Robert’s Rants & Reviews #3 (Books & Ebooks)

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I hate Summer Reading roundup articles. They’re unnecessary and based on the faulty idea that people read certain things depending on time of year. During college, I worked as a gate monitor at a swimming pool and read all sorts of subversive stuff — Sartre, Camus, Goethe, Beckett. I was outside in a bathing suit under the hot Houston sun and sweating my ass off; yet it didn’t affect my ability to enjoy or understand anything. Here therefore is my official Robert’s Anti-list of Summer Readings:

  • Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman (actually, I’m going to be reading this for real this summer).
  • Malloy by Samuel Beckett.
  • Cancer Ward by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
  • Opium and Other stories by Geza Csath.
  • Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
  • Stories by Chekhov. (I think I actually read a lot of these stories over one summer).
  • Arcadio by William Goyen (Texas writer btw).
  • Inferno by Dante (actually fitting because it’s a hot place too!)
  • Fathers and Sons by Turgenev. During that summer at the swimming pool, I vividly remember reading Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Becket and tons of other gloomy Continental stuff while ogling the pretty lifeguards at the pool. Ah, summers of youth!

Public Domain

Neglected Books flips out over the 1942 book, My Heart for Hostage by poet Robert Hillyer. From its dust jacket illustration, one can imagine that My Heart for Hostage was being aimed by Random House for a sentimental, mainly female audience, but in reality, this is a book that would have appealed to G.I.s if they’d made it past the title page. Hillyer’s soldiers carry some scars with them they little understand and can’t control. They find relief in sex and drink, and feel a distance between themselves and the folks back home they can’t quite express.

(PS, I’m currently reading the novel now — on Interlibrary Loan. It’s a compelling read).

RJN: It can be frustrating to see how many out-of-print titles from the 1930s and 1940s may in fact be in the public domain (as this one surely is). (Another is the 1931 masterpiece short story collection, Many Thousands Gone by John Peale Bishop). Strangely, Project Gutenberg is so busy with pre-1924 stuff that it doesn’t have the resources to digitalize the many works whose copyright was never renewed. One curious coincidence about Hillyer and Bishop is that they were respected poets dabbling here in fiction.

To my amusement I was proofing a 1911 edition of Book Review Digest when I found a book review by Theodore Roosevelt. Turns out that Roosevelt wrote a ton of books and articles (you can find his books on PG and his articles on a TR Almanac site. Related to this, I found a memoir by William H Crooke (a White House personal assistant who served 10 different presidents). Not on PG yet, but I see that someone is selling a digital copy for 99 cents. My god, someone should adapt this into a movie!

General Essays/Lit Crit

Speaking of gloomy Europeans, I saw the great HBO series Chernobyl. I was delighted to learn that one of the story lines was lifted from Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl. (This link contains most of the story monologue).

Robert Chandler wrote about Vasily Grossman’s less famous novel, Stalingrad. (Life and Fate is on my summer reading list).

Silly me, in reading about Emily Ruskovich‘s Idaho novel receiving a huge cash prize for the International Dublin literary award, I remember thinking, where the heck did this literary prize come from? Apparently — corrected by Michael Barrett — this prize has been around for 2 decades (here’s the list of winners and nominees). Here’s the magical page for Ruskovich’s writings. Here’s ER’s lit-listicle of US rural novels and her nostalgia about reading Watership Down as a kid. (Amazingly, her boyfriend at the time recorded himself reading chapters from the book which he forwarded to her).

Here’s a nice ER discussion of opening paragraphs and a dissection of an Alice Munro story and an allegedly innocent detail. When you start the story, the box is just an object sitting among other objects, covered in dust—next to a horse harness and an old dentist’s chair and an apple peeler. But as you read and re-read, you start to sense the human history that can be told through these objects. Each one is suffused with a whole lifetime of compassion and secrets and suffering. And though Munro gives us the privilege of looking at one of them, the red box, the other objects are left unspoken for. That’s very moving: you get the sense that you could write an entire novel about the horse harness, too, or the dentist’s chair, or the apple peeler.

