Mixed Bag of Reviews

Over the past year, I’ve read a lot of books and would like to share some thoughts about them with you. This is the first batch, a mixed bag of good and not-so-good books.

A Long Petal of the Sea, by Isabel Allende

At the end of the Spanish Civil War, refugees from Spain who had fought Franco were brought by boat to Chile. A young man, Victor, is one of them. He is grateful to be taken in by Chile. The mover behind the scenes is the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who has convinced his country to take in these exiles. The novel tells the story of Victor’s life from his service in field hospitals to waiting in refugee camps, arriving in Chile, marrying, and making friends, to the time of Salvador Allende’s term as president, and at Allende’s fall, the loss of his job and home. (Allende is her father’s relative, and not portrayed as someone she knows well.) Victor is non-political, a dedicated physician, husband, and father. The militancy and fearmongering of the right and the too-swiftly-moving reforms and arrogance of the left bring chaos to a once stable country. She describes the methods used to sow discord, a stark parallel to the current political situation in the United States. Victor and his family and others in the novel live in exile or are imprisoned during the years of Pinochet’s regime, until finally, Pinochet is gone and there is a return of civil democratic society. Different points of view are embodied in the characters. Victor and his wife even return to Spain, but find it so changed, so dismal, they realize their home is in Chile. The writing is often distanced, with a delicacy bordering on vagueness, but in several sections, it is distinct and earthy. Isabel Allende has been criticized for channeling Gabriel Garcia-Marquez but watering the style down to mediocrity. Certain passages echo many South American writers, but this book is a far cry from the dreamscapes of G-M novels. It stands as a fair-minded testament of a time in the history of Chile.

Dinner at the Center of the Earth, by Nathan Englander

A book that has promise changes midway through to focus on a fantastical relationship between a female Israeli soldier and a Palestinian operative. Instead of letting the story unfurl, showing the hidden, subversive lengths opposing sides will go to it becomes an undeveloped narrative of two unappealing people. The satire is lost in some sort of romantic fantasy. It gets sillier the closer it comes to the ending, which they both deserve. The more interesting characters are killed, imprisoned, or simply disappear, not “disappeared” but forgotten apparently. The only relatable human characters are doomed to die in despair or take the lesser-of-two-evils action. Post-modern literature, anyone?

Florida, by Lauren Groff

Groff writes about a state I know well. The better parts are about walking after dark in a neighborhood and a story of an old home by a swamp and near a university that wants to buy the land. Those were relatable. Groff’s characters not so much. They complain about living in a condo by the beach, they complain about vacationing in Paris, and on the coast of Brittany. They play around with each other’s spouses. One goofball takes off from her condo to a shack in the woods with hubby and children because she’s bored. Hubby climbs to the shack’s roof and gets a call that he must return to work, so of course he leaves them there alone. She manages to injure herself changing a light bulb. In her delirium, she thinks she hears a panther moving in the woods outside. In the daytime. That made me laugh. (She is by far her worst enemy.) Anyway, hubby returns to find her near death. Then there’s the long story of trying to write in France. Part of the sadness that permeates the book may come from the devastation of Florida’s unique landscape, of ecosystems that sustain life. In the end, she realizes that although she doesn’t love Florida, it is her home. Groff writes well enough, so a good book may yet come.

Vesper Flights, by Helen Macdonald

Macdonald has a cold and scientific view of animals and the natural world. I make the distinction between cold and scientific for a reason. Her nature is not warm and fuzzy. Her scientific observations are keen and detailed, and in other naturalists’ writing have hinted at unity with the world, but she is not comfortable. She admits the losses she has suffered and those she has observed in the non-human space have made her remote. Visits to childhood places emphasize the destruction of semi-wild and rare habitats. The lives of birds and animals have nothing to do with us, she writes, and yet they stitch us into place, our sense of place, and teach us about ourselves. We carelessly change those places to make them less habitable for wildlife and for ourselves. And so, evening song is the right theme for this book. At the same time, it is not sad, but realistically attuned to beauty and resilience, and dogged (to use that term) in communicating the importance of our relationship to the planet we inhabit.

The Horizon Seekers

The Horizon Seekers by Mary Clark

In my new book, The Horizon Seekers, time travel and romance play like light in the story, I hope. 🙂

Leila Payson moves from the present to the future seamlessly, and tries to make her visions real. She teaches high school, but she is more than her job and her role as dutiful daughter, she is a kind of pioneer. She hopes that when her students fly, they’ll see beyond the horizon to where imagination and courage can take them.

