The Perpetual Commotion of the Heart

commotionI recently had the pleasure of writing a back cover blurb for Norma Gay Prewett’s poetry collection, The Perpetual Commotion of the Heart, now available from Finishing Line Press (cover art by the author). Four of the poems appeared online in the Spring 2010 issue of Cambridge Book Review with audio of Gay reading her work: “Cottonbound,” “Knowing that Most Things Break,” “Calling You Back,” and “Bill of Lading.”

—Back cover blurb—

Norma Gay Prewett is a gloriously tactile poet, whether sharing childhood memories of her school-janitor father in ‘Shorty’ (‘scraper of Pleistocene gum / from under chairs…’), or ‘Grape Jellying at the End of the Century’ (‘Never will the grape be as sweet, the juice as hot’). She is a pragmatist of earthly practicalities (‘Knowing that Most Things Break’) and a fearless limit-tester in love (‘Finding the Bottom’). A bracing American wilderness beckons and challenges us in the title poem, ‘The Perpetual Commotion of the Heart’ (‘Opening the cabin on April 29, we found snowpack / Had kneecapped the bee-keeping shack…’). Prewett’s survival skills are hard-won and true. You can trust her navigation. Her poetry is a GPS tracker for our lost souls.—Bob Wake, editor, Cambridge Book Review

Dave & Phil Alvin in Madison

Dave & Phil Alvin, July 25, 2014, High Noon Saloon, Madison, Wisconsin.

Dave & Phil Alvin, July 25, 2014. High Noon Saloon, Madison, Wisconsin. Photo: Bob Wake.

A capacity crowd at Madison’s High Noon Saloon last night greeted Dave and Phil Alvin performing with their three-piece backup band, The Guilty Ones. In a word (or two) we were blown away. They played for two and a half hours without a break, including four encore numbers. The Big Bill Broonzy tunes from their new album, Common Ground, were only a portion of the ambitious set list, which ranged through 80s Blasters songs, material from Dave’s solo albums, and a cover of James Brown’s “Please, Please, Please.” Phil’s voice was spellbinding and powerful, confirming a miraculous recovery from 2012 health concerns.

Couple of highlights: a monstrous drum solo from Lisa Pankratz on Dave’s song “Dry River”; and Dave telling the story of composing “What’s Up With Your Brother?” after a Madison solo gig a few years ago at High Noon Saloon: he kept getting interrupted on his way to use the bar’s bathroom by audience members asking about his brother. The story, of course, was followed by Dave and Phil’s bang-up rendition of the song.

The G.O.D. Club

Now Available from
Cambridge Book Review Press

G-Club

The G.O.D. Club
A Story by Dwight Allen

$2.99 Kindle ebook

“The G.O.D. Club” is a new short story by Dwight Allen, author of two novels, Judge (2003) and The Typewriter Satyr (2009), and a collection of short stories, The Green Suit, reissued in 2011. Bonus features of this exclusive ebook single from Cambridge Book Review Press include an introduction by Wisconsin State Journal columnist Doug Moe, and an afterword by novelist and poet Dale M. Kushner (The Conditions of Love). Also included is “The Thread of It,” an excerpt from Dwight Allen’s memoir-in-progress.

“The unnamed loss, the unspoken terror in ‘The G.O.D. Club’ is the loss of time itself.”—Dale M. Kushner, author of The Conditions of Love.

Medium Cool

Screen Shot 2014-06-03 at 12.39.09 AM

I just posted a new short story of mine, “Recall,” to the website Medium. What I love about the site is the elegant simplicity of the page design, which makes for one of the very best environments I’ve seen for digital reading. The brainchild of Twitter’s co-founder, Evan Williams, Medium wants to do for long-form work what Twitter has done for focused brevity. Techcrunch.com has an excellent write-up on Medium from last fall.

[Update: Also worth checking out is David Carr’s May 25, 2014 New York Times column: “A Platform and Blogging Tool, Medium Charms Writers.”]

Shotgun Lovesongs

shotgunSpent a pleasurable Sunday barnstorming through Nickolas Butler’s buzzworthy debut novel, Shotgun Lovesongs. My baby boomer sensibilities detected a Big Chill for Millennials familiarity to some of the material, but this was always offset by Butler’s keen eye for rural Wisconsin seasonal detail (“The October air filled with corn dust enough to make each sunset a postcard, with colors like a benign nuclear explosion”), and, above all, the novel’s clever use of the mythology that’s grown up around the music of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, who shares with Butler the hometown of Eau Claire.

Future Islands in Madison

Herring

Samuel Herring of Future Islands. High Noon Saloon, Madison, Wisconsin. March 27, 2014. Photo: Kate McGinnity.

