Book review: “StretchyHead” by Ian Tuttle

 Stories to Sip with Your Amuse-bouche

A book review by Christopher Bernard

This beautifully designed little book is based on a thoroughly charming premise: to offer brief stories, vignettes, anecdotes, sketches, set in eateries and boozeries in and around San Francisco, from Minx to Delirium, from Gott’s Roadside and Nomad’s Kitchen to the Yellow Submarine and the Little Spot Cafe.

The original idea seems to have been to write a different kind of restaurant review: one that paid almost no attention to such mundane matters as quality of cuisine, friendliness of service, or stylishness of ambience, but instead plunked down characters entirely imagined (one supposes!) in locations identified only by name and nearest major intersection, and let them have at one another in love, lust, convivial competition, or long-planned revenge: to create dramatic, romantic, satirical or sentimental “fictional stories in real places.”

At Vesuvio, a young man, between quaffs of a nameless spirit, practices damage control over a failed romance, writing a last love letter in the shadows of the old Beats’ North Beach watering hole. At Radio Habana Social Club, a saintly schizophrenic delivers an incoherent exhortation to a warmly bleary reception in the Mission’s tiny gem of a restaurant bar, while not far away, at Shotwell’s, a trio of gazillionaire geeks blackball the brew pub beize. At Soma’s Bar Agricole, a failed date encounters a successful marriage, proving that jealousy and resentment do not a successful evening make, while in the Financial District’s Boxed Foods Company, a young female exec-wannabe is eyed by two financial sharks way, way too into Pilates and commodities and asset destruction, and across the Bay, at Mill Valley’s Depot Bookstore and Café, an older man contemplates his newly acquired loneliness as he slowly constructs, one word at a time, the acrostic of the rest of his life.

Some of the stories are first-person anecdotes, some third-person shaggy-dog stories, some brief but penetrating glimpses into the hearts of those ordinary-looking people sitting at the second table down from you. Most of them last no more than a couple of smoothly turned pages. There is humor, there is insight, there is lots of satire, and there are moments of genuine poetry, as when the young husband at Noeteca whose wife has sacrificed her musical career to help him make partner in his law firm, fails in a sweet gesture whose greatest value, nevertheless, lay in its intent.

And Tuttle has a definite way with a phrase:

“Wood, bare, like inside skin, and wine. Kyle watches his four ladies not drink, just tap nails against the jars. The obscure bottle recommended, expensive, boutique. He drinks, even though they won’t, out of his own mason jar.”

This from a story set, benignantly, in a wine bar called Heart where a newly liberated, divorce-bound husband hangs with a quartet of available lovelies between a Turkish red and his new scarlet car.

The little volume is a lovely piece of bookmaking too, with witty illustrations by Jason Toney―not much larger than a passport, it’s pocket-portable to the nearest café.

Leslie Sbracco, you’ve got company. PBS’s “Check Please, Bay Area” and StretchyHead could, between them, make a poem of every night by the Bay.

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StretchyHead

By Ian Tuttle

Portuguese Artists Colony Books

Christopher Bernard is a San Francisco writer, founding editor of Caveat Lector magazine, and author of A Spy in the Ruins.

Book review: “Not Exactly Haiku” by Leena Prasad

[Reviewed by Nicole Arocho]

Leena Prasad’s Not Exactly Haiku is a book that was developed through an innovative route, and the results are just that, very fresh and different from anything else out there. Haiku is defined (in www.thefreedictionary.com/haiku) as “[a] Japanese lyric verse form having three unrhymed lines of five, seven, and five syllables, traditionally invoking an aspect of nature or the seasons.” Prasad utilizes this art form freely, without restricting herself so much with its technicality but focusing her efforts in the usage of nature as a metaphor and the short length of traditional haikus.

The author created the “haikus” that compose this book through a Twitter account (@notexactlyhaiku). Prasad would post her original pieces and people would retweet them, encouraging her to put them together in this book. Thus, this book was Prasad’s creative effort, but the tweets made the haikus known through social media before getting published in Not Exactly Haiku. This concept of using social media to promote literature is fascinating and shows how the industry is changing with the boom of social media and online publications complementing or replacing printed books.

