charles rammelkamp

Porno Valley by Philip Elliott

valley p

By Charles Rammelkamp

Following his debut noir, Nobody Move, winner of the Best First Novel in the Arthur Ellis Awards, Philip Elliott’s new novel is likewise set in Los Angeles, the home of so many legendary private detective dramas. This one, too, features colorful losers and endearing anti-heroes and is full of plot surprises and just generally compelling storytelling that makes you want to read on.

Porno Valley takes place at the turn of the century. Elliott juggles three different narratives, one in 1998 involving the ambitious Jemeka Johnson and her not-the-sharpest-knife-in-the-drawer but well-meaning partner, Raymond (Ray-Ray) Jones. Another is set a year later in 1999 and involves a pair of small-time-crook junkies, Richie, a sociopath from hell, and his troubled wife Alabama. The final thread takes place in the summer of 2000 and involves a private detective named Mickey O’Rourke. Mickey is 78 and about to embark on the final case of his half-century long career. Mickey is the loneliest guy in the world and touches the reader’s heart with his quiet integrity and modest reflection. He’s been hired to find a missing person, a porn star named Jeffrey Strokes (“his real name”). Jeff is an interesting character in his own right, the most laid back person in the world, winner of three AVN awards, the Oscars of the porn industry. Somebody describes him as being like Jeff Bridges’ character, The Dude, in The Big Lebowski.

In fact, the novel opens with Mickey meeting his client, Bethany Summers at MidnightPussy Productions in San Fernando Valley, where the nascent porn industry, fueled by the rise of the internet, has become a huge growth business. Jeff has been missing for a year, and hence the three threads will come together, eventually. Bethany is Jeff’s girlfriend – or former girlfriend – both part of the porn world. She’s currently involved with Riccardo, another performer in porn films. It turns out that Riccardo plays a pivotal role in Jeff’s disappearance.

We meet Richie and Alabama in Nevada where they are holding up a diner. They’ve been a Bonnie and Clyde pair for a while but recently had a quickie Nevada wedding performed by an Elvis impersonator. Most importantly, they are supporting heroin habits and want to move up to more lucrative enterprises to support their lifestyle. Elliott is excruciatingly detailed when describing junk sickness and need. It’s almost visceral, reading about Richie’s and Alabama’s craving and Alabama’s OD.

Originally from LA, Richie brings his wife, a rural Alabama girl who left home to escape an abusive father, to the big city to seek their fortune and feed their jones. Los Angeles itself becomes something of a character, its sleaze and glamor, its poverty and luxury. “Nobody knows Los Angeles until they’ve been entranced by it, corrupted by it, cast out from it, and returned to it on their knees begging it to save them, and Richie knew Los Angeles.”

Meanwhile, a year earlier, Jemeka, scratching out a living and paying off her late father’s debts as a stylist in a hair salon, stumbles into the world of dope-dealing and, shrewd businesswoman that she is, realizes this is her ticket out of poverty. Jemeka is very ambitious – “greedy” may be a more accurate, if less flattering, adjective.

Elliott writes compellingly about poverty and the desperation it creates, especially for characters like Richie and Jemeka, but  generally in poor neighborhoods like Compton, “well-intentioned families who called Compton home got ground up in the giant machine of this nation, slipping further toward poverty and the tragic moment when pressing need overtakes good intentions.”

At first Jemeka worries about the negative impact her dealing may have on her community, but over time she rationalizes selling crack as responsible because she isn’t adulterating the drug with dangerous additives just to maximize her profits. “Looked at that way, selling crack wasn’t so bad. It could even be said she was doing something good for the community.”

On balance, Jemeka is a sympathetic character, even as her ruthlessness (which she rationalizes as pragmatism) sometimes blinds her. Richie, though, is a totally repulsive dude with a mean streak a mile wide. It’s only Mickey whom we admire. Mickey’s wife of decades, Martha, has recently died from cancer. We feel his loneliness. He’s always been a romantic. He remembers winning Martha’s love by reciting Yeats to her, the poem, “When You Are Old.”