RJN: I agree. Often the best thing to do after finishing a short story is to re-read the first paragraph. It’s usually obvious how the author promised to lead you in one direction and instead brought you in another.

Hilary Mantel writes about why she’s a historical novelist:

But my chief concern is with the interior drama of my characters’ lives. From history, I know what they do, but I can’t with any certainty know what they think or feel. In any novel, once it’s finished, you can’t separate fact from fiction – it’s like trying to return mayonnaise to oil and egg yolk. If you want to know how it was put together line by line, your only hope, I’m afraid, is to ask the author.

For this reason, some readers are deeply suspicious of historical fiction. They say that by its nature it’s misleading. But I argue that a reader knows the nature of the contract. When you choose a novel to tell you about the past, you are putting in brackets the historical accounts – which may or may not agree with each other – and actively requesting a subjective interpretation. You are not buying a replica, or even a faithful photographic reproduction – you are buying a painting with the brush strokes left in. To the historian, the reader says, “Take this document, object, person – tell me what it means.” To the novelist he says, “Now tell me what else it means.”

I love Mantel’s essay so much! Maud Newton linked to it in an essay about Return of the Dead: Ghosts, Ancestors and the Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind by Claude Lecouteux. and even mentioned her mother, who still believes in ghostly presences and curses:

When I was growing up, though, my mom saw demons and angels everywhere. Sometimes she held exorcisms when I was in the next room, trying to do my homework. Through the wall I’d hear her hollering. The person the demons were being cast out of might weep, punch things, turn over chairs, curse in an inhuman voice. Sometimes the unearthly voice emanated from someone I knew. I worried the demons would slip under the door and into me.

Deliverance sessions also erupted at the start of my mom’s church services every month or so. And occasionally, she went after evil spirits she detected in me. In one episode of this kind, I finished off a big bag of chips, and she commanded the “gluttony demon” to come out of me. She was troubled by my inability to see demons for myself and blamed this lack of vision on a “doubting demon,” or, sometimes, on an “Antichrist demon” that had apparently been passed on by my father.

(Some Mantel novels that Newton recommends are Beyond Black and, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies). I should mention that my fave author Jack Matthews likes to put ghosts especially in his 19th century stories (especially Soldier Boys and Ghostly Populations — which is the name of the author’s domain). This struck me as really strange.

Speaking of ghosts and stuff, now is a good time to invoke public domain Texas author Dorothy Scarborough, who edited early anthologies of ghost stories and wrote a book, Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (free on Gutenberg!). Fun fact: Not only is Scarborough’s 1925 novel, the Wind one of my favorite novels, but I also wrote a wiki page about her and this very book!

Christopher John Stephens revisits the 1994 novel In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez (which I also enjoyed).

In a Postscript, Alvarez notes that “…what you find in these pages are not the Mirabal sisters of fact, or even the Mirabal sisters of legend. The actual sisters I never knew.” She notes that the myth-making of the Mirabal sisters (which is what this novel accomplishes) also means they have once again been lost. The Mirabil sisters we read here are of Alvarez’s creation. Liberties have been taken, dates changed, events reconstructed, but the motivation is sincere. “A novel is not, after all, a historical document,” she writes, “but a way to travel through the human heart.”

Laura Miller on Tales of the City (which is now a Netflix series):

 I arrived in the Bay Area in 1978, younger than Mary Ann Singleton but (as a Californian whose parents had a couple of gay friends) not quite so green. It was a daunting place when I arrived, at the tail end of a period of strung-out, apocalyptic violence. The Zebra murders and the Patty Hearst kidnapping were not that far in the past, and even more unsettling than being abducted by crackpot radicals was the idea that they could turn you into an entirely different person while you were in their clutches. A few weeks after I moved to Berkeley, 918 members of the Peoples Temple, many of them people of color seeking a new social order, died by mass suicide in Guyana. Because the church had a large center in San Francisco and its mad leader, Jim Jones, was well-connected among the city’s elites, local media covered the baffling massacre as if it had taken place right in town. Less than 10 days later a disgruntled local politician shot both the mayor and Harvey Milk, the city’s first openly gay supervisor, right at City Hall.

