Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Final Day by Forstchen Superficial and Filled with Gimmicks

Saturday, February 4th, 2017
John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

Post-apocalypse America. China occupies all territory west of the Mississippi except for the lands Mexico reclaims it lost in the Southwest. Eastern United States is in chaos. Metropolitan areas are radioactive wastelands or havens for marauders armed with military weapons to plunder villages where refugees seek survival. In his novel, The Final Day, author William R. Forstchen lets readers infer that his story takes place early in the 21st century. Ninety percent of the population perish in a cataclysm of detonated nuclear missiles and high impact shock weapons. Gone are the Internet, the power grid, computers on line at the time, law enforcement, water and sewer and services of a civilized society.

Struggling to start over, the State of Carolina in the Appalachian Mountains of what once was the state of North Carolina is led John Matherson, the hero of the story. The State defends against outlaws in costly battles against the Posse and against Fredericks, attackers about whom nothing is known as the author never bothers to explain. Ambiguity stirs the curious, after all, and it’s one of Forstchen’s favorite gimmicks. When there’s no tension arising from the plot, it suffices at times to have readers asking: Who are these people anyway?

The first third of the book could be summarized: A stranger staggers into camp and expiring, mentions the name of a man Matherson knows. John decides with no particular agenda in mind to fly to meet with his friend. Once air borne, the story becomes a travelogue about the desolate winter landscape. The mission fails. Matherson returns to base. Days pass and radio communication (eureka) is restored. Matherson’s friend, retired general Bob Scales, will come to see Matherson. Scales knew Matherson was there all along. The dead stranger was the General’s aide. (Right! The story could have started at this point and little would have been lost.)

Incomparable human suffering . . .

Arriving with three armed Blackhawk helicopters hovering menacingly overhead, Scales threatens Matherson’s little settlement with annihilation if Matheson doesn’t become his hostage. Scales explains he is acting under orders. Despite seeing incomparable human suffering everywhere, he persists as an agent of Bluemont in being the oppressor and executioner.

The plot meanders into a blizzard of mindlessness at this point. The author chose Bluemont as his adversary because the word is devoid of any historical, human or geographical connotation. Bluemont could be a place, a site inter-terrestrials have landed or the last surviving Native American reservation. Nobody knows. Despite having communication with the BBC and itinerant refugees passing all kinds of information along, Bluemont is a mystery.

Even in the most fantastic yarns, some sense of continuity, the role of destiny in the lives of the characters and cause and effect need to be sustained to insure credibility. Not so in The Final Day, Enemies pop overnight for no apparent reason. Friends turn on one another and then realign. Unidentified assassins attack at random. Suspense is sustained by simply withholding information about all adversaries and their motives. Gimmickry run wild.

Chest Deep in Trivia . . .

Forstchen’s plot slogs along like a hiker chest deep in trivia. The weaknesses in the story line are covered up as readers are subjected to pages of tedium about World War II, the Civil War, vintage computer restoration, code breaking, winter survival methods (common knowledge stuff regularly aired on the History channel). The characters lack depth and are limited in their reach for the emotions that would touch readers and evoke a sympathetic response. An entire continent has been transformed into a charnel house yet the killing and destruction continues. The myth of the military hero is sustained in an atmosphere choking with the stench of decay and decomposition.

The final quarrel a thoughtful reader will have with The Final Day is philosophical rather than aesthetic. In a book about the future, Forstchen regrettably turns to the past to find the fodder for his story and leaves unexplored the real challenges that would await the grieving and disabled as they crawl out from the wreckage of a nihilistic holocaust. Surely some somewhere would conclude that more killing is to persist in barbarism and the lessons of mass destruction as a method of wielding power delivers to those who would prevail nothing but dominion over a toxic and decimated wasteland. Although well-written, the book fails as adult reading. The Final Day is comic book tripe

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This review initially appeared in bookpleasures.com, a web site dedicated to reviewing books.

 

 

James Grippando’s Novella “The Penny Jumper” – Trading Stock at Lightspeed

Monday, December 12th, 2016

#highfrequencytrrading $daytrading #stockmarket  thepennyjumper #daytrading #pennystock

 

John J. Hohn - Writer, Reviewer and Commentator

John J. Hohn – Writer, Reviewer and Commentator

Time is money, but what is the price tag that comes with it. Bestselling author James Grippando sets the amount at about 160 million every trading day on Wall Street. That’s for a single millisecond or .001 seconds. Why so much? Simple. High frequency traders on the world’s stock exchanges go to great lengths to gain a millisecond advantage over their competitors. In an intricate network of computers and trading systems, one millisecond gives a firm the chance to increase profits by jumping up the price on large blocks of stock by one cent per share. Companies losing money to the high-jacking of the data stream want to put an end to the practice. Their quest sets the stage for Grippando’s excellent novella, The Penny Jumper.

It will take an complex algorithm to stop the penny jumpers from hitchhiking onto the trades streaming from every corner of the globe. In fact, it would require a genius, one presumably beyond the reach of Wall Street, nestled obscurely in a university staff somewhere working in a field of pure research. Turns out Ainsley Grace – young, pretty and bright – is engaged in a monumental project at MIT that would harness all the telescopes of the world and convert them into one huge cyclops to penetrate outer space. The distances data must travel from the far flung locations needs to be synchronized before a composite image is possible. Ainsley configures an algorithm that has all the scopes seeing as one. Kudos for the achievement, however, do not come with a bonus that would alleviate Ainsley’s heavy student load debt. She accepts a consulting job with a Wall Street firm who is wrestling with the penny jumper problem.

James Grippando - Auhor

James Grippando – Auhor

Leaving Boston for New York, Ainsley comes up with the algorithm her employers that will protect them against the penny jumpers. Problem is, before she can collect her six figure fee, her program is stolen, and to top it off, she is the accused of absconding with it herself. She is being framed but proving her innocence is no easy task and there are disarming twists and turns along the way that make her plight at times seem hopeless.

Author Grippando’s tale of Ainsley’s adventure in the wilds of capitalism, where greed is good, is exquisitely symmetrical. Everything he starts, he finishes. No loose ends. The author’s style is lean and efficient, providing just enough detail to orient the reader with each setting. The pace of the mystery is almost as fast as the data streams central to the story without sacrificing insight into the characters or concocting unlikely coincidences to move the plot along. The courtroom scenes are compelling. The dialogue crisp and authentic. Ainsley’s relationship with her attorney and friend, Connor, is straightforward and realistic; in a word, refreshing. Grippando is a master at breaking down the scientific premise of the plot into layman’s terms. In his hands, brevity does not equate to superficiality. The author quotes Carl Sagan, for example, to answer to the age old debate of agnosticism versus atheism. He takes less than a paragraph were others have wasted pages. In a story about really bright, thinking people, the author’s genius shines in a plot that has thoroughly thought . There are plenty of surprises along the way, right up until the final page.