While resolving the various plots, the novel ends somewhat ambiguously, as if the story is “to be continued.” We do learn what becomes of Jeff Strokes,  but other things still seem a bit up in the air.  Elliott is fully aware of this. “It’s an intentionally subversive ending,” he says, “meant to be a little irksome as I wanted to play around with the fact that most crime novels end super conveniently wrapped in a bow with all loose ends tied. The novel was my attempt at playing around with the concept of a whodunit (as a friend said, ‘it’s not a whodunit but a how- or whydunit inside a noir.’) In a way I wanted to write an anti-Nobody Move. So, yeah, just playing with expectations.”

Elliott convincingly recreates the era with reference to the current music at the end of the century. Richie is in love with the new Red Hot Chili Peppers song, “Californication” He also goes for the relative oldie, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” (Blue Oyster Cult). Jemeka plays 2Pac’s music in her salon, “Only God Can Judge Me,” which is appropriate. Mickey, meanwhile, has Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever on a cassette tape.  Remember cassette tapes?  “I Won’t Back Down” is his anthem. Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time” is featured in a scene at Tower Records where Richie goes Medieval.

In any case, Porno Valley is a terrific, satisfying read. The reader’s reaction is not unlike Bethany’s when Mickey at last tells her about Jeff.  “Bethany’s mouth fell open. She looked like God had descended from Heaven and urinated on her.”  Philip Elliott keeps you guessing to the end!

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Porno-Valley-Angel-Philip-Elliott/dp/1999086848

Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His most recent releases are Sparring Partners from Mooonstone Press, Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and Catastroika from Apprentice House.

Poisons & Antidotes by Andrea L. Fry

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By Charles Rammelkamp
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“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” go the lyrics of a hit song by Kelly Clarkson, the same paradox at the heart of Andrea L. Fry’s impressive collection in which she explores the clash of the nutric and the toxic,  the safe and the perilous: the noxious and the obnoxious, as the title of the book’s first section sums up.
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“Oh, I would divide the world into binaries,” she begins the poem called “The Glitter of the Simple,” but the dichotomy is never so clear, as she captures so beautifully later in the poem:
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The sacred passion flower,
ringed by purple filaments,
though its cool smile nests in leaves
of cyanide.
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Later in the poem, after having archly declared her intention to judge by appearances only, Fry more sagely notes the deceptive malleability of the world’s contents in an observation from which the collection takes its name:
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Both substance and creature slink
over a delicate border,
can so easily pass
from poison to antidote.
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Some of Fry’s poems are so deliciously specific in spelling out the world’s almost oxymoronic inconsistencies. “Jimsonweed” and “Mothballs,” which open the book, focus on these two modest objects to tease out the point. “The Flower Maker” tells the story of the accidental poisoning of a person who makes beautiful bouquets for ladies’ hair using a chemical like Scheele’s Green, a mixture containing arsenic. “She shaped the flowers, / and pinned them, // loved them like / little green children.”  Unfortunately, the flower maker got the poison all over herself, too, her hair and lashes, and eventually into her stomach and liver.
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“The Snake Charmer” is another poem that plays on the ambiguity of the safe and the dangerous. Inspired by a magazine article about an Indian snake charmer who “attempted suicide by cobra” (“your nemesis / and livelihood coiled in a basket”), she describes the man considered an “entertainer” by some and a “beggar” by others:
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Yours was like a prophet’s
mission, to travel to villages
and festivals – like a marshal
out in front, townspeople cowering
behind – to challenge peril,
dare it to come out from its
hiding, show itself.
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An oncology nurse practitioner at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Fry knows what she’s talking about when she evaluates the risks and benefits of different drugs and therapies. “Tomfoolery” brings a smile with its curmudgeonly expression, but she speaks truth:
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Harrumph, I say!
Your cure’s as toxic as the bug itself.
A panacea that kills the lymph.
Amphotericin destroys both fungus and the host;
camphor kills moths, gives us emphysema.
Amphetamines make depressives
leap the fence….
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“Narcan,” a poem about the emergency drug used to treat opioid overdose, expresses a similar ambivalence; the “miracle” comes with a warning, “the burden / of pure gift.” “Therapy” continues the idea of the fragility of the body in response to drugs, “fondling kidneys / like pottery.”  And so we encounter “Amir” “holding / the sample of urine with a slight tremor, as if asking for alms,” as uncertain and terrified as any other anonymous patient.
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This mixture of promise and peril is particularly potent in “Return,” a poem dedicated to “the Babushkas of Chernobyl,” the old women coming back to tend to the radioactive land, “to your home, / to what they said would be uninhabitable.” The birds, the bees, even, for a time, the wolves, moose and boars were gone. “But you would not grieve.  / There was work to be done.”
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My favorite poem is the one called “The Renderer,” in which a farm mother cushions the death of a beloved ancient horse with a vision of Patsy grazing happily in Heaven, much like the story parents tell their children about the dead family pet going away to live on a bucolic farm. Unfortunately, before she can take the kids away, the renderer drives up, jerking “the brake up like he was snapping / something’s neck” and proceeds to describe how he will have to saw Patsy’s legs off before hooking her up and driving the carcass away. The mother hastily rolls up the window and starts to leave the property. They drive away in silence for a few minutes, and then:
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“Mama?”
“Yes, Jack,” I said.
“Was that God?”
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Fry’s sense of humor shines throughout many of these poems, while expanding on her theme. “Don’t Let Anyone Dull Your Sparkle!” channels the snarky colleague who manages to undercut her co-workers while smiling her fake smile. “Help Desk” is a sort of surreal take on the recorded telephone message that “directs your call.” “The Show Dog” anthropomorphizes the competitors in competitions like the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. “The Death of Rhetoric” humorously analyzes how language has been poisoned. It starts out:
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Take whatever.
Once royal, now it dwells
like a fallen angel
in the most ignoble realm:
the syntax of a sullen teen.
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These marvelous poems brim with wit, imagination and intelligence. What doesn’t simply charm or enchant you will make you wiser. (Am I right, Kelly Clarkson?)
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Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His most recent releases are Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and Catastroika from Apprentice House.
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Covid 19 2020 – A Poetic Journal by Diane Sahms-Guarnieri