Meanwhile, mystery follows Leila. She is haunted by early trauma, but is it memory or a dream? She confides only to her funky, no-nonsense best friend, Caroline.

One of Leila’s students learns he is losing his hearing. She rethinks her life and occupation, remodels it, bringing in her past experiences, her future realizations, and her friends. Those friends veer from fun-loving to serious as they move through the seams of the modern world, seeking new arrangements. Baruti, the therapist who works with people with disabilities, whom Leila met in South Africa years before, is a constant presence. And an attractive man with a book keeps appearing at her favorite places. The journey begins, and the horizon always beckons.

Two Books about Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, a tragedy plays out before our eyes. A few months ago, I read a book by Indie author Mary Smith that provides a heart-breaking background to that tragedy. Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni: Real Stories of Afghan Women tells of Smith’s work with a small health education NGO. She works with women in Mazar-i-Sharif and a remote mountain village, as well as later in Kabul. The women need permission from their fathers or husbands to attend classes, but most give it, showing different reactions. The men, and the women, of Afghanistan, are human, they are not all cut from the same cloth. One said of his headstrong wife he might as well because she was going to do it anyway. However, these women face criticism, suspicion, and potential violence as they pursue their education.

Smith teaches women, usually mothers, how to use simple measures to care for their children, to combat infant mortality and chronic sickness. The women are vibrant, often humorous about their situation. Some are skeptical at first, but later become among the best at going out among their neighbors and teaching them these same skills.

Life is uncertain, though. As Taliban advance, many flee to Pakistan and Iran. Smith leaves for Great Britain, her home country. She doesn’t know if the women she worked with and became friends with are able to escape. Later she hears that when Taliban fighters took Mazar-i-Sharif, they killed people on the streets. After 2001, with the United States and allies ending Taliban rule, she returns and hears the stories. Many of those she knows had been able to escape.

The young women have such hope. Their excitement is palpable. Suddenly, their lives have greater meaning as they help not only their families but their communities.

Before I read this book, I had never heard of Mazar-i-Sharif. I knew little about Afghan lives, and how diverse they are: the educated in Kabul, the traders and working people of Mazar city, the farmers in the rugged mountains of Hazara Jat. Her descriptions of traveling through the mountains to Pakistan will stay with you: Taliban checkpoints, no resting places, high passes.

As we watch events in Afghanistan, the accounting begins. Was U. S. involvement worth it? What will happen to the women who experienced freedom in the last twenty years? How many will escape or cope successfully until the next chapter begins? I think that’s all we can hope for in this tragic time, that this is not the end. Instead, the seeds of knowledge and hope will sprout again.

Years ago, I read a book called The Far Pavilions by M. M. Kaye. Ostensibly a love story set mostly in India, this book ends with a telling account of the British in Afghanistan. Coming through the Northern Frontier, which is now Pakistan, from India, the British have the bright idea they can corral Afghanistan’s resources with impunity. That experiment ends with the British, who have brought their families to live with them in Kabul, fleeing through the Khyber Pass. Afghan fighters ambush and massacre them. In Kabul, the remaining troops are massacred by a mob, including Afghan troops they trained. As they charge toward the barracks, some shout, “Jihad.” The same is heard today from Taliban fighters.

You’d think this would be a cautionary story to other countries. But no. Russia comes in and the Afghans form the Mujahideen, spawning Al Qaeda. Russia is chased back across the border. Then the United States comes in. Rather than only eradicating the training camps, we chase the Taliban across the countryside. Again, the Afghan fighters form an insurgency.

I believe removing Taliban from control was for the best, but we had no long-term plan. We inherited a divided Afghan, with those who became the new government split into factions. Partly because the opposition was and remains so fractured, Taliban could take control in 1996, and again in 2021. I’m no expert in foreign affairs, but I find reading gives me information and insight I wouldn’t otherwise have. I wish the experts at the Pentagon would read these books, and if they have read about Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan, they need to realize that doing the same thing and expecting different results isn’t going to happen.