The Penny Jumper Cover

The Penny Jumper Cover

The Penny Jumper is nearly flawless. Author Grippando is marvelously inventive with every detail to keep the story credible, save one. Bad guy, Vlad Kosov, uses mob muscle to get the price reduced by half on a 50 million dollar property in Hong Kong. Real estate transactions at that stratospheric level, especially in Hong Kong, just don’t seem vulnerable to on-site threats from a thug. It wouldn’t matter so much, except that the man who is intimidated into selling is important to the rest of the plot. Readers may trip but not break stride on this detail because the story line is so compelling and beautifully presented. The Penny Jumper is thoroughly entertaining if a bit unsettling once readers realize the high volume trading network at the heart of our cherished free enterprise system might possibly be more vulnerable than most may think.

This review first appeared in somewhat condensed form on bookpleasures. com

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Captivated by Marilyn – A Brief Biography of Gary Vitacco-Robles

Thursday, August 25th, 2016

#sexsymbol #MarilynMonroe #Fifties #Cinema

This is the third in a series about Gary Vitacco-Robles, the author of the monumental biography ICON:The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, Volumes I and II. I have reviewed both volumes and published two segments of my interview with Vitacco-Robles. In this installment, I asked him to share something about his personal life.

Gary, the biographical information on you is quite sketchy as presented by the usual sources. Please fills us in on your background.

Gary Vitacco-Robles - A Birthday Photo

Gary Vitacco-Robles – A Birthday Photo

I was born to a warm Italian family and lived until age 10 in Flushing/Bayside New York. In 1975, my family relocated to a rural area north of the Tampa Bay – a severe culture shock for me, but I grew to enjoy how generations of Florida-born residents were melding with transplanted families from the northeast.

I was an honor student in high school, president of the drama club, editor of the yearbook, and involved in many other school and community organizations. Entering St. Petersburg College in 1983, I majored in architecture with an emphasis on Speech English Education. It was there that I was encouraged to consider mental health counseling. I transferred to the University of South Florida, Tampa, and majored in Psychology with electives in theater and Women’s Studies. Graduating in 1987, I went to work at a local community mental health center assisting adults who suffered from severe and persistent mental illness as they transitioned from state psychiatric hospitals into the community. I was promoted to case manager and ultimately to program supervisor. I completed my masters at USF in Counseling Education.

My first position as a therapist was in a program specializing in trauma-informed treatment of youth and families who had survived physical/sexual abuse and neglect and children with sexual behavior problems. I became licensed as Mental Health Counselor in Florida in 1997 and a Nationally Certified Counselor in 1998. I’ve remained at the same organization for thirty years and currently supervise an adult and children outpatient department. I am a founding member of a sexual abuse intervention network to prevent child sexual abuse and respond to children and youth with sexual behavior problems. For about five years, I had a concurrent private practice in Tampa.

My spouse and I met 26 years ago. I consider my marriage and the life my spouse and I created together my greatest achievement. We have enjoyed tremendous support from our families as a same gender couple. We are also very grateful for the support we have received from the relatively conservative area where we live.

When did you first become interested in Marilyn Monroe?

Gary and Oscar Vitacco Robles - Partner for over 30 years.

Earlier Photo of Gary and Oscar Vitacco Robles – Partners for over 26 years. Commitment Ceremony 1994. Civil Union 2000. Married 2004

Marilyn has always chased and haunted me. Norman Mailer’s biography of her was published in 1973 when I was eight. Images of her were everywhere when I was in junior high in the late 1970s. One that comes clearly to mind was Milton Greene’s iconic “ballerina” pose. Her soulful eyes captivated me like none other I have ever seen. I also remember Bert Stern’s portraits originally for Vogue in 1962 being widely circulated in the late 70’s and early 80’s.

I saw Bus Stop and The Prince and the Showgirl back to back when I was in junior high school. They were my first Monroe movies. Her performances moved me. I quickly found and devoured Fred Lawrence’s 1960 biography, Norma Jeane, The Life of Marilyn Monroe, Edward Waghenknecht’s Marilyn: A Composite View, and Norman Mailers Marilyn: A Biography from 1972. I was immediately fascinated and felt tremendous compassion for her. Despite her tragic early death, I saw her as a resilient survivor.

Over the years, I’ve read at least 200 biographies. I recommend the works of Fred Lawrence Guiles, Maurice Zolotow, Donald Spoto, and Michelle Morgan. As for memoirs, look to the works of Norman Rosten, Sam Shaw – Rosten & Shaw’s Marilyn Among FriendsSusan Strasberg, and Berniece Miracle. Since my volumes contain over 1500 pages of text with no photos, Monroe photo books make the perfect companion. James Spada’s is a personal favorite from 1982. Also the photo books of George Barris and Bert Stern’s The Complete Last Sitting. The auction catalogues like Christie’s The Personal Property of Marilyn Monroe from 1999 is a good source. Marilyn Monroe’s My Story is a primer. Fragments contain images of pages from her personal diaries and letters.

Richard Meryman’s lengthy Life 1962 interview and Allan Levy’s for Redbook the same year are fascinating. I recommend documentaries which include audiotapes of Meryman’s interview of Marilyn as well as Georges Belmont’s for Marie Clare magazine, the latter recorded in 1960. Both men asked brief open-ended questions which allowed Marilyn to expound in two of the most revealing narratives. They are a significant record of her thoughts and insights about her life because she speaks in her natural voice recalling the events of her life and commenting on her daily routines. The result is the closest glimpse of her true self available to us today.

When did you realize that you wanted to become a writer?

Gary Vitacco-Robles - Aspiring Writer

Gary Vitacco-Robles – Aspiring Writer

I have been writing short stories and plays since junior high school. Two books had a major impact on me. The Diary of Anne Frank is the book of all books with its spiritual content. It is almost a miracle that it survived. To Kill a Mockingbird is another great book that changed the world. Harper Lee’s backstory fascinated me. She attained distinction despite not being prolific.

I set a goal at age fourteen on New Year’s Eve 1979-80 to  become published someday . My English teachers saw me as a playwright or mystery novelist. A young woman, Courtenay O’Connell Sims, was my mentor in junior high school. She encouraged me to take a chance on publishing. We’re lifelong friends to this day. She gave the toast at my wedding.