covid 19 2020

Moonstone Press has just released Diane Sahms-Guarnieri’s, Covid 19, 2020 – A Poetic Journal. 

The Chapbook is available here: https://moonstone-arts-center.square.site/product/sahms-guarnieri-diane-covid-19-2020-a-poetic-journal/294?cs=true&cst=custom 

What Others Say:

As sobering as Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, when the Bubonic Plague devasted London, Diane Sahms-Guarnieri’s, Covid-19, 2020 is a grim recounting of the horrible year through which we have just lived.

Starting with the ironically named “March Madness” section, a term that usually refers to the annual NCAA basketball tournament but so succinctly captures the mass disorientation, like “a sci-fi movie, yet real,” as she notes on 3-23-2020, the journal proceeds through April, the cruelest month, mixing death and rebirth in its stew of life, into the horrific summer of 2020 –

185,000 dead in the United States by Labor Day – and into fall/winter with the mounting dead, the glimmer of hope that a vaccine may soon be available. The collection ends on New Year’s Eve, over 350,000 Americans dead under the chaotic leadership of the Trump administration, the most of any nation in the world.  Along the way, as if the pandemic were not bad enough, Sahms-Guarnieri addresses the social turmoil that tore the country apart, the racial injustice that spawned BLM.

Sahms-Guarnieri captures the fear and loneliness so eloquently in the April poem, “Nature & Mothers Weeping,” which begins:
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Horrific scene played on TV—
a mother weeping & wailing
for daughter, dead. COVID-19.
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Last seen alive via FaceTime:
Mom, I can’t breathe.
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I, with thoughts of my only
living daughter, weep
for those whom I don’t know
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The July poem, “Untouchables, for daughter, Mary,” drives the point home :
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We who always embrace every time
we meet & whenever we leave each other,
came no nearer than 6 feet.
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An unmeasurably cruel calculation
for me & daughter, whose hazel irises,
as life protectors, gently glided into
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mine: touching, without touching,
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As Defoe wrote over three centuries ago, “everyone looked on himself and his family as in the utmost danger…London might well be said to be all in tears.”