The drawings on these haikus embellish the pages, but, more profoundly, they complement the authors’ metaphorical ideas on life. When I read the first haiku, titled “ants”, I could see that this compilation was going to be a very poetic journey through the mysterious ways our minds process what happens everyday. The author writes a neuroscience column for this same magazine, and I can see how her perspective on such matter has influenced her writing and rewriting of these haikus. Most of the haikus are pretty straightforward with their message, but some others mean more than what we perceive in the first reading. Such is the case of “grass is greener”: “some days the grass/ is greener, in my yard/ but, i do not see”. When I first read it, I thought it was simply talking of how season change and how that can reflect in our moods and such. But, as I read it again, I could gather the whole nature of the haiku. The grass represents our interior world; our souls, our hearts, our deepest desires and wishes, our knowledge, while the yard is the exterior world; our bodies, the people around us, nature, civilization. When our interior, the “grass”, is at its height, sometimes we are blinded by what is happening in the outside world (the “yard”) and its pressures and tribulations, such as stress, work, frustrations, depressions and many other variables out of our control. This way, we forget how truly amazing each of us are in our own unique way, and let the world get the best of us.

These drawings sometimes even changed the meaning of the haikus. This happened with “clouds”: “clouds hovering/the sky holds its breath/ before the storm”. After one read, this haiku was talking of a general idea of the moment before a problem comes to our lives, where everything is alright, but there are some signs of the “storm” coming to descend upon us. But the drawing is that of a pregnant woman with a man touching her belly while looking at the woman’s face. This made me as the reader focus on one event in life (pregnancy) that is the pre-event of childbirth and raising children, both of which can bring difficulties and problems to the parents. What the author couldn’t say with the haikus because of their minimalistic nature, she expressed through these sketches.

It is interesting how the author doesn’t use any capital letters in her writing. As a poet myself, it is a stylistic approach I can relate to, and that, aesthetically, gives the haikus a feel of continuity and impreciseness that heightens the effect of shortness that characterize these pieces.

Leena Prasad still has her Twitter account running, where you can read her latest haikus and retweet them, and a Facebook page to discuss them in order to continue on this literary effort.

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You can contact the reviewer, Nicole Arocho, at narocho3@gmail.com.

Leena Prasad recently wrote an iPhone app which was inspired by Not Exactly Haiku. The app is currently available for 99 cents at http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/not-exactly-haiku/id495835142?mt=8

 

 

Book review: “Defining the Edge Between Truth and Madness” by Wade Alexander

[Reviewed by Bruce Roberts]

Wade Alexander has had a rough life. From the book jacket mentioning his alcoholic parents, to the forward by his wife, loosely chronicling their tempestuous, up and down relationship, to the numerous allusions in his poems to fighting, cheating, lying, abusing, etc., it’s obvious his life has not been easy.

In fact, if the old standard of poetry as therapy is to be believed, Alexander has written 200 pages of intense, self-illuminating, self-healing poems, and probably feels the better person for it.

Certain themes recur over and over throughout the poems, all laid out with the great feeling that comes from conflict: Strength versus weakness, truth versus lies, life versus death, love versus pain, reality versus illusion–all common here. True, after 200 pages of recurring themes, in recurring style, the poetry tends to blur together. But taken individually, Alexander has some very interesting and insightful poems.

Besides poems, nearly every page ends with a brief spark of philosophy, of wisdom, set off by space and italics. Sometimes these sayings follow up on the previous poem, sometimes not. For example, (p.170) “Look up and to no others./the sky is always yours.” Or on 187, “The tears we cry today/Water our growth tomorrow.” Amid poems mostly focused on the glass as half-empty, these pithy philosophies often provide the balance of a glass also half-full.

Most of Alexander’s work rhymes. The problem with dependence on rhyme is that the rhymes sometimes have to be coerced to carry out the meaning. Rhymes should be so natural, so smooth, that they are barely noticed by an intent reader who’s absorbing the meaning. When they get forced and a little awkward, then probably the meaning is too. On page 153, for example, “The reason that grew from such denial/Gave way to the Truth, it was quite a pile.” “Pile” and “denial”? Pile of what? The smoothness and vitality of the rhymes here is erratic.