“Is this what it’s like here?” I remember asking myself as these catastrophes went down. Was adulthood really a matter of navigating random killings, messianic doomsday gurus, and machine-gun toting radicals? Even to a child of liberal parents who had opposed the Vietnam War, the chaos thrown off by the social change of the 1960s was scary. For the first time, I began to regularly read a daily newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, in an effort make sense of it all. In the Chronicle’s pages I found a confusing column full of short paragraphs, breezy dialogue, and references to people I’d never heard of. It was fiction, something I’d never seen in a newspaper before, and called “Tales of the City.” Everybody who lived in San Francisco and its environs seemed to follow it avidly and talked as if its characters were their intimate friends.

A gay friend recommended this book very highly, and it’s been on my short list for quite some time (i.e, decades). Perhaps the existence of a TV series is sufficient goad for me to hurry up and read the book first.

Lists from Fivebooks: Arab historian Robert Irwin about classics of Arabic literature. French novelist Mathias Enard has his own list of the Orient and Orientalism. Also Best Transnational Literature books by Mohsin Hamid (whatever that means).

I spend a good bit of time on reddit — the book ones tend to be mediocre, but some of the special interest professional topics are great — I’m thinking selfpublish, Truefilm, etc. I’ve really been loving Askhistorians mainly because the moderators remove any comment which is not erudite/brilliant. How to judge a history book by its cover. I have some experience on that matter, having bought a ton of history ebooks last year. I actually enjoy popular history a lot — because it’s easy to read, and the narrative is easy to follow. The key to writing a good history book is to pick an overlooked event or person and apply current standards of critical scholarship (and be transparent about your methods). Also, if you can, write it as you would write a novel.

Hans Rollman responds to Jaron Lanier’s book about why we should give up social media.

As Lanier observes, the pioneers of social media and its algorithms didn’t consciously try to make the internet predatory. They pursued something they conceptualized as an apolitical middle-ground: engagement. Social media is about encouraging engagement, whether it be positive or negative (or both simultaneously, depending on one’s perspective). Social media algorithms seek to bring about user engagement and response, and they don’t really care whether we click on something because they’ve made us feel happy, or sad, or angry; whether we click/purchase/read/subscribe because of altruistic feelings, or self-deprecatory feelings, or violent feelings, or racist/sexist feelings. They simply seek a response; an engagement. Generating a response, from the perspective of programmers, is translated as success.

Likewise, when anonymous users promote posts, create accounts, buy ads; the administrators of Facebook and Google don’t know, or even care to know, whether they’re altruistic NGO’s, Russian spies, or obscure terrorists. They simply seek to help them maximize their aims through facilitating broad-based engagement with whatever those users are willing to pay for. The hands-off, DIY nature of paying to “expand your reach” via social media is deliberately designed to remove human oversight and responsibility as much as possible from the ethical dimensions of a consumer’s actions.

It is this pretense at a neutral, apolitical, individualized-optimization that makes social media the ultimate in technologies of neoliberal capitalism.


(I’m reading this book right now!)


Wow, I see that Houstoniamag publishes regular features and book reviews (I’d never heard of this zine before). About half of their coverage is on local visiting writers. (That’s ok, but it means going crazy over whatever literary road show NY publishers have provided). Still, there’s a decent amount of local coverage too . (This and lone star literary life are bringing literature back to the state after the dailies have essentially abandoned their book coverage). Let me highlight some local authors featured here:

Analicia Sotelo‘s poetry collection Virgin (author website). “I have this theme of an absent biological father in the book,” explains Sotelo, “ and I use famous artists who are now dead as mythological figures who knew my dad. My parents were very into the visual arts, so a lot of conversations I had with my father, who I didn’t see very much, were about artists. So how do I access someone who I didn’t know very well? Well, how about through the art that he taught me about?”

