The Literary Chick Review – Your House Is On Fire, Your Children All Gone

The Literary Chick Review – Your House Is On Fire, Your Children All Gone

Ladybug, ladybug fly away home,
Your house is on fire,
Your children all gone.

Some nursery rhymes chill one’s bones. Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary has veiled references to torture under the reign of Queen Mary I — “Bloody Mary.” Ring Around the Rosy might insinuate the black death. Ladybug, Ladybug has no use for subtle allusions, however; in this nursery rhyme, the horror is overt — your house is on fire, your children all gone. You can hear the high voices of children creepily chanting the unsettling lines, which Stefan Kiesbye has taken for the title of one of his eeriest novels.

We see the German village of Hemmersmoor through the eyes of four of its children, Christian, Martin, Linde, and Anke. Like author Shirley Jackson’s unsettling small towns where malice underlies the surface, the foul air and low lives of Hemmersmoor permeates the novel. The book begins and ends with Christian who has been described by the author as “the only one to be able to form the story, the one who ventured away and returned, and he’s also the one who never thinks of himself as right or justified. He follows his own very crooked compass and acknowledges the evil in him.” Martin, the village gendarme’s, or policeman’s son is benign and has a conscience that ends in him rejecting the inhabitants as he marries, and he does his best to keep his family insulated. Linde and Anke begin as best friends until an unforgivable betrayal severs their friendship. A perverse carnival-like atmosphere permeates the book.

The children spend much time at the Old Mill, the scene of the brutality of Swedish soldiers against a miller’s family and property during the 30 Years’ War, playing their own unsettling reenactments of the tale. The author stated that this scene was a “dirty answer” to the terrifying children’s book Krabat & the Sorcerer’s Mill by Otfried Presussler, recently made into a movie. Krabat is a beggar boy who works for a master ceaselessly grinding grain and learning the black arts from him along with 11 other boys until good conquers evil. Good doesn’t stand a chance in Hemmersmoor. Like Krabat, Your House is a very German book, with its black magic reminiscent of the Brothers Grimm grimmest tales, only modernized, as if narrated by The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling.

Ominous village baking contests. persecution of attractive women as witches, a terrifying dare by one child to another on the icy lake, and a mysteriously abandoned camp, the entrance to Hell may or may not be in Hemmersmoor. Kiesbye says that Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone “is a dirty lovesong to the landscape and its people. It’s all wrong and twisted, but it’s your life, you need to know and accept that. You don’t have to like it.”

For the trailers for Your House Is On Fire, Your Children All Gone and Krabat and The Sorcerer’s Mill go to:–DI0

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What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire by Charles Bukowski

What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire by Charles Bukowski

Gambling is generally understood as a metaphor for giving up control of your fate. But a gambler knows that’s not true; a gambler knows you can’t win if you don’t play. Losing is the cost of trying to win. And losing and uncertainty hurt. Charles Bukowski knew this.

Born Heinrich Karl Bukowski in Andernach, Germany, Bukowski grew up in California with a frequently unemployed, violent father and a sorrowful and ineffectual mother. Schoolmates ridiculed him for his German ancestry and his extreme case of acne. As an adult he became a raging alcoholic and gambler, and also either a ladies’ man or a misogynist, depending on whom you spoke to. And all along he wrote – prose, poetry, essays, mostly about the type of people who frequent bars and racetracks. He made himself the bard of society’s margins, and in doing so became a cult hero. Mickey Rourke played Bukowski in the 1987 movie Barfly.

“Eleven years shot through the head”, Bukowski writes of his time spent as a United States postal worker. Days as a carrier readying himself for monsoons, hostile people, vicious dogs, or insanity of some sort on his route. Nights as a clerk leaning against a cushioned stool, sentenced to perpetually sorting letters. Supervisors with vendettas, wives and girlfriends with vendettas, even the birds seem to have vendettas. Watching good men letting themselves be destroyed by the mind-deadening monotony of it all. “Well, as the boys said”, Bukowski writes, “you have to work somewhere. So they accepted what there was. This was the wisdom of a slave.”