Charles Rammelkamp, author of Ugler Lee and Mortal Coil 

You can get the chapbook here: https://moonstone-arts-center.square.site/product/sahms-guarnieri-diane-covid-19-2020-a-poetic-journal/294?cs=true&cst=custom

Shellback by Jeanne-Marie Osterman

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By Charles Rammelkamp
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In the eponymous poem of this powerful collection, Jeanne-Marie Osterman, reflecting on the cruel, ghastly hazing her father received from his crewmates on their way home from the war in the Pacific in 1945 – an “initiation” administered to sailors crossing the equator for the first time – writes:
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This is one shellback’s daughter
trying to find that wiser self within
who can forgive these men,
for they’ve come from Okinawa
where they watched a buddy’s skull
blow out of his head,
teeth still gripping his last cigarette.
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This collection of poetry about her father’s long life and slow death (1919-2017) is steeped in blood and violence.  JDO, as he was known, experienced the most horrific things in the war, from an attack by a kamikaze pilot that killed a dozen men and maimed and injured many others to the grim day-to-day duties of the killing business, and he returns home to Washington state a damaged man. Not always the easiest person to live with, prone to spasms of violent behavior and cruelty, he ages into a tough old bird who resists acknowledging his pain and physical decline, in a way that’s both admirable and tragic. As Osterman writes in the poem, “Forgive,”
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I let memories I can’t erase
rest in peace,
knowing no one is only
their sins.
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The collection opens cleverly with the poem, “Epilogue”:
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He’s losing his grip.
Last Saturday night,
trying to shave for church,
my father cut his face so deep
it bled till 2 AM.
He couldn’t reach the Band-Aids
to stanch the blood.
He fell down trying.
He wouldn’t ring for help.
He didn’t make church.
He won’t wear his hearing aid,
so I shout the small talk –
think it’ll rain today?
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This introduces JDO perfectly. The rest of the collection shows us the man in his perpetual state of denial, suppressing his trauma, as he navigates fatherhood and old age, and indeed, our end always marks our beginning. The final poems deal with her father in the hospital, dying, pivoting from this “epilogue” that opens the book. Osterman is with him during his final days.
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Osterman really knows how to start a poem with a bang. For instance, “The String” begins:
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            I go to my father’s room to take him to dinner and find him
            face down on the floor. Thinking he’s dead, I say, Daddy?
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            I think I’m at the end of my string, he says, so I call 911.
            He wants me to pick him up, but he’s dead weight. 
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Right away, the reader is involved in the drama, compelled to read on. “Get the Body You Want” similarly begins: “Middle of the night, on your way to the bathroom, / you trip and fall on the wheelchair we insisted on / to keep you from falling.” A poem early in the collection, “Third Girl,” starts, “I was my father’s third girl. / Sundays I tried to be his boy.” Again, we are drawn into the drama. She is writing here about the great American pastime of watching NFL football on TV, but it highlights one of the heartbreaking themes of the collection, the child’s desire to be loved by her parent and the casual neglect he often shows. “On the Stillaguamish River,” a few poems later, poignantly addresses the same yearning. “I just wanted to take up your time, see how // you, once a sailor, would row, save me from drowning….”
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The poem, “Polaroid,” in which an emotional eight-year-old Osterman poses for a family photo, describes JDO, his jaw clenched, holding the camera and warning his daughter not to cry, “or I’ll give you something // to cry about. I was happy / at least he didn’t tell me to smile.”
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The poems that vividly address JDO’s wartime experience are truly jaw-dropping, drenched in blood and gore, from “End Like a Sponge,” “Wing and a Prayer” and “Theater of War” to “Fukuryu” and “Think of It,” which deals with the battle of Okinawa, in which 50,000 Americans and 100,000 Japanese died. What a horrific experience for a teenager to have to live through! On top of that, the hazing by his crewmates in “Shellback” reinforces the permanent psychological scarring.   And as she writes in a later poem, “Patterns,” “You might think that holding it in / kept it from us, but we / could feel it.”
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In the midst of the grimness, Osterman displays a sense of humor at times, while illuminating her father’s character. “Horny Goat Weed” is a poem about discovering a package of one of those (quack?) medications that you see in the snack kiosks at gasoline stations, meant to enhance a man’s libido, “a remedy for erectile dysfunction.” “My father’s ninety-six. My mother’s been dead for years,” she writes; another poignant example of JDO’s refusal to concede weakness.
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Just as this tender elegy starts with an “Epilogue,” it concludes with “The Living Always Leave You, but the Dead Stay with You Forever,” which is the true epilogue to this sequence. Her father has been dead six months, but reminders keep popping up.
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Perhaps the most touching poem in Shellback is a poem toward the end called “Yay.” Her father’s body is beyond salvageable; it’s only a matter of time. He is thirsty but he can’t drink. Droppers are not allowed, and water dripped from a spoon only rolls off his lip and soaks his hospital gown. JDO’s daughter soaks a piece of cloth and squeezes it slowly onto his lips.  The gratitude is heartfelt.
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            Yay, he whispers.
                          Yay.
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Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His most recent releases are Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and Catastroika from Apprentice House.
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Summer Reading Recommendations 2021

