Don’t Start Me Talkin’ – Review by Lavinia Ludlow

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Told through the eyes of young harpest Silent Sam Stamps, Don’t Start Me Talkin’ is a fanatical tale about the spirit of Delta blues, and what it takes to stay true to the music in a modern society plagued with a short attention span and a lust for mainstream pop.

Together, Brother Ben—the Last Delta Bluesman—and his protégé Silent Sam Stamps climb into an old Caddy Brougham and tour the nation performing songs off their chart-topping album. Hardly a stereotypical tale of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, the duo upholds a strict respect for themselves, each other, and their art. They live modestly, doing coin laundry, sharing hotel rooms to reduce costs, and shrugging off scene temptations, commercial exploitation, and crass audiences who pressure them to perform songs like “Soul Man.”

The story bursts with eccentric and original character. Williams sets his tale in contemporary society where grande coffees and Kinkos exist, “jooks” have high-priced paraphernalia on the walls, and the duo pays their bills with a gold Corporate Amex. Brother Ben, real name Wilton Mabry, tries up uphold his image of “smoking dynamite and drinking TNT” by leaning on a stage dialect and a stage cough, and habitually swigging from a flask. In reality, he’s an articulate health nut who eats well, exercises, maintains an intense vitamin regiment, and keeps his flask brimming with caffeine-free Diet Dr. Pepper.

As the tour wears on, Silent Sam finds himself increasingly conflicted by the style of music he’s performing alongside The Last Delta Bluesman:

“I’m pretty sure the only recording we’d make would be for a commercial. Maybe even under Kent Bollinger’s direction. For the United Negro College Fund, perhaps. Or a fried chicken franchise.”

The quieter of the two—think neutral narrator Nick Carraway-ish—Sam keeps his head to the ground and his mouth shut, and focuses on perfecting his craft, playing with heart, grit, groin, and gut, and searching for the right audience that would truly understand his music. The duo’s fan base often consists of college professors, health-food storeowners, and “all others who graduated but never found reason to leave Missoula, Ithaca or Athens, GA.”

“I look out in the crowd every night and never see just what I’m looking for,” Silent Sam says. “What we’ve got tonight are young, Soloflex types, tanned and dressed in bright colors and eager to toss each other around a dance floor. The blues faithful come to exalt in the presence of an authentic artifact of some quasi-southern, quasi-African past. Tonight’s crowd would make Jimmy Buffet happy… a payphone is getting as rare as black blues fans.”

It’s easy to get lost in Williams’ crisp narrative, and burn through the novel from cover to cover. Details unfold naturally, and I never found myself straining to re-read a sentence, cringing at an awkward passage, or cutting around fat to get to the meat of his message. Take the opening line:

“It’s said that when Robert Johnson arrived in a new town, the first thing he looked for was an ugly woman who owned her own house. That way, Bob could depend upon a place to sleep, food on the table—he’d supply the liquor—and a bed partner likely as starved for affection as he was.”

Williams lays the story to rest with one of the most extraordinary and well-written conclusions. Never cliché or predictable, we come to learn how powerful and unbreakable the bond is between the two bluesmen, and how it perseveres in the face of tour stressors, musical infidelity, and even retirement. The curtain will rise again for Silent Sam Stamps and Brother Ben in one form or another, and together, they’ll fight to keep Delta blues alive and authentic in an ever-changing contemporary society.

Released in February of 2014, this title is available for purchase over at Curbside Splendor.

The Last Policeman

250px-The_Last_Policeman_book_coverSet in a world painfully aware of its own impending demise, The Last Policeman, a novel by Ben H. Winters, is a philosophically astute page-turner that interrogates the most basic assumptions undergirding civil society. As an asteroid hurtles toward Earth, Detective Hank Palace does his best to maintain law and order in Cocord, New Hampshire, despite the fact that news of the impending apocalypse has triggered unparalleled social upheaval. When an apparent suicide turns up in a public restroom, common sense tells him to chalk it up to end-times hysteria, but—per the genre’s dictates—something about the case doesn’t sit right with Palace. Soon, he’s off on an investigation that pits him against survivalists, unscrupulous opportunists, and a wide range of conspiracy theories. Yet while the murder investigation provides the narrative with something of a MacGuffin, the real mystery at the heart of The Last Policeman is existential: What’s the point solving murders—or being good, or doing anything for that matter—when death is imminent? It’s the kind of question that can’t help leading to a slew of others, and one that Winters explores from multiple angles throughout this intelligent, suspenseful novel as the world he imagines spirals into chaos and all forms of human decency suddenly go up for grabs.