Shortly before his 50th birthday, Bukowski resigned. It is then that he became his most prolific as a writer. He never said it was easy. “Things get bad for all of us, almost continually”, he writes, “and what we do under the constant stress reveals who/what we are.”

What Matters Most Is How Well You Walk Through the Fire is a posthumous collection of Bukowski’s poetry. Bukowski is among the more accessible poets, in that his poems border on prose, and that was deliberate. In Christmas Poem To A Man In Jail he wrote:

“I don’t like poetry for example,
so I write mine the way I like to read it”.

The poems range from stories drawn from experience, of his childhood and of betting parlors, of poetry readings and of benders. Dissipation became part of his image (his publicist warned him not to let his readers know when he stopped drinking), but few poets can match him for economy and precision.

This is not to say he romanticized the hard life he mostly chose – the drinking, the gambling, or the writing. In Combat Primer, after listing the trials faced by a slew of famous literary names, he writes,

“it’s that kind of war:
creation kills,
many go mad,
Some lose their way and
can’t do it
a few make it to old age, a few make money,
some starve (like Vallejo),
it’s that kind of war:
casualties everywhere.”

The long mind-numbing hours Bukowski spent as a postal worker and quitting that job, detailed in his book Post Office, inform many of his poems. In Wasted, he warns against dying with regret,

“too often the people complain that they have
done nothing with their
and then they wait for somebody to tell them
that this isn’t so.
look, you’ve done this and that and you’ve
done that and that’s
you really think so?
of course.
they had it right.
they’ve done nothing.
shown no courage.
no inventiveness.
they did what they were taught to do.
they did what they were told to
they had no resistance,
no thoughts
of their own.
they were pushed and shoved
and went obediently,
they had no heart,
they were cowardly.
they stank up life.
they stank up life.”

Don’t look to Bukowski for a feel-good hug. None coming. Bukowksi does tell you in the exhilarating and frightening roll the dice what to expect if and when you do throw off those shackles.

“if you’re going to try, go all the
otherwise, don’t even start.
if you’re going to try, go all the
this could mean losing girlfriends,
wives, relatives, jobs and maybe your mind.
go all the way.
it could mean not eating for 3 or
4 days.
it could mean freezing on a park bench.
it could mean jail,
it could mean derision,
isolation is the gift,
all the others are a test of your
endurance, of
how much you really want to do it.
and you’ll do it
despite rejection and the
worst odds
and it will be better than anything else
you can imagine.

Bukowski’s roll the dice sings with lightning.

Are you ready to ride the lightning?

The Literary Chick is honored to be among those chosen to read at Three Rooms Press 12th Annual Charles Bukowski Memorial Reading on Thursday, February 28, 2019 at 6:30 PM -9:30 PM at Le Poisson Rouge 158 Bleeker Street, New York, NY 10012. We hope to see you there!

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Reading While White – Adam Smyer’s Knucklehead

Reading While White – Adam Smyer’s Knucklehead

The title character and narrator of Adam Smyer’s Knucklehead is Marcus Hayes, a young black New Yorker who is disinclined to put up with any more shit, which he demonstrates first thing in Chapter 1 when he kicks the ass of some bellicose white nitwit. Hayes, clearly, has some anger issues of his own, some of them rooted in toxic U.S. race relations – but he’s dealing with them! He keeps a running tally of days elapsed without smacking anyone upside the head.

When he’s not hitting people, he goes to law school, meets the charming Amalia, learns the valuable lesson that there are even bigger bad-asses than he is out there, passes the bar, gets a job at a San Francisco firm, and marries Amalia.

All along, Hayes is trying to figure out what it means to be a man, a husband, a professional, which he finds difficult given the lack of the obvious role model – his father died when Hayes was a young boy. A missing father is bad enough, but for a black American, it’s also a stereotype, one that Hayes wants no part of. He devises (and occasionally revises) a narrative about his father he hopes will lead people to regard him as he wishes to be seen.