Publishing biographies about Marilyn have been my only success. My first effort, Cursum Perficio: Marilyn Monroe’s Brentwood Hacienda/The Story of Her Final Years, turned out to be self-prescribed occupational therapy. I self-published it through iUniverse in 2000. The book focused on Marilyn’s renovation of a home in the last months of her life. The renovation, incomplete at the time of her death, is an obvious metaphor for her unfinished life and premature death. The second edition of Cursum Perfico resonated with readers because it was professionally illustrated by Brandon Heidrick. The book prompted many to encourage me to write a full-length biography.

What plans do you have for your next book?

Icon" The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe - Volume I Book Cover

Icon” The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe – Volume I Book Cover

I’ve been involved since February of 2015 in the Goodnight, Marilyn radio show investigation into Marilyn’s death. Nina Boski and Randall Libero have had me as a frequent guest and I am currently a weekly panel member for three seasons, I will be an investigative team member for the Seeking the Truth Conference in Los Angeles in 2017. I’ve recently acquired the 641-page LA District Attorney’s investigation materials and final report from 1982. I’ve been privileged to consult with forensic experts including psychiatrists Dr. Cyril Wecht, Dr. Reef Kareem, and suicide expert Dr. Scott Bonn. This 21st century investigation will yield new results and impact our perceptions about her death. I intend to publish the findings in Volume III and have received encouragement from Ben Ohmart, my publisher (BearManor Media) who is very interested. The next volume, ICON: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, Volume 3 – The 1982 and 2016 Investigations into Her Death (the current working title) will be the largest volume in completing the trilogy.

What if Marilyn Monroe had lived? How would her career have taken shape if she lived to the fullness of her years?

Marilyn, as a woman of 40, would have to survive the turbulent 1960s in film. She would have turned 40 in 1966. The studio system had collapsed, and freelancing and independent films were the norm. Changing times challenged actresses over 40, although the new freedoms and cultural revolution were liberating and allowed for creativity. Some of the notable female performances included Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Anne Bancroft in The Graduate.

Icon: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, Volume II - Cover

Icon: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, Volume II – Cover

The 1970s ushered a cultural nostalgia for the 1950s and the veterans of the Golden Age of Film, an era for which Marilyn was the icon. I believe she would have made a come-back. Consider the ensemble casts of Hollywood greats in the disaster films of the 70s: The Towering Inferno (Fed Astaire), The Poseidon Adventure (Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters, Red Buttons), Earthquake (Eva Gardner) and Airport ’75 (Gloria Swanson). Marilyn might team again with Jack Lemon in the Sandy Dennis’ role in the hilarious The Out of Towners in 1970. Marilyn as Auntie Mame in 1974 seems better cast than Lucille Ball. The public would have seen a more mature Marilyn, but her growth as an artist qualified for these roles and she would have remained relevant and become rediscovered by another generation.

In 1962, Marilyn stated her desire was to become a character actress. Aging and television would have provided an opportunity. Television was a burgeoning option for stars of the 50s with its sitcoms, dramas, variety shows and specials. The new made-for-television movies would have been a medium for Marilyn as she moved into her late 40s and early 50s, affording her ample opportunity to enjoy success as a dramatic actress. TV was less expensive and more creative than film at that time and holds true even today.

Gary Vitacco-Robles - Biographer, Therapist

Gary Vitacco-Robles – Biographer, Therapist

Shirley MacLaine’s later film career suggests what Marilyn could have achieved in film in the 1980s and beyond. Think of her in Terms of Endearment, Used People, Steel Magnolias. She would have had to turn to television in the 1970s to secure a film presence later. Comedy and self-parody were both options: The Golden Girls, perhaps even a sequel to Some Like It Hot. Marilyn belongs to the boomer generation after all, the largest single group in the population. Her aging would be revered as boomers strove to remain young on the tennis courts, in exercise studios and on the golf links.

In a parallel universe, Marilyn would also remarrie DiMaggio and retire to a ranch in Carmel (like Doris Day and Kim Novak),where she’d rescue animals and abandon film altogether until someone like Ron Howard or Tom Hanks would coax her out of reclusion and retirement for a sexy elderly mother role.

The high level of interest in  Marilyn among cinema fans and movie historians attests to her enduring appeal as a person. Her performances set new standards the have prevailed over the years in an industry that, almost by definition, is transitory at its core.

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Marilyn Monroe – A Definitive New Biography by Vitacco-Robles

Friday, July 15th, 2016

#MarilynMonroe  #Movies #Hollywood

John J. Hohn, Writer/Reviewer

John J. Hohn, Writer/Reviewer

Marilyn Monroe is an enigmatic figure in the history of the entertainment industry. Half a century has passed since her death, yet she is remembered today as if she were yet alive. Her story has evolved into legend. Breathtakingly beautiful, talented and charismatic, she begins her career in the heyday advent of the movie industry. The widescreen CinemaScope technology and stereophonic sound present her on the wide screen as sensual, alluring and innocent – the undeniably seductive child-woman somehow untainted by the world. She was so compelling in her portrayals that two of her more successful films (Some Like It Hot and The Misfits) were produced in black-and-white. Other glamorous stars preceded her, but none secured the same lasting impact.

Marilyn Monroe is both the product and the victim of twentieth century America as the country moves into new-found affluence after World War II. The age is witness to the rise of materialism, the redefinition of sexual values, the questioning of the place of women in society and the leaderless rebellion of youth against the established order. Monroe’s name is associated with some of the elite of the era, Carl Sandberg, John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy Frank  Sinatra and Clark Gable among others.  It would only follow that many would try to exploit her memory for personal advantage. Over 600 books have been published about her. Many accounts distort the collective memory to such an extent the task of untangling and clarifying Ms. Monroe’s story takes on monumental dimensions.

Unassailable Credibility . . .

Gary Vitacco-Robles = Author and Biographer

Gary Vitacco-Robles = Author and Biographer

Gary Vitacco-Robles was not one to be deterred from the challenge of making certain truth would prevail. His two volumes, Icon: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, Volumes I and II constitute the definitive biography of the great actress. (See the earlier review of Volume I click here on this web site.) That Vitacco-Robles cares, and cares deeply, for his subject is clear. His compassion and sensitivity are never more obvious than when he addresses the less-than-glamorous episodes in her life. Readers can expect to be impressed with the depth of his research. Every scene is filled with poignant detail. His credibility is unassailable and thus the power behind his narrative flows from genuine empathy for his subject.