A Queen, a Nameless Girl, a Saint, an Angel

Excited about this Work in Progress by a friend and author Diane Denton

bardessdmdenton - author- artist

Elizabeth Siddall
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Today I share another excerpt from my work-in-progress novel portrait of the Victorian poet Christina Rossetti, The Dove Upon Her Branch to mark the birthday – July 25, 1829 – of Elizabeth (Lizzie) Siddall, muse and wife of Christina’s brother and Pre-Raphaelite artist and poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Elizabeth Siddall
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

We found her hidden just behind those screens, that mirror gave back all her loveliness.*

     Miss Siddall was sitting slightly hunched, her arms reaching, resting between her knees, just below which her hands were clasped. Thick, mahogany hair was loosely ballooned on the nape of her neck, her chin stretched forward. Her waist, like most of the wicker chair she perched on, was lost in the bunching of her skirt, but even with her torso swallowed in billowing fabric and her shoulders slumped, there was no doubt she…

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Smorgasbord Cafe and Bookstore – New Book on the Shelves – #Poetry – Into the Fire: A Poet’s Journey Through Hell’s Kitchen by Mary Clark

Smorgasbord Blog Magazine

As the Meet the Author’s series comes to an end, time to catch up with recent releases by authors on the shelves of the Cafe and Bookstore.

Today a showcase for Mary Clark’s poetry collection Into the Fire: A Poet’s Journey Through Hell’s Kitchen

About the collection

A young, aspiring writer comes to St. Clement’s Church on West 46th Street in New York City looking for a job in the theater. Soon she is helping run the church’s poetry program. The New York Poetry Festival at St. Clement’s features many well-known poets of the 1970s and 80s as well as up-and-coming and marginalized poets. The poetry scene, occurring alongside Punk rock and the waning days of experimental dance and theater, is part of the last widespread grassroots artistic era in the United States.

Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey takes place in the rough-and-tumble Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood on Manhattan’s West…

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Book Reviews Summer 2021

Body Language, by Marylee MacDonald

Body Language is an exceptional collection of short stories. Each story, I thought, was better than the one before. Then the next one was better. I wanted to know more about each of the characters, that is, to read full-length novels built around them. They are filled with uncertainty, relief, hope, and people taking risks. In one story, the risk is in re-engaging after a separation. In another, Sister Salina stands out as a complex character because of her hidden life. I connected with the feeling of not fitting in and being disapproved of for a behavior you cannot explain but others are quick to define in a negative way. The ironic but loving tone of the narrative works. The story of two children, adopted years apart, in the same family, shows the real-world impacts of isolation and the need for connection. Pursuing human contact hit a nerve in this time of a pandemic. Body Language lives up to its name in this powerful and poignant book by a master of the short story.

Reluctantly Dead, by Glenn Parkhurst, is an enjoyable book that mixes humor with horror to make it a romp through a serious subject. What happens when we die? What about those who’ve said they had a near-death experience?

Phillip, the main character, describes the experience of his hovering above his body while dying. Then, he is curious as he watches himself on the “largest I-Max ever, my own personal one.” He finds himself in a fog, and slowly light comes. His journey begins: he is drawn toward the light, feeling an urge to move toward it “like a sneeze lying in wait, it was irresistible.”

Phillip moves along the path toward the light above the horizon. Looking back, he sees a black tunnel that hides everything behind it. From time to time “black lightning” strikes a victim, taking them into the tunnel of despair, and sending Phillip into a deep state of depression. As Phillip treks through one version of heaven after another, each one reflecting human’s earthly desires for stability or for pleasure, he maintains a healthy skepticism. “They’d left out a few things, such as joy, peace, and love.” He admits he is not leaving much behind in his life, he had little ambition since a childhood bully made him retreat and play it safe, so he has no real attachments. His observations bring out the contrast between what his life could have been and what it was. Along the way, he meets Nathan, a boy of about twelve, who needs his help. In a series of adventures, they come to form a strong bond. Phillip’s personal growth creates the foundation for the final decision in his journey.

Reluctantly Dead has a memorable cast of characters and its ethical mind-play, as well as the word-pictures of temptation, anger, fear, depression, and steadfastness, bravery, empathy, and love, make this an interesting read.

The Little Dog in Big Plague, by C. C. Alma

How can we have humor in the midst of the COVID pandemic? C. C. Alma finds a way. The story is told through a dog’s eyes, giving it a perspective that reveals the strengths and weaknesses of human beings. The Little Dog is an orphan, and he goes about choosing a new family. In the empty landscape as people succumb to the invisible disease, his sense of smell tells him who is sick and who is well. This book is done with sensitivity and the humor makes it a top-notch read.