Hayes wants nothing to do with the stereotypes. He’s not a victim of society. He’s worked hard for what he’s achieved. He’s a lawyer. He’s a responsible gun owner – let his liberal friends figure out how that works!

But being black in America is context that can be neither escaped nor ignored, and Hayes keeps getting reminded of it.

An earlier wave of feminists had to remind the country that the political is personal. What was (and is) true of misogyny is also true of racism. Hayes finds himself swimming in context. The partners at his firm unquestionably treat him differently. Police always have. A relentless string of incidents such as the beating of Rodney King and the murder trial of O.J. Simpson amplify Hayes’ personal sense of discomfort into fugues of existential dread.

Then Hayes gets devastated by a personal tragedy. He responds poorly, and he knows he’s behaving poorly, yet he cannot stop himself. Worse, perhaps he doesn’t want to stop. In the past, he let his bad temper occasionally get the best of him, but seriously, why shouldn’t he be angry? Between all the personal stuff, and the appalling and inescapable political stuff on top of that, why shouldn’t he be allowed to behave poorly?

Because context. Being a knucklehead and being black is dangerous. Hayes’ situation just keeps getting uglier and uglier.

In a recent interview, Smyer said the novel started as a set of short stories, and it shows. Knucklehead is episodic in a manner that feels cobbled together. A revelation late in the novel about Hayes’ family feels like it might have been retrofitted to provide a narrative arc to the longer work, though that does nothing to diminish the power of that arc. That the book has flaws should not dissuade anyone from picking it up. Hayes has a one-of-kind narrative voice – smart and acerbic, at turns muscular and sensitive.

Smyer, allowing Hayes to tell his own story, accomplishes something that Ralph Ellison was unable to achieve with his unnamed protagonist in Invisible Man and that Richard Wright did not quite pull off with Bigger Thomas in Native Son. A problem with showing-not-telling in any written work is that shown characters are inevitably taken as emblematic. Funny, astute, multidimensional Hayes, by opining on his own experience, resists being read as a stereotype. Smyer handles all this meta so organically the reader might not notice until reflecting on the book.

It is easy to read Knucklehead as little more than a novel about race relations in the United States. That’s what it is, mostly. But the book comes with a short prologue, in which Smyer attempts to pull back, to set up a wide-angle lens he invites the reader to look through to see not just Hayes, not just America, but the world. The narrator of the prologue is unknown; it might be Hayes, it might be Smyer. Whoever it is, it is someone whose skin tone is immaterial.

The narrator of the prologue relates a story from the narrator’s childhood. His younger self has found a moth stuck in a glue trap. The child lights a match and prays for God to stop him from killing a creature that is going to die anyway, and soon.

Like Hayes’ family history, the story feels tacked on -as a prologue it is tacked on, but that doesn’t mean the lens doesn’t or shouldn’t work. Are we all doomed to do what we do, and experience what we experience, despite our most fervent prayers?

Knucklehead is about a cruel subject, and it is narrated by an overtly angry narrator, and that might make it hard reading for some. Yet America is sometimes cruel and it’s always difficult to face our shared shortcomings and failures. Knucklehead would not be out of place on a shelf of books by Ellison, Wright, Dreiser, Fitzgerald, Updike, and other writers who have tried to capture what it means to live in America.

The Literary Chick Review – Bird Box by Josh Malerman

The Literary Chick Review – Bird Box by Josh Malerman

Something horrifying – beyond horrifying. A glimpse and your mind unhinges. You attack, rabidly, indiscriminately, destroying everything, even those you once loved. And in your uncontrollable frenzy, you will finish the job on yourself. That is the horror in Josh Malerman’s Bird Box.