Volume II covers the turbulent years from 1956 to 1962, the year the star died of a tragic, accidental overdose. By 1956, Ms. Monroe has gained star status. The Seven Year established her securely as a box office draw. Successes followed including The Prince and the Showgirl, Bus Stop, and arguably the greatest comedy of all time, Some Like It Hot. The world comes to know the screen persona of the actress. What becomes central to the spiritual and psychological plight for Ms. Monroe is that the world does not know her for who she truly is. “Do you want me to be Marilyn?” she teases one guest. In private the actress finds the adulation, addressed as it is to a characterization, void of the affirmation she desperately seeks. She struggles with depression, the anguish of bipolar emotional swings and the unfulfilled yearnings with their roots in a deprived and abusive childhood. Vitacco-Robles has the professional credentials to state his own analysis, but he remains objective and quotes other authorities who knew Ms. Monroe whenever he wants to write about her tormented mental state. Throughout, the author is even-handed and balanced in presentation; neither apologist nor critic. He treats the actor’s professional growth in the same manner. Monroe’s contemporaries observe that she is at the height of her talent and growing as an actress at the time of her death.

Marilyn Monroe in the  Iconic Publicity photo for The Seven Year Itch

Marilyn Monroe in the Iconic Publicity photo for The Seven Year Itch

Several persons emerge from the author’s narrative as major influences in the star’s life. Arthur Miller’s emotional withdrawal from her while they are married leaves readers questioning the depth of artistic sensitivity. Joe DiMaggio’s devotion to her throughout her life is moving. Lee and Paul Strasberg seem to thrive on keeping Marilyn dependent rather than helping her move toward a more autonomous self-sufficiency. Readers may also conclude that Psychiatrist Ralph Greenson is guilty of cultivating a dependency. Monroe was on the verge of firing him at several points.

Approaching Ridicule . . .

Surprises await also. Ms. Monroe’s performance of Happy Birthday at JFK’s party can be seen on You Tube today. It may appear to be spontaneous. Not so, however.  It was rehearsed and she was very nervous before the performance. It was suggested that she appear in a more modest formal gown, but she decided to surprise the President and those attending with something of  her own choosing. The dress she selected was sewn on her. She wore no under garments. Emcee Peter Lawford, who was instrumental in bringing Ms. Monroe and JFK together in his home, built his introduction of the actress on a belittling patter that approached ridicule.  The “audience roared,” the author reports, when she crossed the stage.. Her seductive presentation borders on travesty, especially in the face of the rumors that were flying about her and the President. Public values were very much in transition at the time, but even today, many would see her act as an affront to the decorum expected in the presence of a head-of-state. “That was poor form on her part,” Mort Viner, Dean Martin’s manager said. Many would agree. The President, in acknowledging her performance, observes with humorous sarcasm that he enjoyed being serenaded in such a “wholesome” manner and the line drew a laugh from the crowd. Sarcasm is always a mixed message. Audience members may have roared at her appearance but for the most part it was at her expense.  One wonders whether she realized at some level that she may have discredited herself. At the very least, she was not well served by those who rehearsed her. Nothing highlights the dichotomy between the performing Marilyn and the private Marilyn as much as this short historic appearance. The author does not report that private Marilyn drew any satisfaction over how her performance was received. “I  liked it,” she said in response to a direct question about the party by reporters afterward.

Her Own Glittering Mist . . .

Arthur Schlesigner, Jr., JFK’s biographer, made a journal entry that speaks for most when he wrote, “I do not think I have seen anyone as beautiful. I was enchanted by her manner and wit, at once so masked, so ingenuous and so penetrating. But one felt a terrible unreality about her-as if talking to someone under water. . . . One never felt her to be wholly engaged. She receded into her own glittering mist.”

Icon: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, Volume II - Cover

Icon: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, Volume II – Cover

Vitacco-Robles, as an author, refrains from moralizing and passing judgement. Readers, however, will find the story he has presented as moving and tragic, so much so that one may feel Marilyn Monroe’s legacy looms much larger than her artistic achievements. Her performances will attest through the ages to the depths of her enormous talent. Given her kindness to others, her generosity and her forgiving nature, she stands, however, for so much more. It is not too difficult to imagine that she would have done everything within her power to make certain no child would ever again experience the horrors that she endured during her early years. Her memory needs to be invoked in every effort to assure a better world awaits the birth of every child than the dreadful circumstances she was born into. The psychological damage and painful disorientation of her early years remained with her throughout her life. It crippled her, locked her in “her own glittering mist” as she searched for fulfillment and true happiness. Her life is proof that no amount of fame or fortune can compensate for the loss of the nurturance, love and affirmation every child needs to establish a thriving, healthy sense of self and a belief in his or her essential worthiness.

Turning to conditions under which Ms. Monroe worked, the author provides insight into the workings of the major Hollywood studios. Marilyn Monroe was a money maker for them but she was never treated with the respect she deserved. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were driving the studio into bankruptcy with their self-indulgent behavior and shoddy performances on the set for Cleopatra. Yet they were coddled and catered to. Ms. Monroe may have had problems with punctuality and keeping her commitments to appear but her performances were always exceeded expectations. Yet she was ostracized and threatened with termination. The harsh uncharitable treatment kept her mindful of her the painful abandonment and abuse she experienced as a child.

Vitacco-Robles’s writing style is sturdy and straightforward. There are moments when the author could have moved his story along more efficiently had he used footnotes to provide background data. On occasion the central story all but surrenders to detail and the trail of the narrative fades. The author includes an appendix that provides a synopsis of each of Monroe’s films. Extending the practice to include background information on some personalities and events would have served equally as well. These are the minor shortcomings of an impressive work of unflinching objectivity. Marilyn Monroe’s talent and memory deserved a biographer who brings to his task a dedication and skill that is worthy of her as a subject. Vitacco-Robles had done just that. He has paid her the highest possible tribute in completing this most memorable biography.

This review initially appeared in somewhat condensed form on the web site bookpleasures.com

Thanks for visiting my web site. Look for an interview with Gary Vitacco-Robles to follow this review. While you are here, please let me invite you to check some of the other pages of my site. Please feel free to enter your comments on this or any other feature in the area provided below.

The Honeymoon – A biographical novel of the life of George Eliot

Friday, May 6th, 2016
John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

 

#georgeeliot #marianevans #engishlit

George Eliot’s Silas Marner was required reading in English lit when I was a sophomore in high school in the 1055. Written in the previous century, there was no way we guys would admit to liking the book. It was so old. Nothing in the days of George Eliot had any bearing upon our current time. Richard McCormack was our teacher, a gentleman through and through. We nicknamed him “Silas” because of his affection for Eliot’s novel. (I wonder if he ever found out.) By the time I began teaching sophomore high school English in 1962, a profession I undertook thanks to men like McCormack and my senior year teacher Richard Bisbee, Eliot had been dropped. Thorton Wilder‘s The Bridge of San Luis Rey had taken its place along with Hawthorne‘s Scarlet Letter (“How come she had the baby if she wasn’t married, Mr. Hohn?”) and an abridged version of Melville‘s Moby Dick.

