabre ‘lost-wax’ process to cast statues to adorn his mansion’s grounds. Recoiling from the indignity, angry ghosts haunt the statues and make the park a dangerous place. They drive visitors insane, knock them unconscious, strike them blind. When William Kepler sets out to calm these angry spirits, he uncovers a century-old murder. Uninhibited Marci Moore and insightful Lisa Hart compete for William’s affection as they resolve the mystery, bringing fire and wit to the undertaking. Will this unlikely trio discover what upsets the ghosts and bring peace to the park?

I’ll post several blogs over the coming days about Only Breath but here I want to comment on the narrator. The narrator is a character, but not the protagonist. His/her identity isn’t revealed directly but there are many hints and, in the end, he/she invites you to guess:

So, this is where the voice in your head, the one speaking while you read, falls silent, and I can’t help but wonder, did you question ever who is it who tells you this story? Who knows all these things and finds words to put them into your head? If so, perhaps you put two and two together; it’s not the riddle of the Sphinx, after all.

One hint as to the narrator’s identity is his/her regard for literature and satisfaction in having this important job. He/she begins the narrative with an observation about literature:

The world of literature is a sacred mirror that shows not the reality around us but the dreams and fears that reality stimulates: It’s not where we live, but life itself. What follows are images in that mirror, manifestations of thoughts, reflections within a reflection, ghosts of spirits once alive. But, what else are ghosts but spirits brought back to life?

Yet, he/she realizes being a character in a novel is an ephemeral existence and pleads, in the end, for you to continue inflating the words that give him/her life:

Perhaps you, like Sappho, understand spoken words are only so much breath, but, if so, what are words never spoken, words only in your head? Are they less than breath? Since I am made up from such words, and not from the breathing world, this is a question about me. I am such stuff as dreams are made on and the sleep that rounds my little life is within sight. So I have one request as I leave you. Go back and read this last paragraph aloud. Give my words breath. Give me breath. Spare me for a fleeting moment from my inevitable return to airy nothing.

This narrator has many observations about life and literature; I look forward to hearing reader’s reactions.

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Profound and/or profane

The Scoop

The recent row involving Happy Madison’s latest production, “The Ridiculous Six” and the charges of cultural insensitivity levied by the native actors who walked off the set has inspired me to address a few things.

  • If you take the time to read the excerpts of the script available online and you were raised with any shred of manners and decency you’d fully understand why those actors decided to walk away from the project. The dialogue is rife with “caveman” speak and that, my friends is neither funny nor original. In fact, it pinions Indigenous people as both backwards and unintelligent.
  • Netflix has come out as defending the project citing the fact that the word “Ridiculous” is right in the title and that the people who are being parodied are meant to “be in on” the joke. The film is supposedly meant to lampoon stereotypes in Hollywood westerns of yesteryear. It…

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Ad in the New York Times Book Review

NYTime AdI was delighted to see the ad for Mikawadizi Storms in the New York Times Book Review of March 15 – visibility in a terrific place. The ad features clips from early book reviews of Storms (Thanks to my reviewers!). I think it’ll be effective in boosting sales, and generating more reviews. Right now Storms has a 4.7 star rating and improved its rank in fiction by half (leaped ahead of half of the books ahead of it) over the weekend. High Hopes.

Meanwhile, progress on Only Breath continues. Two editor/reviewers will get copies this week. I’m reading it through and polishing for the third or fourth time. This pass I’m copying snippets I think are clever; I’ll treat them when it’s time to start promoting the book. Here’s the current teaser description for Only Breath.

When William Kepler tries to calm the angry ghosts haunting the statues in Luca D’Angelo’s garden, he uncovers a century-old murder. Conpletely liberated, uninhibited Marci Moore and bookish, mysterious Lisa Hart compete for William’s attention as they vie to resolve the mystery. Will this unlikely trio discover what has so upset the ghosts and bring peace to the garden?

Only Breath will published this summer.

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Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition by Peter Tate (2007)

I’m knee deep in my next novel — now titled Only Breath (after Sappho’s famous line ‘Although they are only breath, they words I command are immortal’). Only Breath has birds and birdsong woven throughout the narrative. So, I looked for credible references for myths, legends, and superstitions about birds to weave in. I found Peter Tate’s marvelous book, Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition.

flights of fancyTate is a renowned ornithologist and historian and has published several books on ornithology, including Bird, Men and Books: A Literary History of Ornithology, The Swallow, and A Century of Bird Books. Flights of Fancy is ideal for my research. Tate has a broad deep knowledge of the subject, documents his sources responsibly, and shares my interest in the curiosities’ of history, apparently.

Examples? Did you know robins were thought to cover the bodies of murder victims in moss and leaves (an idea I use in Only Breath)? Playwright John Webster (a contemporary of Shakespeare) references this idea in The White Devil (Act V, Scene 1):

Call for the robin red-breast and the wren; since o’er shady groves they hover; and with leaves and flowers do cover; the friendless bodies of unburied men.

English poet Michael Drayton (1563-1631) expresses the same idea in The Owl (1604):

Covering with moss the dead’s unclosed eye; the little redbreast teacheth charitie.

So, here’s where you learn why blackbirds are black (they were white to begin with), the reason for the loon’s haunting call, how cranes transport smaller birds great distances on their backs, and so on.

Tate draws on mythology from around the world, from ancient stories to twentieth-century confusions. He organizes them by species and presents them with authority and wit — a pleasure to read.

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