Review of Ben Tanzer’s Orphans – by Lavinia Ludlow

695-2In Ben Tanzer’s novella, Orphans, the world is a violent dystopia beyond salvation. Natural resources have dissolved, homeless encampments flood the shores, and the planet is an industrial wasteland. Laborers are no longer essential to the workforce–they’ve been replaced by hot and sassy robots that can even satisfy one sexually, think the embodiment of Samantha from Spike Jonze’ “Her.” Human clones known as “Terraxes” tend to household duties when the breadwinners leave on business. “The Corporation,” a merciless version of “the man,” has eyes on everyone, and if civilians loiter too long on the sidewalk to beg for a job or protest government fascism, helicopters gun them down like enemy soldiers trying to cross no man’s land.

In the old city of Chicago renamed Sector Six, Norrin Radd embarks on the hopeless and self-defeating search for financial security, identity, and the ever-elusive American Dream. With a wife and son to support, he mans up and takes a job with Joyful Future Real Estate as a salesman who dupes the rich “1-percenters” into relocating to a planet with questionable potential and an unknown future.

Tanzer sets the mood well for his flawed protagonist, Norrin. He is haunted by mysterious traumas of his childhood–as a kid, he saw his father “snatched” by “The Corporation” and found his mother dead after she allegedly committed suicide. He’s treading through an economic recession–“I am tired of sitting down at the kitchen table every night and talking about which bill should be paid this week, and how that will be possible when there is no money,” and trying to stay alive in a merciless civilization that guns down civilians in cold blood and creates human clones for temp work and organs.

Like most of Tanzer’s work, chapters are fast-paced, succinct, and contain no fat, dead ends, or draggy dialogue. Background details unfold naturally through flashbacks and stream-of-consciousness inner monologue, and paint a vivid image of Norrin’s internal struggles:

“I should know what to say, loving someone means knowing what to say, or at least knowing how to fix something after you’ve broken it…Instead I am about to break something and I know it, but feel powerless to prevent it…because it’s easier to leave when you’ve fucked things up…I hate myself and my inability to express my fears to her, and this self-hatred quickly mutates into rage, and the rage needs an outlet, and she looks up at me, so sad and vulnerable, which makes me hate her more, and I suddenly want to punch her in her beautiful face, break it and break her…”

For the most part, Tanzer respects the sci-fi element by not overdosing on the bizarre. He writes about conflicts and struggles consistent with those that many deal with today: unemployment, poverty, marital strain, soul-sucking jobs, and personality disorders induced by early traumas. Tanzer also recognizes the social implications of introducing advanced technologies into a culture hardly mature enough for radical change, such as the distress and heartbreak that Norrin feels when he sees a Terrax acting as the husband and father figure in his own household. At times though, the story’s naming conventions come off as senseless and unintelligible. Titles like the “Joyful Future Real Estate” and the “Happiness Sector” make me question why a sophisticated society with commercial space travel and “Terraxes” would elect such asinine titles for its businesses and districts. If Tanzer was trying to mock society’s fall from grace, the inconsistent attempt falls flat.

Scene transitions are often disorienting (but unavoidable with flash-like chapters), and the ending feels like an anecdotal obligation jammed in a single wide-margin page. The stunted closing does no justice to the overall story given the futuristic setting and Norrin’s emotional state of mind, which Tanzer did such a phenomenal job developing throughout the novel.

All in all, Orphans is an imaginative and sobering tale of one man’s final attempt to rise above his inner demons, an economic collapse, and a floundering society. Highly recommended.

Check it out over at Switchgrass Books.

Mr. Boardwalk, by Louis Greenstein

3016943Louis Greenstein’s debut novel, Mr. Boardwalk (New Door Books), captures an essential Philadelphia experience—going down the shore. Day trips and long weekends in Atlantic City are a large part of the city’s identity, and while this novel will conjure up any local’s finest memories of walking along the boards with a funnel cake, Greenstein goes beyond the summer phenomenon and delves deep into an essential turning point in Atlantic City’s history.

The novel begins with a middle aged Jason Benson walking down the boardwalk with his wife and daughter in the present day, telling them about his teenage years in Atlantic City. This frames the main narrative: flashbacks of Jason’s summers on the Atlantic City boardwalk, working at his father’s soft pretzel factory, and also learning to juggle and becoming a successful street performer. We learn about Jason’s love of performing, his financial success from it, and how it affects his relationships as a high schooler.