I suppose the change was for the better. Kids took to the new selections readily. But I remembered McCormack and Silas Marner. My senior year in college, I represented my school at the annual Minnesota English Majors Convention and delivered a paper on George Eliot’s Middlemarch which is revered today as one of the great novels of the English language. I hoped I could produce a copy of my paper in preparing for this post, but alas, it vanished somewhere along the way. Prof Stephen Humphrey* helped me prepare the work for presentation. At the end of the conference, he said, “Your ending was especially strong.” I was surprised. He had never seen the ending. I had gone over most of the paper with him on at least two occasions. But the ending,  I had written it in my pajamas the morning of my presentation.

Prof had reason to be pleased with my ending, or at least relieved. The year prior, a senior with the first name of Paul  presented a paper on Shakespeare‘s King Lear at the convention and pretty much embarrassed Prof and the school by failing to draw any conclusion in his report or resolve it with closing remarks. “That’s it,” Paul said unapologetically as he stopped without abruptly with his unfinished paper.  To this day, I thought Prof should have checked Paul’s work. But then he never checked mine to make sure I finished it. I can only guess that Prof trusted us as scholars to do our utmost. Why I postponed writing the last two-and-a-half pages until the very last minute mystified me for years. Now that I write frequently, I have come to realize that I learned a great lesson from the experience.

Cinch Everything  up . . .

George Eliot - Marian Evans

George Eliot – Marian Evans

Much of writing is exploratory, a poking and probing in the hope that the ideas just beyond my reach are viable and worth my time to run down. Once into a piece, however, I know that it must go somewhere, not ramble along like this posting is at the moment. I have learned patience. It is important to yield to impulses, apparent non sequitors that actually do lead somewhere after all. Some become sequitors, but like so many random articles throughout the house, all the ideas need finally to be rounded up to a conclusion. Readers expect closure. Sustaining ambivalence can lead to madness. So, as a piece feels as it wants to close, as I find myself exhausted of whimsy and inspiration alike, I try to embrace everything that found its way onto the screen (yes, the screen; not the paper – ah technology). Then, like a draw string on a large plastic bag, I cinch everything up. Pull it together with a knot of finality and pitch it out — out in front of others for their judgment.

I’m not there yet with this posting.

Prof Stephen B. Humphrey was a major influence on my choice of the teaching profession also. Students admired him. He taught courses in the modern novel and in modern poetry. Both were favorites. We called him the “silver fox,” hardly original, but word reached us that he was pleased. His choice for his class of an early novel was The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler. Anthony Trollope also worked his way into the syllabus, although I can’t recall which of his novels we read (a bad sign, I’d say). Trollope, however, was cited by George Eliot as one who had tremendous influence on her and she said Trollope’s Barchester Towers inspired her to write Middlemarch, which brings me  full circle and back to the real topic of this post.

I was pleased recently to note that a new book has come out on the life of George Eliot. Richard McCormack would be pleased,. may he rest in peace. Dinitia Smith’s wonderful new book The Honeymoon, recently released, is a biographical novel of the life of Marian Evans.

Whisperings . . .

Dinitia Smith, Author

Dinitia Smith, Author

The Honeymoon opens with Evans as a wealthy widow at age 60. Evans gained fame as a novelist under her chosen nom de plume, George Eliot, during a time when women writers could not expect to be well received. Johnnie Cross, an elegantly handsome bachelor of 39, moved gracefully among the better circles in London society. Never much of a ladies man, whisperings drifted about whether he might be a “Nancy man” in the terms of day. Johnnie kept a secret certainly, one few knew. He withheld it from Evans even after they married.

Author Dinitia Smith sets up her biographical novel with the two unlikely newlyweds starting their honeymoon in Venice. Readers sense immediately that something is going very wrong. The stench of the canals, the sweaty, sneering gondolier taking them to their hotel, brown knots of feces bob in the water, all register with Evans. The canal is an open sewer – hardly a romantic setting.

When they arrive at the hotel, the manager recognizes Evans as George Eliot, the famous novelist, and the anonymity she hoped would keep their time together private is shattered. Cross becomes angry. He begins pointing out the sites of the city to his bride. He is so obsessed with the task that his wife cannot coax a smile to his lips. The next morning, she awakens to find him still in his evening dress (they slept in different rooms) which he insists on wearing to the beach regardless of how inappropriate his apparel may be. When he wades into the water fully clothed, Evans pleads with him to return to shore. The honeymoon is turning into a nightmare. With the irony of her title established, author Smith leaves the newlyweds and backtracks to explain how this mysterious state of affairs came about.

The Honeymoon = Book Cover at Amazon

The Honeymoon = Book Cover at Amazon

Marian Evans was born on the estate that her father manages for the wealthy owners. She and her father were very close. Very bright, Evans’ finds herself at home in the company of some of the greatest liberal minds of the time. Her androgynous physical appearance leaves her yearning for love, especially after her father dies. Free love is in fashion among the literati of England. Evans yields to several men, but as they have other alliances, she is abandoned, heart broken and lonely. Seemingly resigned to her fate as a single woman, she begins to write, first for periodicals and eventually publishes a novel which becomes popular and favored by critics. She meets George Lewes, who is married, and the two leave for the continent where they set up household and pass as husband and wife – a la Mary Godwin and Percy Shelley a generation earlier.  Lewes becomes the love of Evans’ life. Smith presents their relationship with poetic sensitivity, a fulfilling relationship for both of them.

Evans is devastated when Lewes dies,. She returns to London to find whatever comfort she can among friends who include the greatest minds of the time. Her novels are praised by Turgenev, Ruskin, Dickens and Spencer, to name a few. One who attends her during her grief is Johnnie Cross.  He pledges his love to her and vows to devote himself to taking care of her. Evans has misgivings because of their age difference, the awkwardness likely in any physical intimacy and sends Cross away. He persists, however, and she eventually agrees to wed and the stage is set for the honeymoon.

The Honeymoon is compelling, compassionate biographical novel, a story best told by a woman of Dinitia Smith’s abundant talent and insight. The author describes her protagonist’s experience in finding the joy of her own writing voice as “. .  . arriving at the point where the words became a melody, took on life, filled the page, became, finally, a symphony.” The phrase could only come from another writer, one who knows the joys of gaining entry to the flow a piece, and the same phrase applies to The Honeymoon as Smith demonstrates her mastery of the language. Her phrases flow. They entrance. She slips into her heroine’s thoughts so unobtrusively readers do not recognize the change in perspective. Evan’s thoughts and feelings pour out onto the page with stunning authenticity. Smith transports her readers with the sights, sounds, scents and textures of her scenes. Marian Evans’ life story is well worth the read. The author’s style in presenting The Honeymoon is a masterpiece of contemporary writing – a study in itself.