But first, there is the woman, gaunt standing in the kitchen, thinking. She peers through her window at the heavy fog outside. Will it give her and her two young children the cover they need to escape the abandoned house they have lived in, alone, for 4 years? Will the fog last? They need the cover to go 20 miles downriver in a rowboat to find safety. And even in the fog, they must go blindfolded to escape the thing that is following them, the thing they should not – must not – see.

Bird Box deftly snaps between present and past to tell this tale of survival against psychological and physical terror. It flashes back to when Malorie, pregnant with her first child, and Malorie’s sister hear the initial reports of these occurrences, originally termed as The Russia Report due to sightings there, begin being reported. Cut to a man, driving. The passenger, his friend, asks him to pull over, and when the car has stopped he rips the driver’s lips off with his fingernails. Cut to a woman dispassionately burying her children – alive – before slitting her wrist with shards of broken dishes. Two elderly sisters out on a leisurely walk start biting people. They mutilate a friend who tries to stop them.

Before every terrifying turn, the attackers had seen something that seems to have set them off. But what?

A national curfew is ordered. People are instructed to blacken their windows, lock their doors, stay inside. But a siege is a siege, and there are cracks in the barricades. Malorie’s sister is found dead in the bathtub, eyes wide open, a scissors sticking out of her chest.

Pregnant Malorie runs and comes across a house, already occupied by Tom, a kindly former teacher, Jules, seemingly second-in-charge, Felix, a shivering remnant of a man, Cheryl, a hard as nails survivor, and Don, an ambivalent presence. They agree to let her live with them. Supplies of food and water are stored in the basement but these are finite, and blindfolds must be worn when they go out to forage.

They are joined by two more people looking for safety, sweet Olympia, who is also pregnant, and Gary. Gary tells the story of having fled the safe house he was in after one of his housemates, a man named Frank, decided that all the killings were simply psychosomatic reactions and tore down the curtains.

Malorie is safe with this band. But is there evidence that not everyone is who they seem to be?

Josh Malerman is a singer/songwriter for the Detroit band High Strung. His Bird Box was recently made into a film starring Sandra Bullock and John Malkovich that is available on Netflix. Paintings by artist Lily Morris, who was recently interviewed by The Literary Chick, will be featured in the film. The Literary Chick’s Holy Trinity of Books, Music, and Art are all here for this one, how can you go wrong?

The Literary Chick Review – Phantoms On The Bookshelves. Jacques Bonnet

The Literary Chick Review – Phantoms On The Bookshelves. Jacques Bonnet

There is no joy akin to two bibliophiles finding each other. First, you see the sudden sharp look in the eye upon the suspicion that they may have found another of their own. Then the coded test, as one – affecting nonchalance – drops the name Pérez-Reverte. A lightning bolt links the eyes of both. Everyone else is cut out of the conversation. The two fairly resurrect in their own world that would-if-it-could-but-it-can’t have room for you.
Jacques Bonnet’s Phantoms On The Bookshelves, is a love letter to bibliophiles everywhere and anyone who needs their own library, even if that library has but a single, treasured book. Bonnet divides “bibliomaniacs” into two basic categories: collectors and manic readers. Sometimes they overlap.
For the bibliomaniac, “the book is the precious material expression of a past emotion, or the chance of having one in years to come, and to get rid of it would bring the risk of a serious sense of loss. Whereas a collector frets obsessively about the books he does not yet possess, the fanatical reader worries about no longer owning those books – traces of his past or hopes for the future – which he has read once and may read again someday.”
Books grant an internal freedom. They enable one’s mind to travel, learn, and experience limitlessly. How can one be away from the very object that contains this magic? (Hello, my name is Marilyn and I am a bibliomaniac – Hi, Marilyn!)
Bonnet has a chapter devoted solely to the question that few bibliomaniacs ever feel totally satisfied with – Organizing The Bookshelves. By alphabet? By Color? By Genre? And there are some proximities that simply cannot be! What if your Vargas Llosa found itself next to your Garcia Marquez after the former blackened the eye of the latter for the way he found his good friend ‘consoling’ his wife after a marital spat? You could very well have a book brawl on your hands.