Top ten book reviews based on readership of North of Oxford

scott

A Little Excitement by Nancy Scott

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/04/01/a-little-excitement-by-nancy-scott/

erotic

Erotic by Alexis Rhone-Fancher

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/03/01/erotic-by-alexis-rhone-fancher/

danish

Danish Northwest/Hygge Poems from the Outskirts by Peter Graarup Westergaard

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/04/01/danish-northwest-hygge-poems-from-the-outskirts-by-peter-graarup-westergaard/

red rover

Red Rover Red Rover by Bob Hicok

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/01/01/red-rover-red-rover-by-bob-hicok/

RAZOR WIRE

Razor Wire Wilderness by Stephanie Dickinson

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/05/01/razor-wire-wilderness-by-stephanie-dickinson/

American Quasar CoverA Camera Obscura Cover

American Quasar by David Campos / A Camera Obscura by Carl Marcum

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/06/01/american-quasar-with-poems-by-david-campos-and-art-by-maceo-montoya-a-camera-obscura-by-carl-marcum/

world

The Likely World by Melanie Conroy-Goldman

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/02/01/the-likely-world-by-melanie-conroy-goldman/

HunleyCov

Adjusting to the Lights – Poems by Tom C. Hunley

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/03/01/adjusting-to-the-lights-poems-by-tom-c-hunley/

savant

The Philosopher Savant Crosses The River by Rustin Larson

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/03/01/the-philosopher-savant-crosses-the-river-by-rustin-larson/

come

Come-Hither Honeycomb by Erin Belieu

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/02/01/come-hither-honeycomb-by-erin-belieu/

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Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau

mary jane

By Charles Rammelkamp

Narrated in the first person by a 14-year-old girl in 1975, Mary Jane isn’t so much a coming-of-age novel as it is a coming-into-consciousness novel, which may be a quibbling way of saying the same thing since “coming of age” is ultimately all about a character’s self-awareness, but over and over again in this charming, often laugh-out-loud-funny story, the protagonist, Mary Jane Dillard, notices things for the first time, such as her parents’ racism and anti-Semitism, and comes to conclusions about what things are actually valuable and meaningful in a person’s life, as if she is waking up from a long, long sleepwalk.

Mary Jane is the only child of a conventional Republican father and a humorless, church-going homemaker mother. A framed color photograph of Gerald Ford hangs on their dining room wall, visible over her father’s head as he sits at the head of the table reading the newspaper while his wife and daughter serve the meals. Mary Jane has been hired as the summer nanny of the five-year-old daughter of Richard and Bonnie Cone, a psychiatrist and his wife who likewise live in Roland Park but are the opposite of her parents. (Bumper stickers declaring, IMPEACHMENT: Now More Than Ever are plastered on a door.)

The child’s name is Izzy. (“Our neighbor, Mrs. Riley, had told me her name was Isabelle. But I liked Izzy better, the way it fizzed on my tongue.”) Mary Jane immediately takes to the child. Like Izzy, another only child, Mary Jane has no real friends, feels awkward around girls her age and has absolutely no interest in going to sleepaway camp with her contemporaries. “When I did have to socialize with kids my age,” Mary Jane confides, “I felt like I was from another country. How did girls know what to whisper about? Why were they all thinking about the same things?”

In contrast to her own orderly home – a place for everything and everything in its place – the Cone household is chaotic, books and clothing piled everywhere, food rotting in the refrigerator. Bonnie is not a homemaker, and her shrink husband is a luftmensch, his head in his work, not his home. Mary Jane will bring order to the household over the course of the summer, but the more relaxed and loving environment of the Cone family will have a profound effect on her as well.