Fifty-five years have passed since I delivered my paper on Middlemarch. There something very reassuring in realizing George Eliot’s work remains under discussion and that she as an author still commands the attention that she deserve.

* An internet search produces nothing on Stephen B. Humphrey except notes on the theater named after him on the campus of St. John’s University. Prof was very self-effacing. It is a credit to St. John’s that they honored him by naming the theater after him. Nevertheless, somewhere amid all the historical photos, one would hope to find a photo of Prof.

This review first appeared in bookpleasures.com in a somewhat condensed version.

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Black Panthers at War – General Patton’s African-American Tankers

Saturday, April 23rd, 2016
John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

Mention the Black Panthers, and anyone born after World War II will probably recall the political party that was founded as part of the Black Power movement in the 1960s. Less likely is that anyone recalls a group of African-American G. I. tankers who fought under General George Patton in his armor campaign in Europe in 1944 and 1945. In The Black Panthers at War, author Gina M. Dinicolo mentions the men of the 761st tanker company adopted the name “Black Panthers” for their group, but history proves that the designation did not stick. By contrast, consider the legendary African-American fighter pilots of the Tuskegee Airmen. The Red Tails made history escorting allied bombers on raids into Germany. Or the Red Ball Express. African-American drivers kept the allied forces supplied as they pushed across Europe. Their commitment and endurance completing 36 hours stints in the cab garnered recognition and praise.

Institutionalized Prejudice . . .

African-Americans were relegated to support functions for the most part in World War II. As cooks, truck drivers, mechanics and logistical support, few were exposed to combat. Author Dinicolo points out that the prejudice against blacks was institutionalized in the years leading up to WWII. Army manuals stated that the performance of black Americans was expected to be less than that of whites. Her introduction focuses on the racial tensions and violence that were part of life in the U. S. during the years leading up to the war. The prevailing prejudice was blacks did not possess the skills or the willingness to fight. The armed forces remained segregated during World War II, but the demand for manpower dictated that blacks were needed on the front lines. They would go into combat, however, as a black unit, perhaps led by a white officer, but black throughout the ranks.

Cover: The Black Panthers at War

Cover: The Black Panthers at War

Nobody today doubts the ability or willingness of African-Americans to perform valiantly in combat. Viet Nam dispelled that final shard of ignorance and bigotry. Writing of the 1940s, the theme of lowered expectations of minorities is carried out through the final chapter of Black Panthers at War. One chapter is dedicated to baseball legend Jackie Robinson who was court marshaled on a charge of being disrespectful toward a fellow white officer. Robinson was acquitted but left service because of the charge. Aside from detailed reporting of the frequent incidents of discrimination within the ranks and among the civilians, the author does not expand her perspective beyond the context of the time in which the action she reports took place. Her book adds little in helping readers understand the nature of prejudice and its implications as the conflict and misunderstanding continues through to the present day.

Dinicolo makes an all-out effort, however, at claiming the tankers’ share of fame and recognition, but her story drops several rounds short. It fails to enshrine the heroism and sacrifice of the men it is all about. Dinicolo’s flaccid prose doesn’t create a sense of tension and eminent danger. By attempting to provide the stories of several men in the 761st, her narrative becomes diffuse and superficial. Her prose doesn’t excite much empathy or compassion. The battle scenes are not dramatic, with little sense of challenge or urgency. She relies heavily on mundane modifiers to lead readers. Economy of expression is sacrificed to stating the obvious.

For example: “Germans would kill anyone trying to take the town.”

Dusk becomes “A shortage of daylight . . . “

“Enemy fire resulted in a series of tremendous explosions.” (What else?)

As an author, she’s not in the battle, not with her troops.

Well Grounded in the Facts . . .

Gina M. Dinicola, Author

Gina M. Dinicola, Author

Dinicolo follows several men from enlistment to the battlefield. She is well-grounded in the facts about their training and the battles in which they participated. But her ultimate failure to identify with her subjects becomes evident when she refers to the infantry as “doughboys,” a World War I nickname long out of use by World War II. Dinicolo compounds the gaff by shortening the nickname to “doughs,” a title of her own creation never to be found in print or film about WWII.

A model for any writer in undertaking a military history of any group is Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose. Ambrose captures the Esprit de corps of his company, provides insight into his subjects without resorting to lengthy biographical sketches, and holds the readers by organizing his story around various themes, whether the conflict with the officers in training or the horror of post traumatic shock syndrome. Readers realize the Ambrose’s intention. Dinicolo, on the other hand, adds too much to the mix, almost as if she is compensating for a lack of dramatic focus. The men of E Company in Band of Brothers may, in the final analysis, simply have been another group of guys – white guys – caught up in a war like thousands of others their age. Ambrose found the unifying heart to their efforts. The same story could have been written about nearly any other company in the U.  S. Army at the time, but E Company is proxy for all of them. Readers take their experience as representative of all the G. I.s.

The same opportunity was available to Dinicolo. But she relied more upon the 761st being African-American to set them apart. Otherwise, their experience was much like any other company in the conflict. with the extraordinary exception that they faced prejudice, derision, and bigotry and served anyway. They fought for a county that treated them as second-class citizens. What Dinicolo fails to develop is why these brave black men fought. Blacks in the United States did not see World War II as a white man’s war. They saw it as every man’s war. A war against their country, inequality notwithstanding. A war for democracy. A war against tyranny, injustice and the exploitation of others – conditions of life that African-Americans endured in varying degrees in the U. S.

Blacks Harbored No Doubts . . .

Black Panthers at War chronicles the achievements of very brave and talented soldiers. Any criticism of the work about them should not detract from the magnitude of their accomplishments. That said, any student of World War II and the history of racism in America will find it hard to avoid being disappointed in Dinicolo’s work. Blacks, after all, harbored no doubts about their ability. What they achieved is not the greater because white America thought they were less than capable. Astonishment on the part of any is indicative of prejudice. In an ideal world, their accomplishments would never have been set apart because of race. Instead, they would be recognized for their extraordinary valor, tenacity, skill and drive.

A byproduct of finding one’s rightful place in a society is that achievements, more often as not, go unnoticed. Being part of the crowd carries some assurance of anonymity. Dinicolo never claims the record of the 761st is exemplary because of the racial mix of the company. On the other hand, she does not establish the dynamics of the group or the heroic dimensions of their achievements on a scale that makes them any more exceptional than what others experienced and survived. The same could be said of Ambrose’s Company E. The difference between the two groups is not race but the way in which their stories are told. Black Panthers at War is rich in subject matter. Too bad so little is explored at any depth.