Bonnet understands the feeling of leafing through a book from your younger days and wondering, What the hell was I thinking? He never would have imagined that upon a re-reading of Anna Karenina, he would feel more touched by the plight of Anna’s cuckolded husband than by the passion of her feeling for Vronsky. The angels sang when someone else articulated what I felt when revisiting Tom Robbins’ Another Roadside Attraction that was my go-to book in college. And I was appalled at what my snarky younger self had said about Virginia Wolfe that got me thrown out of Perry Meisel’s class in NYU (although in all fairness, Perry Meisel had snark running through his veins and I secretly think he didn’t like when one of us spoiled brats gave it back to him).

Phantoms is quite simply, a gem of a book.  And it is sure to give any true bibliophile the warm fuzzies by finding a kindred soul in Jacques Bonnet.

A word on Pérez-Reverte, the secret code of bibliomaniacs.  Read Dumas’ The Three Musketeers first.  Or if you want to cheat, check out Johnny Depp in The Ninth Gate.

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The Literary Chick Review – Blood Brothers

The Literary Chick Review – Blood Brothers

Blood Brothers

The play “Cabaret” heavily informs modern perceptions of Weimar Germany. We recall garter clad Liza Minnelli and elegant Joel Grey slinking their way through a decadent underworld of sex and style. It all seems so glamorous, but the reality for most Germans at the time was colder, duller and much more miserable.

Blood Brothers, a novel written by journalist Ernst Haffner in 1932, delves beneath the glossy veneer of Berlin nightlife to relate the story of a gang of German street boys on the eve of Hitler’s rise to power.

Haffner’s writing is of the Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity or realism, which rejects romanticism. He writes a collage of the exploits and exploitation of these boys in a non-emotional, journalistic style, relying on facts to indict German society and social inequality rather than the gang members. In this, his prose pairs well with the vitriolic caricatures of anti-Nazi artist Georg Grosz, a contemporary of Haffner’s who left Germany for the US in 1933. Haffner’s tough, troubled, vulnerable boys are not the picturesque blond blue-eyed gods the Nazis sought to portray their youth as. They are social outsiders, the type of people the Nazi’s labeled “Asoziale” and persecuted.

Haffner, in Blood Brothers, deftly shows the absurdity of society demonizing those who steal in order to live their very lives.  He writes, “Their birth and early infancy coincided with the war and the years after.  From the moment they took their first uncertain steps, they were on their own.  Father was at the Front or already listed missing.  Mother was turning grenades or coughing her lungs out a few grams at a time in explosives factories.  The kids with their turnip bellies – not even potato bellies – were always out for something to eat in courtyards and streets.  As they grew older, gangs of them went out stealing.  Malignant little beasts.”

Jonny, their leader by virtue of his cold cunning, intellect, and ruthlessness guides them through the cold, hostile streets, organizing their thievery. He is the thread that gives these vulnerable boys a sense of belonging and safety. This kind of life can’t be lived for long without something going wrong, and something does.

In addition to Jonny, we read of Ludwig, who is arrested when he is tricked into attempting to claim a stolen baggage ticket, and of Willi, who runs away from a home for underage youth after he is hit once too often, making his way to Berlin by strapping himself beneath the train for the journey, and of Fredrick, who advocates graduating from petty crime to major theft, resulting in the gang’s downfall.

One cannot survive the streets of Berlin alone.  “Berlin – endless, merciless Berlin – is too much for anyone on their own… If there’s two of you, it feels different.  A night is only half as long and half as cold; even hunger is only half as bad.”

Haffner’s humane depiction of the gang members in his book might have been a grave political error. The Nazis burned and banned Blood Brothers within a year of it being first published. Sometime after, the writers’ union affiliated with the Third Reich, the Reichsschrifttumskammer, summoned him to appear. It is believed that Haffner complied. He was never seen again. If Jamal Khashoggi’s recent disappearance is alarming, it’s because we’ve seen this sort of thing before.

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