At times, Alexander seems like a true Christian, knowing that all his earthly pain will be transcended when he’s with God in Heaven. (God save us all! p.145)  Other times though, his religion reverts to older, polytheistic beliefs, referring openly to “the Gods” as in charge of life. “Do the Gods look down sad for what/They have done [?]” (p. 148) Perhaps another conflict in the author’s life.

The bottom line here though is that throughout 200 pages of intense writing, Alexander is wildly in love with his wife:

When I am gone,

I will live in the waves that

Kiss the beach forever

Or the wind that cools your face,

The sunset that stops your worries,

And the sun that warms your heart.

(p. 157)

And when he writes of that love—without rhymes, he writes his best poetry.

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Bruce Roberts is a poet and ongoing contributor to Synchronized Chaos Magazine. Roberts may be reached by at brobe60491@sbcglobal.net.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book review: “Defining the Edge Between Truth and Madness” by Wade Alexander

[Reviewed by Katherine Merriweather]

Poetry is usually a quick read for me. The books I pick are slim. When I got ahold of this book, it was nearly 200 pages. Stunned, I wondered what I could be getting into.

This collection, a love story written during a time of struggle, led me into its universe and didn’t want to let me go.

In the forward, Wade Alexander’s wife, Mara, tells the reader that although their marriage was good from the start, life issues began to take their toll and a hell that spanned two and a half years was the hardest.  Mara withdrew during that time to shield herself from the pain. Wade began writing poems to reach out to her and to heal himself from his own mental suffering. The collection presented is the result of that time.

Wade’s words carry a deep message in seemingly simple verses about love, loss, life, and the Universe. I felt that some poems were quite Zen (such as “Quiet Your Mind” and “Life Is A Riddle”). Enthralled by the melancholy, sometimes tortured work, I took his book everywhere, reading a few pages when I had the time. I found myself re-reading the book as I found this collection therapeutic because I was also going through a love struggle.

I recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of poetry, and to those going through a hard time, romantically or not.

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You can contact the reviewer, Katherine Merriweather, at knmerriweather@yahoo.com.

 

Film Review: “In the Land of Blood and Honey”

 

A TRAGEDY―AND A TRIUMPHANT DEBUT

 A review by Christopher Bernard

Why do so many critics seem to hate Angelina Jolie?

Because otherwise they might have to respect her. Even admire her.

Jolie, you see, is guilty of the supreme cinematic crime: creating, on her first outing as a writer and director, a morally challenging, almost unbearably honest film, and doing so with greater artistry than one can reasonably respect from such a comparative neophyte – especially when such a work is committed by a woman the press has never been terribly comfortable with, whom it prefers to see as a narcissistic sex symbol and tourist activist bent more on displaying a self-regarding compassion than on ending the suffering that evokes it.

The reaction of many critics has been a disgrace to the profession – but then, many of the reviewers were a disgrace to begin with.

The press rarely forgives being misled by its own prejudices. We don’t like being made fools of, even when we have been fooling ourselves. Many of us still haven’t forgiven Woody Allen for “Interiors” or “Stardust Memories,” near-masterpieces though they are (watch them with an open mind if you doubt me; but then, I have always felt Allen’s early films were the over-rated products of a talented adolescent; when he finally grew up, many in the American intelligentsia refused to grow up with him). Fortunately, the films will continue to live, on the love and admiration of audiences, long after we critics are moldering, clutching our press clippings, in our graves.

In her first feature-length film, Angelina Jolie has taken on an enormous task in terms of moral weight, intellectual daring, and cinematic artistry. That she has not entirely succeeded should come as no surprise; that she might be in a bit over her head is no dishonor. That she has succeeded as well as she has is little short of miraculous.

For this is a brave, and often terrifying, film; one that should be seen by anyone with concern about the devastations of modern warfare, the calamity of the Balkan wars of the 1990s, or the plight of Muslims in the former Yugoslavia, or indeed wherever Muslims are the subject of bloody-minded bigotry and hatred; above all, it must be seen by anyone who wants a candid look at the horrors faced by women in modern war. Indeed, for that alone, Jolie deserves our deepest gratitude.