This review first appeared in bookpleasures. com, a web site in somewhat shorter form.

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Michael Sears’ “Saving Jason” Doesn’t Raise the Bar

Friday, January 22nd, 2016
John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

Saving Jason by Michael Sears is a faced-paced, contemporary mystery that most readers will find hard to set aside. Sears covers all the bases for the genre in this, his fourth novel. Jason Stafford, his hero, is a wealthy New Yorker with a tragic past. His first wife, a model (of course), was murdered, leaving him to raise their autistic son who carries his father’s name. Stafford himself is an ex-con, having done time for some shady brokerage dealings. He handles his wealth with ease, and upon his release from prison finds himself another model to take up with. She becomes pregnant and he gets on board again with an old boss at Becker Financial who pays him seven figures just poke around and make sure nothing is beginning to smell like trouble in the firm.

Stafford encounters a suspicious aroma in the small brokerage firm, something to do with penny stock, which true to its name, usually sells for less than a dollar a share and is not subject to oversight by the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC). Stafford’s boss, Virgil Becker, is not convinced anything is out of line but gives his super snoop free rein to follow his instincts. Stafford checks in with the firm’s compliance officer to make sure that he is not at cross-purposes with them. The courtesy puts him in the presence of yet another beautiful gal, who despite her svelte looks and manner, is really a tough cookie who runs a tight ship. She’d rather Stafford just stay out of her way.

Michael Sears, Author of Saving Jason

Michael Sears, Author of Saving Jason

Stafford, however, is his own agent. Compliance be damned. The trading activity in penny stocks bothers him, although on the surface everything appears completely legit. He quickly discovers that there is more than what meets the eye to the suspicious transactions. Nosing about, he gets chased out of a Long Island pasture by two bull bison, his life threatened by thugs he doesn’t know and stalked by a politically ambitious District Attorney who insists Stafford knows more than he is letting on. Truth is, Stafford doesn’t know all of what’s going on. His investigation is spelling trouble for everyone including Virgil Becker who’s arrest in a sham publicity stunt by the DA but scandalous enough to put Becker Financial in play as a takeover. It’s a perfect storm and Sears orchestrates everything magnificently.

In the middle of everything, Stafford maintains his relationship with his pregnant girlfriend. She’s a physical therapist and a looker that might have a guy consider throwing his back out. Marriage is not in the wind, not with an independent contemporary New York City woman. She helps Stafford care for his seven year old autistic son, and it is the relationship between the father and the son that becomes the soul of the story. Sears is at his best with it. The crusty, cynical exterior to Stafford gives way to a genuinely caring, nurturing father. The son, referred to as “the kid,” is realistically depicted with just the right touch of humor and a large measure of compassion and understanding – and endearing picture of both.

Saving Jason - Book Cover

Saving Jason – Book Cover

To escape the threats and harassment, Stafford and his son are taken into the witness protection program. They are whisked out the wide open spaces of the southwestern dessert. The plot, complicated as it is, bogs down a bit as this point, or perhaps it’s Stafford’s own boredom at being so far away from the action that makes it feel that the story has come to a standstill. But wait. Whoever wants a piece of Stafford is on to him and his son. They are found in hiding and are forced to move — just what the book needs to keep the story going. And if being charged by bison seems a stretch, or a throttle-to-the-firewall chase of semi-trailer tractors (Stafford had never driven one before), how about a herd of javelinas (forty-pound stubby wild dessert pigs) charging the shooter drawing a bead on Stafford. The little buggers knock the guy down. He misses his shot, and to top it off, the dude breaks his leg in the attack so he can’t continue in pursuit. Javelinas have been known to attack, but the timing on this is too contrived. Sears charges on with detailed machinations that have one hacker genius cause the stock market to drop. It’s fiction, right? The concepts and the terminology are all there, but bank ownership of penny stocks on margin and an artificially induced drop in the market to trigger margin calls? Sorry. (Too much for this retired stock broker.) Authors fail anytime a reader is forced to recognize that a story is fiction

None of the credibility issues matter, however. Why? Because Michael Sears can write. He has Stafford coming off as a well-rounded, completely credible protagonist. Sears’ narrative is fresh, sensitive, full of humor and human understanding and thoroughly engaging. Saving Jason is a very entertaining novel by a writer who has the capacity, talent and the insight to produce a classic. For all of its charm, however, Saving Jason slides under bar rather than forcing it to be raised.

This review first appeared in slightly altered form on the web side bookpleasures.com.

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Philip Kenney’s “Where Roses Bloom”

Sunday, December 13th, 2015
John J. Hohn, Writer/Reviewer

John J. Hohn, Writer/Reviewer

Where Roses Bloom, Philip Kenney’s recent book of poetry, is an impressive body of work, especially when the poet’s novel, Radiance, is included in any consideration of the author’s output. The title might suggest sentimentality in his approach. “Roses,” as a word, has many connotations. But do not be misled. Kenney’s work is fresh, challenging, and poignant.

Kenney is thoroughly at home in the contemporary poetic aesthetic that decades ago abandoned traditional form, rhyming and meter. Readers invoke more subjective standards in judging a poet’s work. The two measures that come to mind immediately for Where Roses Bloom for this reviewer are accessibility and perspective. Kenney’s work is immediate. Readers are engaged and enthralled rather than mystified or perplexed. Kenney wants to reach his readers. His work evokes feeling through freshly moving scenes and situations that ring with authenticity.

As for perspective, Kenney places himself as the poet staunchly into his verse. He has a unique voice. He has not hidden behind convention, intricate conceits or gimmicks. Perspective, after all, helps the reader establish the author’s proximity to the concepts and feelings of a work. At one extreme, the poem can stand alone as a work of art saying little or nothing about the poet. Some of the greatest poetry in the language represent the standard in this regard. John Donne, Alexander Pope, John Milton. William Carlos Williams. The poet is in the work by implication as the mind and heart behind the composition.

Phil Kenney, Poet and Novelist

Phil Kenney, Poet and Novelist

At the other end of the continuum, verse is inseparable from the poet. The writer’s thoughts and feelings are presented as such. The writer is in the poem in person. Disaster can lie at either end of the continuum ranging on the one hand from self-indulgent, narcissist compositions to cerebral esoteric works on the other that come off as clinically precise but fail to give readers a handle or buy in.

Kenney is in his poetry. Readers can feel his presence.