Later in the novel, Mary Jane reflects, “In my own house, each day was a perfectly contained lineup of hours where nothing unusual or unsettling was ever said.” By contrast, the Cones are loud, intense, emotional, and Mary Jane always feels a little afraid. “But along with that terror, my fondness for the Cones only grew. To feel something was to feel alive. And to feel live was starting to feel like love.”

When the story starts, Richard Cone has cleared his calendar for the summer to care for a recovering rock star, Jimmy Bendinger, lead singer of Running Water, who has a heroin addiction. He is accompanied by his celebrity wife Sheba, known all over the world for the popular television variety show she’d hosted with her brothers called Family First! Jimmy and Sheba are in Baltimore incognito, and in one of her first acts of rebellion, Mary Jane doesn’t let her parents know about them. While Bonnie entertains Sheba and Mary Jane runs the household (eventually she takes over the grocery-shopping, cooking and cleaning duties), Dr. Cone and Jimmy do their work out behind the house, in a garage converted to Dr. Cone’s office.

Blau’s characters are as quirky as Anne Tyler’s memorable Baltimore characters, though not as complex, but then, they are seen through the eyes of a 14-year-old girl who still sees things in black or white and either/or terms. There’s Beanie Jones, the nosy neighbor who keeps popping up in comic relief but who precipitates the climactic therapy scene on the beach, whose conclusion provides the novel’s real surprise plot twist. The Cones and her parents are vivid in their own ways, the parents for being so conventional, uptight, anti-Semitic and racist. But the real bigger-than-life character is Sheba, the former TV star celebrity bombshell. The story lights up whenever she’s around.

There’s also plenty of humor in Mary Jane, much of it involving Mary Jane’s ignorance and squeamishness about sex, her fear that she is a “sex addict,” even though she is a virgin who has never even kissed a boy. She overhears Dr. Cone use the term and it sticks in her head. She wonders if there is something wrong with her for seeing a penis when she sees a cucumber. It’s like a running gag through much of the novel, and part of Mary Jane’s “coming of age” is resolving this issue at the group therapy session on the beach.

All of the women, Bonnie Cone, Sheba and Mary Jane, have “mommy issues,” conflicts with their mothers about their social roles and behavior.  Bonnie’s mother is horrified when Bonnie marries a Jew; Sheba’s mother continually slut-shamed her daughter when she was growing up.

This mother-daughter tension is especially spotlighted in Mary Jane’s case. We’ve seen that her mother and father are cold, distant, but her mother can also be mean.  When Mrs. Cone and Sheba enter the kitchen after Mary Jane and Izzy have cleaned out the refrigerator, “Mrs. Cone leaned in and kissed the top of my head. No one had ever kissed me like that. Not my mom and not my dad.” Mary Jane remembers an incident when her mother caught her drinking milk from the carton, slapped her head, which caused the milk to spill, and ordered her daughter to mop the kitchen floor. Her mother provides specific instructions for buttoning a blouse, to ensure her modesty. When Mary Jane gets her period, her mother supplies the napkins and belt but does not discuss any of it.

But at the end of the summer, after Mary Jane’s deceptions catch up with her and the double life blows up in her face, she is able to resolve her conflicts with her mother (her father remains remote), but we saw that coming all along. Mary Jane is the real “adult” in Mary Jane, truly a heroine. This novel is such fun to read!

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Mary-Jane-Jessica-Anya-Blau/dp/0063052296

Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His most recent releases are Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and Catastroika from Apprentice House.

The Bold News of Birdcalls by Edward Morin

birds
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By Charles Rammelkamp
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Constructed around the notion of birds, four parts entitled, Noise of Blue Jays, Melody of Wrens, Endurance of Robins and Passage of Swans, each section containing ten or eleven loosely thematic poemsEdward Morin’s charming new collection, though steeped in the natural world, principally in the Great Lakes region, contemplates so much more than feathered bipeds.  To be sure, there are more than half a dozen poems focused on birds – blue jays, swallows, wrens, robins, juncos all in the spotlight; thrushes, kingbirds, siskins, ducks and grouse making cameos, and, as he confesses in “A Bird Story,” “I killed / a cedar waxwing, then swore off hunting.” There are poems about invasive plants (“Mighty Phragmites”), fish and fishing (“”Beneath the Bridge,” “The Big One”), flowers, anemones, a toad, a dog. But the ultimate attention is placed on humankind.
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Morin’s lived a long life, as he recounts in several of the poems. “Moments Musicaux,” a tribute to his younger sister Audrey, who died at 73 in 2010, tells her life story in snapshots accented with reference to music, singing, musical instruments. For one, there’s the ukulele he holds in the family photo taken when his mother comes home from the hospital with his new sister, older-sibling-resentful (“I look ready to wring its stringed neck”). There is also the image of a devoted brother singing Cesar Franck’s Panis Angelicus at her first wedding.
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Morin’s love is implicit in his description of what sounds like a challenging life, Audrey’s two marriages, her five children. The first husband? “He chased gals and the American Dream / to the Coast.” But through it all she shows grit and determination. Later in life, when she answered phones for her suburban Chicago police station –
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She would coax abused wives and suicidal
teens away from permanent solutions
to temporary problems. She knew more
about caring than many social workers.