By now, most movie viewers will be aware of the film’s setting in the Bosnian war in the 1990s, its use of Serbo-Croatian throughout, and the outlines of the plot: the Romeo-and-Juliet love affair between a Serbian policeman and a Muslim artist that, literally, blows up one night at a dance club in a provincial Bosnian city; the quick descent of Bosnia into war of Serbian against Muslim; the rounding up of Muslim women as servants and sex slaves for the Serbian army, and the continuation of the love affair when the Serbian officer discovers his Muslim lover among the profaned and humiliated women. They will also be aware of the sheer violence, the casual atrocities, of the film; none of it gratuitous or played for our entertainment or the frisson of the morally righteous – all of it both shocking and unsparingly illuminating of the depth, the depraved perspicuity, of human evil.

The cruelly ambiguous relationship between the lovers Daniejl and Ajla is presented with an aching awkwardness in a storyline that echoes such films as “The Night Porter,” “The Collector” and “Schindler’s List,” though with a twisted and fearful tenderness of its own. That it is not always convincing is partly the fault of the male lead, discussed below; partly from a lack of that final subtlety in the writing that perhaps only an Ingmar Bergman or Andrei Wajda might have pulled off.

The relationships between the victims (the fraught and terrible furtiveness of the impotent) and between the violators (the bitter, ageing general, who represents an older generation steeped in hatred and refusing to die without taking as many others with them as they can, and his intimidated son, the brittle, morally torn Danjiel who, in the end, cannot face down the domination of the patriarch), some of whom are as morally disgusted as the most impartial spectator, but who are caught in the trammels of resentment and hatred, the power relations of a deeply patriarchal society, are displayed with the insight and sensitivity one would expect of a far more experienced director.

As in the best war films, we are given a victim’s-eye view of warfare – lost in a bewilderment of fire, blood, screaming bullets, bomb thunder, relentless violence, and unpredictable catastrophe that display the world as the viciously senseless place it so often can seem to be even in peacetime but only now shown unmasked and naked.

The film has its weaknesses, the most serious being Goran Kostic as Daniejl sho wears a swagger that’s too slick by half, and seems to see too much of a mirror in the camera: the expression of emotional subtlety, ambiguity and complication do not seem to be his strong suit; a shame, as the film’s fatal and ineluctable conclusion loses some of its power and truth as a result.

However, Zana Marjanovic as Ajla makes up for many of her opposite’s flaws, in a performance trembling with a delirious passion for her blue-eyed policeman that by itself explains the enormous emotional tug for him later on, when the stakes will be her life itself.

The subordinate roles are handled astutely for the most part; Rade Serbedzija playing the poisonous, shrewd and bitter monster of an old general with an almost Shakespearean conviction. Shrewd camerawork and a discreet score complete this very fine film.

But you may not be ready for the ending, inevitable as it is. Unlike most American movies, where the logic of a situation is rarely allowed to get in the way of the triumph of love and the miracle of redemption, in this tragedy there is no salvation.

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In the Land of Blood and Honey

Written and directed by Angelina Jolie

Christopher Bernard is the founding editor of Caveat Lector magazine and author of the novel A Spy in the Ruins. Work by him appears in the recent anthologies Conversations in the Wartime Café and Occupy SF: Poems from the Movement.

Performance Review: “Future Motive Power,” produced/performed by Mugwumpin at the Old Mint, San Francisco

ELECTRIFYING

A review by Christopher Bernard

 

Mugwumpin specializes in “theater, performance, and strange occurrences.” Nikola Tesla – the wizard of electricity, the rival of inventors Edison and Marconi, victim of a treacherous backer, J.P. Morgan, and hero and anti-hero of  Mugwumpin’s ingenious “Future Motive Power” – specialized in inventing some of the seminal technologies of the last century, and speculated about some of the strangest technological fantasies of our fantastic age, an age when “strange occurrences” have become more the norm than the exception.

So it may have been only a matter of time before the wizards of Mugwumpin met the wizard of Smiljan on their common home ground of theatrical and experimental magic.