Doni Wilson writes a penetrating review of Chris Cander‘s Weight of a Piano (Author website). The novel is about the significance of a piano in various people’s life, from the builder to the daughter who keeps it to preserve her parents’ memory.

One woman’s musical instrument is another man’s photographic focal point, and Cander reminds us that the piano is not only an instrument of interpreting music, but a subject of interpretation: a psychological presence that reveals the inner longings and insecurities of those who are affected by its presence. Greg Zeldin’s motto for his photographs is a quotation from the composer John Cage: “When we separate music from life, we get art.” And this is what Cander has accomplished in her novel that separates the objects of our lives from the creative projections that we extract and place on them. In the many scenes that dramatize the piano being moved from one location to another, we see the emotional significance of this instrument. Katya’s son recalls that “he watched his mother bring blankets with which to drape it, good blankets they used every night that were made by his grandmothers and brought over during the emigration from Russia years ago.” 

Cander forces us to consider the lengths we will go to not only for art, but for our personal past, no matter how full of turmoil that past may be. The Blüthner in Greg’s photos “became just another one of those heavy objects silently fleeing their histories,” but Cander infuses the piano with a power of a character itself, an important and towering figure that both gives and weighs one down. With a vast knowledge of classical music and a masterful use of setting from Europe to Death Valley, The Weight of a Piano is not just a meditation on the things of our lives, but also an argument that these are also subjective correlatives for all of the things that we cannot stand to lose.

Pics from the Julie Ideson Rare Books collection in Houston.

Here are 2 Reviews of the latest book by Oscar Casares, who I recently realized is on the creative writing faculty of UT Austin. Amazingly, I put Casares’ first book on hold until I realized that I already possessed a copy — in fact it was sitting several feet from my desk!

Houston political poet Anis Shivani (website) writes:

Equally effective is Casares’ decision, unlike in his previous books, to restrain the narrative to a narrow geographic range. This is enhanced by his supreme ability to convey the physical plenitude of such ordinary locations as the canal, the raspa trailer and the changing tropical landscape on the way to Brownsville, not to mention the claustrophobia ingrained in Nina’s main house and the fraught dynamics along the international bridge. The pink house, with the trapdoor beneath it, through which Daniel surfaces from time to time despite Nina’s instruction for him to stay hidden, becomes more than a convenient symbol: It emerges as a rebuke to the way politics has constrained our humanity to be less generous and fluid than it ought to be.

(Source: Texas Observer)

Michelle Newby Lancaster summarizes: The fact that his story isn’t exceptional is what makes it exceptional. Though evenly and quickly paced, it sometimes seems as if not much is happening, but this novel is suffused with boredom and menace—twins of a fugitive existence, punctuated by moments of pure terror. This is what passes for normal.

I used to be familiar with creative writing departments around Texas (and for that matter, around the country). I haven’t followed these affairs anymore — though I remember being flabbergasted recently to learn that author Tim O’Brien was teaching at Texas State. UH has lots of distinguished faculty and students, and I try to follow them, although sadly, I’ve reached the conclusion that these programs cater to a kind of literary elitism at the expense of being accessible. That said, creative writing programs are great places to learn about poets (both faculty and students). I’m saying all that as someone who passed through one such program, but luckily I got out in the nick of time. I’m trying to feature more Texas writers from such programs on my blog.

Norma Elia Cantú is an ethnographer teaching at teaching at Trinity University and lives in San Antonio and Laredo. Here’s a MNL review of one of Cantu’s books . Here’s an interview where she provides a historical overview of Latinx/border fiction, she recommends Occupied America by Rudy Acuña; Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria Anzaldúa; and Diana Rebolledo’s Woman Singing in the Snow.