Tales from The Garden, by Sally Cronin

A wonder-filled garden is the setting for a series of adventures by a cast of fairies, dwarves, swans, geese, a one-eyed pig, and stone lions who come to life at night. “Eagles, rabbits and monkeys have found their way here over hundreds of years as well as animals who have sought sanctuary within its surrounding hedges.” Each of these, including a fawn, appear to be garden ornaments. But the hidden life is revealed in this book. They all have stories. The stone eagles “were made by a slave of the Roman merchant who built his villa on this mountain.” Waves of human history passed over, and for a time, no one lived there, but then the sound of “modern machinery woke us from our sleep.” One of those seeking refuge is a young boy. He is helped by the guardians of the garden. The stories of the humans are interwoven with those of the fairies and loyal family dogs. This is an imaginative and inspiring book by a gifted storyteller.

Two Books about Native Americans

Recently, I read two books about the native people who originally inhabited what became the United States of America. The first was The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich. She is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, a federally recognized tribe of the Anishinaabe (also known as Ojibwe and Chippewa). She was born in Little Falls, Minnesota.

Her latest book tells the story of her grandfather’s recognition of a proposed law in the U. S. Senate which would eventually “terminate” all treaties with Indian nations, and immediately terminate five tribes, including the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. He gathered others from the tribe and alerted them to the real meaning of the text. The tribe had already been dispossessed of the better land in their area, and had poor education, health, and employment opportunities. Some left for Minneapolis and other cities in desperation, and others moved to another reservation near the Great Lakes. This termination would remove them from their land and disperse them as refugees. Erdrich combines her grandfather’s work with a fictional story of an Indian family, and especially about one of the daughters. For me, the two stories had different tones and intentions, and made the story fragmented to the point of losing direction completely sometimes. She tied them together with a vision of the old man’s, linking them spiritually. The Night Watchman gives the reader an authentic look at Indian life in more modern times than normally found in literature. It is a searing indictment of American disregard for the value of Native peoples’ lives, and for the ability of her grandfather and his tribe to understand what was happening in that proposed legislation. He could see in the night, and he was a fine watchman. The Night Watchman was just awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

The second book, Red and White, by Kenneth Weene, weaves together the nuanced story of Lonely Cricket, a young member of the Ho-Chunk nation, with a sweeping epic of American history after the Civil War. He gives us the details of the boy’s life, his Native parents’ lives, and those of the White settlers who live nearby. He tells the story through the events and behaviors of particular people, while connecting them to the bigger picture. The locations are well-described, and the characters seem to be authentic and historically accurate. The crux of the novel is the identification of people with one group or another, which is exemplified in Lonely Cricket. He lives in a time of change as European Americans move west. Native people are killed, families separated, and tribes are broken up and removed from their traditional lands. Lonely Cricket is swept up in this turmoil. He holds to his identity, drawing strength from the stories of his father, Lame Bear, and the love he has for his sister, Happy Turtle.

The novel is interspersed with teaching stories, ostensibly those of the Ho-Chunk. Whether these are accurate I am not able to say. They appear to be respectfully given. The stories are building blocks of a moral and ethical life or tell the particular story of a people.

Weene I think avoids the pitfalls of a White author writing about Native Americans. Instead, he explores the intersection of different cultures and histories. The clashes and convergences create a range of perspectives which he handles well. At the same time, the main character’s experience remains the center of the novel. The boy discovers his true birth parents, and that changes everything. Or does it?

To tell the complex story of American history we need more of these kinds of books. They provide great insight into the bad faith and ideals, tragic failures and resilience, of our country.

This is Not My First Pandemic

In my book, Community, the word “AIDS’ appears 54 times. Our midtown New York City neighborhood was hard hit by the AIDS epidemic. In November 1985 the local hospital, St. Clare’s, opened the first state-designated AIDS unit. Many of the patients were uninsured. People were unprepared for this disease, which was found in other countries as well. A true pandemic, HIV/AIDS continues to infect millions around the world.

In the 1980s it killed people I knew, neighbors and co-workers, in the city and the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. For several years, we didn’t know how it was transmitted. We didn’t know what the stages were. People were afraid to be near a person with AIDS, to shake their hands, or breathe the same air. Then it seemed only certain people got AIDS: gay men, drug addicts, and sex workers. As with COVID-19, many people felt they were not at risk. They were wrong. It killed people in all walks of life, all ages, rich and poor, black and brown and white. One was a postal worker in my building, another an innovative developer, and another the head of a major homeless services organization.