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“Elegy,” “Poetry Man,” and “Old School Ties” are other affectionate poems celebrating lives that have touched Morin’s, two of them former colleagues, the other a friend from childhood, all of them now gone. “Poetry Man,” written for Lawrence Pike, concludes:
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In isolation I ask myself:
Why go on writing? Is it for glory?
promotion? a fee? self-help? Or even
to knock another poet out of the ring?
Larry, I celebrate and share your
compulsion: fire smoldering in the belly,
rising to enchant the heart and brain
and fly out of the mouth, as a gift.
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These reflections are echoed in the poem, “Depression,” which ends, “Loneliness is a feeling time has run out.” But note the “celebration.” That’s the main note in Morin’s poetry, despite the trials and the adversities. My favorite poem in The Bold News of Birdcalls bears this out. “Yes” is a poem about the single-note birdcall of “Joe Sartori” (a Japanese Buddhist term for awakening, “comprehension; understanding”) – the bold news of a birdcall indeed.
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Satori is the middle-aged neighbor of the narrator’s mother. Home from college, the narrator visits Satori at his mother’s request. Satori has evidently had a stroke or suffers from some disability. He can say only one word, his one-note birdcall, “Yes.” Years later, when he reflects on his neighbor, the narrator puts things in perspective:
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When I was broke or girlfriends dumped me
and I feared the horrors of life’s end,
Joe’s predicament stormed into my mind.
Fate gave him one word to last his life.
Not a bad choice, I still say out loud
to the night sky in witless affirmation.
Yes.  Yes.  Yes.
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“Valentine’s Day, 1972,” with its allusion to the legendary 1929 murder of seven mob members in a garage in Chicago, is a noir description of a hold-up in a store in which the poet was clerking.  (“Nixon had ordered wage freezes to curb / inflation; bosses cheerily complied. / My part-time teaching paid child support.”)  It’s a grim memory of a hand-to-mouth existence. But this, too, teaches a lesson. (“It was only a job.”)
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The Bold New of Birdcalls includes a number of humorous poems, some reflecting his years in academia, including “Adjunct Winslow’s Discourse,” a poem about the subjectivity of grades and one buxom coed’s attempts to have hers changed. “Father Holtschneider Considers Dr. Norman Finkelstein’s Tenure,” related in the voice of Holtschneider himself, President of DePaul University (an actual historical person),  tells the not-so-funny story of a man applying for tenure and the politics that surround such decisions. “The Bernie Madoff Hustle” – to a tune something like “Barney Google” – satirically roasts the charlatan financier.  And that “Odelet to a Toad” (“Can you fathom why some call you ugly?”):
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For you, being there is more important
than getting there. If I were to reach
down and clutch your soft body so we
might discuss this matter face to face,
I suspect that you would wet my hand.
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In the final Passages of Swans section, which includes a wedding song to a friend (“Epithalamion”) as well as advice in the form of a letter to “Tom Katt” from a wise, older friend about navigating the stormy straits of love (“An affair is the poor man’s vacation”), there are, among the episodes that mark a life, a couple of meditations on old age, regarding his mother-in-law, that stand with the previously mentioned poem about his sister. Wise, sad, compassionate.
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The poems in The Bold News of Birdcalls soar with humanity. Yes.  Yes.  Yes.
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You can find the book here: The Bold News of Birdcalls|Paperback
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Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His most recent releases are Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and Catastroika from Apprentice House.
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