Poet Andrea Syzdek (website) has lots of book reviews about literary topics. She even uploaded her UH MFA poetry thesis here (which you can download as a DOCX file).

On Jane Casale‘s the Girl who Never Read Noam Chomsky (a novel about a feminist writer who feels attracted to a boy reading Chomsky) , Syzdek writes, ” From this point on, Noam Chomsky takes on a deeper, more symbolic meaning. He represents radical political thought. Even more importantly, he represents a possible gateway to other radical thinkers such as Howard Zinn, Michel Foucault, Frantz Fanon, Adrienne Rich, and Angela Davis—thinkers who could provide Leda with the necessary tools to imagine alternative paths that might help her become a fully-realized human being. Never reading Noam Chomsky means she never develops creatively, intellectually, or politically and her sense of self as a woman is often defined by capitalistic, patriarchal notions of what a woman is even as she resists these definitions. She ends up giving into them. Readers begin to wonder what might happen if Leda actually read Noam Chomsky; this is the invisible thread that runs through the novel.

Illuminating Interviews

I have been poring over the incredible interviews by ubercritic and author Dan Schneider. He interviews people from any genre, but especially poets and filmmakers and critics. As I go through them, I’ll highlight some moments.

Here’s a terrific and long interview with African-American poet James A. Emanuel who lived most of his last years in Paris. It actually took me 4 separate sittings to reach the end of it. (Sadly, his poetry collections have not been digitalized and a long compilation, Whole Grain: Collected Poems (published in 1991) is out of print and very expensive. Several poems are included, plus a critical essay by Schneider at the end. Here are some quotes:

There is a possible procedure that I do not consciously use: to bring into consideration an idea normally adult but not easily or commonly expressed by adults, then search for a child’s voice and child’s situation to develop that idea.


If a poem came to me fully made, I would have to change it as the words took shape on paper, assuming paper to be its final imprinted surface, because the final creator, thinking as his hand (or machine part) approached the paper, might conceive of an improved word or punctuation mark. Such is the prerogative, the necessity of the creator at work: to bring the product at hand to a state of perfection.

            Olympic champions who have nothing to do with poetry understand why it took me seven years of thinking to write the sixteen lines in Emmett Till, so terrible were the true images that inspired its creation; they might guess why the last eight lines of “The Treehouse” would not come until two years passed. My mother, during her final years as a licensed Christian Science practitioner, used to say, “God’s man is perfect.” Even then on my way to ambivalence toward established religion, I thought that “God’s man”—whatever she meant by that—did not exist. I now add the consequent idea: perfection (if God’s man is an authentic example of it) does not exist; and poetry need not be judged by what does not exist. Moving in this deep water, I return to the moment of creation, when the poet’s whole life and being—the truth and beauty in it—has this instant to impress itself judgmentally on what is passing as its best particular expression.


Just as discipline is most needed when freedom is first won, my turn to free verse at the end of the 1960s entailed a conscious struggle to fuse widening subjects with what might be called “veteran” form. Like the boxer who knows when to shift from dancing jabs to a strong right hook, the veteran in free verse knows when an anapest or two cannot do the job of a well-chosen monosyllable.

            What I want to say in poetry (what I want to present or picture, rather) has little to do with form, for I could use a sonnet to present the Harlem street jive, dig? Some time ago, the following line in iambic pentameter could have opened a sonnet: “Had only ink to drink for many brights.” As for the haiku form, its subjects are unlimited. I turned to it because of its unusual challenge to say much in little, to waste no word, to find and express the possibilities of beauty in all of creation.

Personville Press Giveaways and Deals

I run Personville Press, a small literary book press where all the ebooks cost less than $4. All the titles are discounted on Smashwords for less that price — and usually under $1.50. Pay attention to any 100% coupon codes which I occasionally list below — they can be redeemed only a small number of times, so first come, first serve. Smashwords only sells epub versions of these titles, but you can easily convert them to Amazon’s mobi format by using Kindle Previewer or Calibre.






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