Initially, the gay community was hit hard. My personal experience with AIDS began with a young man who lived in the apartment next door, whose mother came up from South Carolina to be with him in his last weeks. I saw the sores on his legs, his wasted body. A friend had a neighbor going through the same thing, another young guy with his life before him; his parents came to be with him, too. Another young man, Frank Clemmons, had started out in community activism at the same time I did. When Frank told me he had AIDS, it was just before going into a community meeting. We were in the Art Deco main hall of the McGraw-Hill Building on West 42nd Street, green and gold motif, decorated elevators around the corner at the far end.

Several years later, I dreamed I was in the elevator at the McGraw-Hill building. Muted light. Green, gold. Quiet. The elevator operator was a cab driver-philosopher. Going up was against the gravity of my mind, coming down we slipped 1-2-3 floors. Then 6 and 7, then 17. Fast. I stood watching the lights, the floor numbers flashing by. Wondered if I should care, say anything. Time slipped away.

I said, isn’t there anything you can do?

I saw a notice in a newsletter that Frank Clemmons had died in February, 1996.

Frank had been the Chelsea Reform Club’s “district leader from 1989-1991. Frank served on Community Board 4, Area Policy Board 4, and as a board member of NYS Gay & Lesbian Lobby—the predecessor of the Empire State Agenda. He was also a strong supporter and fundraiser for the Gay Men’s Chorus and a member of the Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats.” He was also active in the 30th Street Block Association, Chelsea Waterside Park Association, and the Midtown South Precinct Community Council.

“Frank’s gentle manner and devotion to helping others will long be remembered by those he touched,” the notice said. “He was forty years old and died after a long illness of complications, due to AIDS.”

This is not my first pandemic. It amazes me that so many people have a casual attitude towards it. Every life lost is precious. And that should not be tolerated.

Poets of Our Time

And now for another excerpt from my book, Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen

St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, restored window

St. Clement’s. Beauty under the grime. Muted mosaics flaring in sunlight. Chanting poets.

Rich wanted to ask Allen Ginsberg to read a section of The Odyssey at an anti-nuclear event he was planning for a Sunday at St. Clement’s on August 6th, “Hiroshima day.”

He asked me to go with him to Allen Ginsberg’s reading at a nuclear disarmament rally. He read most probably from “Plutonian Ode.”

Poets we knew and became connected to moved forward, a gentle tide, rocked by the new thing, our ability to create oblivion, and to answer with our voices evoking the voices of consciousness to carol our spirits inside the death-rendering, until there we were, the Poets of Our Time right up in front of the crowd, serious, dolorous, Kerouac cool, smiling antennas up and on the tips of our toes. Ginsberg threw himself into the poetry, sparked our responses: nodding heads, nodding bodies. Handclaps, psalming our way beyond. We were in love.

I was in love. With Allen Ginsberg!

In the excitement Richard and I were swept away. Rich had no chance to ask Ginsberg to read at the St. Clement’s anti-nuclear event. We rode over the East River to a party at Maurice Kenny’s Brooklyn apartment, and after that, unwilling to give up the day, although it was midnight, we walked to the Esplanade to feel and hear the breath-song of New York harbor.

Community: Snapshots of a Political Inflection Point

In my book, Community: Journal of Power Politics and Democracy in Hell’s Kitchen (NYC) these two people wanted the same job: Mayor. They courted District Leader Jim McManus for his support.

Rudolph Giuliani and Jim McManus, circa September 1995. Photo by Mary Clark.
Jim McManus and Ruth Messinger, September 1994. Photo by Mary Clark.

The candidates were Ruth Messinger, Democrat, and Rudolph Giuliani, Republican.

It was my job to keep tabs on what was happening in the community, and to take initiatives when needed or possible. When Giuliani became mayor, he began making changes that would affect the Hell’s Kitchen/Clinton community, often not in the best way. If McManus supported him openly, by endorsing him in 1997, the doors would open to better negotiations, better outcomes. He had to decide whether he thought Messinger or Giuliani would win.

Meanwhile, two of the old guard in the McManus Club decided to get what they could. How far would they go?