There was once talk of the fine line between genius and madness; in Tesla’s case there may have been no line at all – his genius was partly mad (distributing electricity through the air?), and his madness was not half-genius (sending radio signals across hundreds, even thousands, of miles, through air, buildings, walls? But of course! Tesla was the intellectual father of radio, TV, GPS, cell phones, wi-fi; the better known Guglielmo Marconi was, according to some, the thief of Tesla’s ideas who got the undeserved credit for inventing the radio, the Ur-technology of today’s wireless world).

“Future Motive Power,” with its own engaging inventiveness, applies a modernist/postmodernist mélange of theatrical stylizations to the tropes of the bio play. Christopher W. White’s sprightly, goofy portrayal of the eternally eccentric inventor is accompanied by a trio of chorus-like figures (Misti Boettiger, Natalie Greene and Rami Margron are the audacious adepts) to guide and frame the action, and using a mere two more actors (White and the endlessly adaptable Joe Estlack) to animate Tesla and his nemeses; the five performers, their ingenious prop masters, and the lighting and sound designers create, between them, the sense of a thronging, dynamic, endlessly changing world.

Using the barest of low-tech props, the show manages both to create, in the finest steampunk style, a nostalgia for the cranky, industrial modern and to suggest the boundless hopes that science and technology at their best have always lighted in the susceptible hearts of the endearingly left-brained.

The sheer craziness of modern science (which has only gotten crazier since Tesla’s comparatively rational era) is put over with madcap energy and wit, to say nothing of a resistance to such old-fashioned concepts as identity and coherence and even cohesion, that is often liberating, if occasionally taxing for the more commonsensical spectator, as the performers melt away from representing mere people to portraying particles and waves of emergent energy, the needles of inspiration, the voices that forever warred in Tesla’s over-stimulated brain, and other, nameless but highly energetic abstractions. (The script was created by the Mugwumpin ensemble, and this sometimes shows: a more controlling hand, a mightier editor, may have sharpened the piece’s sometimes careening focus.)

Not least of the show’s pleasures is its venue: the variously brick-vaulted, stone-floored, half-lit, many-chambered labyrinth of the basement (once gold-filled, now ghost-filled) of San Francisco’s old Mint, the source of the West’s coinage for much of a century. After a comfortable first hour seated in a spacious, industrial lab of a room, the audience is walked to different locations, concluding in a dramatization of Tesla’s tragic end that ensured his legacy as much as his martyrdom. The audience is made a gentle, but inescapable, protagonist in the show’s moral, its politics, of recognition and responsibility.

There’s talk of extending the run. If that happens, run, don’t walk, and take your science friends with you: the talk sure to follow is guaranteed to eat away much of the night.

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“Future Motive Power,” produced and performed by Mugwumpin at the Old Mint, San Francisco, through January 29.

Christopher Bernard is a San Francisco writer, author of the novel A Spy in the Ruins, and founder of Caveat Lector magazine.

 

“Resurrection of Ancient Egypt” Short Story Competition

Art: Sara El Hamalawy & Ahmed Mohamed Hassan

Egyptian International Short Story Competition

Resurrection of Ancient Egypt

Literature has always been a method of communication, whether between the author and the self, the author and the reader, or a book discussion between several readers. These means of communication are outstanding that they can be fulfilled by communicating with the past, and creating some sort of telepathy.

The aim of the Forgotten Writers Foundation is to empower the forgotten literature of some cultures, and thus it issued its first short-story competition, which is about Resurrection of Ancient Egypt.

The competition is about writing fictional short-stories at the era of Ancient Egypt, whereas the stories must not be very much related to historical events. It is open to anyone, giving enough space for the writer to become creative and write about any genre, with any style.

The winning stories will be gathered and published in one book. The aim of this competition, apart from shedding the light on the mysterious culture of Pharos, is to perform an analysis on how Egyptians and non-Egyptians define and view one of the oldest cultures on Earth, and with this analysis we should excavate guidance to our contemporary world.

The formal deadline is on the 25th of January, 2012. However, stories sent within a month time after the deadline will be accepted into serious consideration. The most satisfying output is more important than being strict in the rules.

For Guidelines:

http://mahmoudmansicriticreviews.blogspot.com/2011/12/short-story-competition-resurrection-of.html

Submissions and Questions:

Native_Writer@yahoo.com

 

Mahmoud Mansi