Last Thursday night’s sold-out Future Islands concert at Madison, Wisconsin’s High Noon Saloon was an opportunity to see something that I’m sure happens from time to time but rarely when you’re privileged to attend the show. The scenario is this: A long-touring band with several indie-label releases is given an unexpected and explosive career boost—in this instance, a March 4th appearance on Late Show with David Letterman and a subsequent viral YouTube video of the performance—and suddenly the smaller venues they’ve been booked into are bursting at the seams. (High Noon Saloon’s capacity is 400.) Tim Jonze, music editor for the UK Guardian, titled a March 6th blog post, “My mind has been blown by Future Islands on David Letterman.”

As mesmerizing as Future Islands singer Samuel Herring is in the Letterman video, it was surpassed a hundredfold on the Madison concert stage. (You can get a pretty good sense of this from another YouTube video of the band performing at SXSW in Austin the week before they hit Madison.) Herring was backed by expert bandmates (Gerrit Welmers on keyboards/programming, William Cashion on bass, and drummer Michael Lowry) who kept the synth-pop groove anchored while Herring ferociously sang, shimmied, thumped his chest, whacked the side of his head, growling one moment, crooning the next, writhing on the stage floor, his voice switching from primal punk to Motown soulfulness on a dime.

At one point in the show, mid-song, Herring’s microphone broke apart, torn wires dangling in his hand. He kept going and led the energized crowd in a singalong by mouthing the words and never missing a beat. “First time that’s happened in eleven years of performing,” he said, laughing, once he was again wired for sound. A young girl in front of us hugged him as he came off stage at the end of the night. She was both gleeful and drenched, as Herring was trailing an ocean of sweat.

Rosebud 56

Rosebud56Rosebud 56 (Winter 2013/14) has arrived and it’s as strong an issue as editor Rod Clark has given us in twenty years of Rosebud goodness: From the vibrant nature-fueled Americana of featured Vermont artist Patricia LeBon Herb, to a selection of poetry from postwar Spanish writer José Ángel Valente newly translated by Thomas Christensen. Another must-read highlight is Rod’s Voice Over column, “Recuerdos: Guatamala 1976,” a harrowing first-person recounting of a notorious Latin American earthquake.

Film lovers will find a treasure trove in issue 56: “Shadows on a Screen,” a knowing coming-of-age short story by Thomas Fuchs, son of Hollywood screenwriter Daniel Fuchs (Criss Cross [1949]); Victor A. Walsh’s fascinating essay on Nellie Crawford (a.k.a. Madame Sul-Te-Wan), “Breaking the Color Barrier: Hollywood’s first African-American actress”; and Jack Lehman’s haunting “fictional autobiography,” “Orson Welles in Wisconsin.”

Also included are a pair of warm reminiscences of two iconic Wisconsin authors: Robert Zoschke’s “Norbert Blei (1935-2013): A writer with a capital ‘W,'” and Wisconsin State Journal columnist Doug Moe’s classic piece on Madison poet John Tuschen (1949-2005), “Poet is a Stranger in His Own Land.”

Believe me, I’m only scratching the surface of this issue (cf., P.S. Mueller’s illustrated exploration of Baby Boomer obsolescence, “Fader”; Rick Geary’s cheerfully sinister Afterwords comic, “My Home Town”). And, sure, let’s not forget to mention my short story, “Ty-D-Bol Blue,” which I’m delighted to see in print after first appearing online in last summer’s Cambridge Book Review.

From Shame to Sin

From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity
Kyle Harper
Harvard University Press 2013

Reviewed by Bob Wake

FromShametoSinKyle Harper’s From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity from Harvard University Press is rigorously academic in its range and depth. The good news for the rest of us is how lucid and enjoyable Harper’s writing is throughout. He describes, for instance, the escalating denunciations of Roman carnality by early theologians as an “arms race of sexual invective.” Monks helping to reform the life of a prostitute are “like a modern sports team that courts away its rival’s most valuable player.”

While pagan Rome represented a more open sexual culture—legal brothels, tolerance of homosexuality, equality of property and divorce rights between men and women—Harper is quick to remind us that their worldview and economy were framed by slavery and a strict hierarchy of social status.

RomanLamp

Photo: Roman Terracotta Erotic Lamp, c. 2nd century CE. Value: $6,000.

On the one hand, eroticism’s secular deregulation lost out to the Church’s decreeing procreative marriage as the singular outlet for sexual expression. However, Harper also sees epochal societal gains with Christianity’s forceful condemnation of prostitution and the redemptive cloistering and rebuilding of broken lives. But there’s plenty of tyrannical exploitation on both sides in From Shame to Sin to suggest that abuse and victimization were no less disentangled from Eros two millennia ago than today.

Harper, a 2007 Harvard Ph.D. history grad, is currently an associate professor in the University of Oklahoma’s Department of Classics and Letters. More than the work of a first-rate historian of antiquity, From Shame to Sin is equally a supreme work of literary criticism. Harper’s analysis of ancient Greek novels and the Apocryphal Acts and Gospels—with a nod to influential literary critics like Northrop Frye and Stephen Greenblatt—is fascinating for the manner in which he detects recurring themes and shifts in emphasis that are shown to emerge alongside cultural changes.