Mr. Boardwalk’s central concern, however, is Jason’s love for Atlantic City in the mid-70s, and his nostalgia for it in the present day. Jason’s teenage years down the shore were those immediately preceding legalized gambling, when Atlantic city wasn’t exactly a more innocent place (Greenstein deals honestly with the drug and sex culture of the era), but a more honest one. Before the huge casinos with faux themes and the false hope of winning big, the city was full of local seasonal businesses which, in the novel, seem to act more like family than competitors.

Greenstein brings us vividly back to that time, while also reminding us that it was not without its consequences on the individuals who lived it, and that nostalgia can have a bit of a dark side as well. Through the novel, Jason’s love of Atlantic City begins to border on an obsession, which affects not only his life in the 70s, but also his adult life. This connection between the two narratives is one one of the real strengths of the novel, and leads to a tight, satisfying ending.

I read this book in front of a fire in the middle of winter, and it gave me visions of my own trips down to the boardwalk, but also an insight into the Atlantic City before my time. Now that the weather is turning, I think it’ll make anyone ready for a trip down the shore.

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Joshua Isard is the director of Arcadia University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing, and the author of the novel Conquistador of the Useless. You can find him at his home page, or on Twitter.

Sick Justice: Inside the American Gulag

Sick JusticeAn eye-opening and compelling critique of the American criminal justice system, Ivan Goldman’s Sick Justice examines the political, social, and economic forces that have increased the per capita number of federal and state prison inmates by well over 250% since 1980. Working under that assumption that the criminal justice system should create a safer, more humane society, Goldman argues that shortsightedness with respect to the problem of crime has done the opposite. We have become, in Goldman’s words, a society, “more concerned with punishment than with truth.” As a result, any semblance of order afforded by the so-called war on drugs, mandatory minimum sentences, and draconian policies like California’s “three strikes” law is ultimately illusory.

Frequently, Goldman demonstrates throughout his study, criminals who know how to play the game tend to stay out of jail—either by eluding capture, informing on other criminals for reduced sentences, or by simply slipping through the cracks. Indeed, the sheer number of prisoners, parolees, and probationers clogging the system (estimated at over seven million) makes it nearly impossible for authorities to keep track of their charges, thus providing greater opportunities for the most dangerous criminals to commit acts of violence. Meanwhile, many people who find themselves on the wrong side of the law do so unwittingly. Sick Justice offers a wide range of anecdotes regarding naïve first-time offenders who, in some instances, happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time or, in others, committed crimes so petty as to be otherwise laughable. Due to their inexperience with the system—not to mention a distinct lack of criminal connections on whom to inform—these offenders often end up serving sentences incommensurate with the crimes of which they’ve been accused.

Goldman also examines a number of adjacent issues that have hastened the breakdown of the criminal justice system. The closing of mental health institutions across the country led many former patients to spend the rest of their lives, in Goldman’s words, “bouncing from homelessness on the street to homelessness in jail.” Additionally, the rise of corporate-owned for-profit prisons has led, in turn, to intense lobbying for harsh laws and strict sentencing guidelines: “The Gulag industry can always justify putting more people in prison and imposing longer sentences, no matter what’s going on outside the walls: if crime rises, we must need more people behind bars. If crime goes down, wholesale imprisonment must be succeeding.” Finally, the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, have left in their wake a culture less invested in attempting to balance freedom and security—erring, it goes without saying, almost invariably on the side of security.

Ultimately, Goldman’s point is that the American criminal justice system has sacrificed long-term effectiveness for short-term gains. Promising to get tough on crime always plays well for politicians in election years but does little to address such underlying causes of crime as poverty, hunger, mental illness, and inadequate education. Yet by focusing almost solely on punishment, Goldman demonstrates time and again, we have, in more ways than one, become a nation of criminals.

How to Succeed in Business without Really Crying

18209506Carol Leifer’s How to Succeed in Business without Really Crying hits the shelves in April. With countless twenty-somethings slated to graduate from college the following month, the timing couldn’t be better. Drawing on four decades of making a living in comedy, Leifer’s book offers solid advice on getting ahead in the professional world. While the advice itself is nothing new–focusing largely on tenacity, dedication, and love for one’s business, whatever it may be–the anecdotes Leifer provides bring the book to life. What’s more, they also offer an honest glimpse into the workaday world of show business that the general public rarely gets to see. Indeed, it’s the hard work that Leifer has put into her career day-in and day-out that makes this memoir-cum-handbook so compelling. Whether performing her standup act as an opener for Frank Sinatra or writing for Seinfeld, Leifer has made the most of every opportunity that came her way, and the lessons she’s learned from doing so make this entertaining read an excellent gift for anyone about to enter the professional world. All told, reading How to Succeed is like hanging out with a favorite aunt who’s done it all and lived to tell the tale.