Sauk City Halloween

Even on a rainy and foggy Halloween morning, it was a pleasure to drive 50 miles to Sauk City to deliver six cases of one of our Cambridge Book Review Press titles to the school district for an upcoming conference. Sauk City is the hometown of August Derleth, master of spooky stories and founder of the still active Arkham House Publishers. (Also after whom our son Augie is named.)

DerlethPlaque

Commemorative plaque on downtown Sauk City bridge spanning the Wisconsin River. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

Nightmare Alley

nightmarealleyCopyright litigation kept Nightmare Alley (1947) out of circulation and generally unavailable for home viewing until a much-heralded DVD release in 2005. Since then, its reputation has grown from cult favorite to film noir classic. Running nearly two hours with a generous budget and A-list cast, Nightmare Alley is an anomaly for its genre (defined by crime novelist James Ellroy, in his introduction to The Best American Noir of the Century, as “cheap novels and cheap films about cheap people”). Swashbuckling matinee idol Tyrone Power leveraged his stardom to lobby for the starring role as carny con artist Stanton Carlisle, whose sole redemptive quality is his genuine bafflement—“I wonder why I’m like that?”—as to why he’s compelled again and again to act on his most ruthless instincts. The sexual heat generated between Tyrone Power and the film’s three supporting actresses is combustible and gives Nightmare Alley its strongest jolt of noir cred: ripe-to-bursting Joan Blondell as sideshow mentalist Zeena; Coleen Gray as Molly, a.k.a. Electra, scandalous to county sheriffs because of the tin-foil two-piece she wears in her sparks-a-flying electric-chair act; and, higher up the social ladder where Stanton longs to dwell, the movie’s femme fatale, Lilith (Helen Walker), a crooked psychotherapist to the wealthy.

power:blondell2

Tyrone Power & Joan Blondell in Nightmare Alley.

Even with a prestige director in Edmund Goulding, and lurid expressionistic lighting by cinematographer Lee Garmes, Nightmare Alley was not a success. Tyrone Power subsequently returned to more conventional roles, which is a shame, because he’s clearly enjoying himself here, especially in the opening carnival scenes, all working-class T-shirt and chewing-gum and an oil-drum’s worth of pomade slicking his hair. In his early thirties at the time, Power initially seems beyond the ideal age for the role of Stan Carlisle, who is a youthful twenty-one in the first half of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel. The actor’s full-on commitment to the role, however, sells the characterization as handily as Stan’s doggedly mastered sleight-of-hand scarf and coin tricks. Power doesn’t evince a comparable set of skills in later scenes that are actually keyed closer to the actor’s age. Stan’s descent into alcoholism feels abrupt and unconvincing, in spite of our having been tipped off and conditioned to expect it. We’re meant to see parallels both to the drunken carny shill Pete Krumbein (played with aching pathos by veteran stage and silent film actor Ian Keith), whose death Stan inadvertently brings about earlier in the film, and the specter of the sideshow geek that so forcefully haunts the novel and the movie.

signet_nightmare_alley

1949 paperback edition of Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham. Cover art: James Avati.

The geek is a severely alcoholic freak-show performer who earns his daily allotment of booze by savagely biting off the heads of live chickens for the amusement of wide-eyed rubes. Nightmare Alley never for a moment lets us forget the addiction-addled beast that presumably resides within each of us. The geek’s frenzied delirium tremens screams echo subliminally on the soundtrack as if erupting from Stan’s unconscious during several doom-laden moments throughout the movie. Alcohol unleashes monsters in Nightmare Alley. No amount of psychological insight is adequate to quelling or even comprehending our primal depravity. Psychotherapy, like telepathy and spiritualism, is exposed here as just another con game for exploiting human weakness.

William Lindsay Gresham’s novel doesn’t waste its breath suggesting that alcoholic Pete Krumbein might have benefited from taking “the cure,” a plot point added to the movie by ace screenwriter Jules Furthman in all likelihood to soften the story’s cynicism. For every pulled punch in the script adaptation of Gresham’s still shockingly grim novel (Nick Tosches, in his 2010 intro to the reissued book, goes as far as to suggest that Gresham may have been binge drinking while writing it), there is often a compensating layer of irony or ambiguity. At the film’s finish, where viewers usually note a more hopeful outcome than in the novel, our worst expectations are momentarily overturned by a glimmer of rescue—or is it enabling?—in the downward spiral of Stan’s now nightmarish life. In our guts we all know what’s in store for Stanton Carlisle. His fate was sealed the moment he first set eyes on the geek.


Recall: A Short Story

eBook Single .99

Caffeine & Other Stories by Bob Wake

Order Caffeine to Go ($2.99 on Kindle)


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 31 other followers