Where Roses Bloom is almost three books in one based upon the subject matter and the approach Kenney takes. The first is a short collection of longer poems about others Kenney has observed. These poems struck this reviewer as a in the tradition of Edward Arlington Robinson (Richard Cory, Mr. Flood’s Party) in that the focus is on appearances and the extent to which people will go to maintain an image, or if not an image, a state of apparent composure. Kenney is a psychotherapist. He is a seer. In his Preface, he carefully explains that the personalities depicted in his poetry are composites and do not represent any one person or character. As he writes of himself in The counselor: A self portrait

To me I resemble the tavern keeper

All day behind the counter

Not knowing who will drop by,  I listen

And fill the classes.

In the same poem, he writes:

Next to the wisdom that is yours I sound abstract,

Contrived, while yours is the beauty

Of flowers blooming on a desert floor.

In Toes, Kenney draws one man’s story to the end as follows:

He never spoke a word of those toes,

Though for years they had not straightened,

For years they tucked their heads

Under the ball of his foot,

Like frightened snails in a shell

And never came out.

Observations as captured in the imagery in the passage above set Kenney’s verse apart. Metaphors represent thought and feeling in a way that is emphatic and powerful. In some passages, as in the above also, the poet may work a little too hard for his reader and economy is forfeit. The repetition of “for years” is superfluous and the passage could effectively ended on the penultimate line after the word “snails.”

Philip Kenney is a father, a husband, a son, a brother and a pet owner. In this second group, he writes about all. He seems at his exuberant best when writing about his two sons. Saturday, for example, is “The day of bacon and French toast: Hoping the boys will sleep in.” In Make me into something, he writes:

Once upon a time, when they were little boys,

A collection of wiggles and shrieks,

I threw them to the couch and made each into pizza pie.

It was a dramatized game of tickle, which is

Travel to the outer limits of pleasure.

Some of the longer works really are prose poems. The generous phrasing takes the reader by the hand to assure nothing slips past. A few lines later in the same poem, he continues:

Rolled out the dough, rolled it back I into a ball

Kneaded it with my fingers (this killed them)

Flipped it high in the air, twirling like a galaxy,

Spread it out on the board, gingerly applied the sauce

And cheese; pepperoni sent the squealing to heaven.

Any man who has been a father to sons feels the fun and laughter in this piece. His poem Georgio, Georgio, Help! is filled with the same glee. The passage quoted is but one of several moving poems Kenney has composed and dedicated to his sons. They are full of fun, whimsy, tenderness, and, yes, love.

Of his elderly mother’s efforts at signing a birthday card, he writes, The failed attempts stained a happy greeting. They lay on the paper like dead inchworms Dried out and curled up. The poet’s mother is the subject of another moving piece, Her last possession, which closes with the stanza below:

You and I can’t comprehend

Existence without memories –

But there she is

Walking down the corridor,

A smile, that determined look,

Her last possessions.

For all the intimacy conveyed – the preciousness (at the risk of using the abused word) – readers will come to know Kenney as an observer of all the life around him. He relates to his everyday surroundings. The squirrels, the birds, the moon, the sun, a daddy-longlegs, even a fugitive from justice are all in his world with him. Readers find him immersed rather than standing apart. He writes of being nearly overwhelmed, and if not that, of bringing his perception of his own life down to the smallest things that are close at hand and real for him. Touchstones. In the refining and narrowing of his focus, readers come to know a man who is very much aware of himself, the mystery of his existence, and the joys that are available to him every day. Humility enables vision just as pride or avarice diminish it. There is no grandiosity in Kenney’s work. He is a keen observer.

Kenney’s wisdom shines in several of his poems. In a third grouping of compositions, his tone turns more pensive. His subjects, more universal. His comments about what troubles about the world today are often oblique, as in Hours of Blue, he writes:

We the tall strangers, oblivious

To the blisters on our skin

To the eruptions in our brains

Lost wanderers, fearful of dying

Fearful of longings, unable to stop the plunder

Unable to listen, or be quiet.

Or more allegorically in What the cats trust

Instead of believing in the forgiveness of God

Why not recognize the absence of judgement?

And stop setting up rituals of repentance.

And when the hand of being

Picks you up from beneath the wheels of a car,

Don’t swipe at this with your claws.

Where Roses Bloom - Cover as Presented on Amazon

Where Roses Bloom – Cover as Presented on Amazon

All of Kenney’s poems seek a reassuring resolution. He is no cynic. That said, readers will not come away from his work with an understanding of his beliefs or admonitions of faith. The poet stands for peace. Peace within. Peace in the world. If anything, he urges movement away from trouble, tension and distress toward acceptance, contentment, and serenity. But he doesn’t preach. He demonstrates. He urges. He portrays. The scope of his work spans most of the stages of life – childhood, the ages of love, of parenthood, of the diminishing years, of old age and passing beyond. His work could be tighter. He could leave more to the reader than he does. Pagination orphans lines at times that can result in a poem being misread if the reader is not alert. He could find alternatives for words like rose, precious, cherish – typical stock response evokers, but his integrity and the authenticity of his vision is never in doubt. His images are fresh and arresting. He knows his subject. He doesn’t talk about anything but of it. Where Roses Bloom needs to be read and reread. For the book is indeed like a bloom itself and it opens to yield more every time it is shown the light.

Thanks for visiting my web site. Philip Kenney’s books are available at Amazon. Simply search under his name. While you are here, I invite you to look through the other pages of my site. Please feel free to enter a comment in the area provided below. May the joys of the holiday season be with you.

Poet Robert Lax – Michael N. McGregor’s Powerful Biography

Tuesday, October 27th, 2015
John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax by Michael N. McGregor is a powerful biography of a poet who only recently has been recognized for his contributions to the evolution of contemporary poetry. The book succeeds on several levels.

Lax was born to immigrant parents in Olean, New York in 1915. The middle class values of his Jewish upbringing instilled in him a deep desire to achieve. His mother nurtured his aspirations and his loving relationships with his siblings, especially his sister Gladio, lasted all of his life. Coming of age during the depression – a time of financial hardship and open antisemitism in America – Lax enrolls in Columbia where he finds himself quickly at home among some of the brightest of his generation, including lifelong friend, Thomas Merton. Here also, Lax meets the Hindu monk, Mahanambrata Brahmachari, who Lax describes as the first true ‘holy man’ they’d (Lax and Merton) met.” McGregor writes:

The influence of Brahmachari’s words and way of being was so pivotal and long-lasting that Merton mentioned him in his last letter to Lax, days before he died. By then, based in part on decisions Brahmachari had led him to, Lax was living in a manner much like that of the guru in blue sneakers.

A list of all who influenced Lax during these impressionable years would be long indeed. Lax, however, was not part of the mainstream. Rich in detail, McGregor’s narrative never bogs down, a credit to his easy, flowing style. Sensitive readers will walk away from the book feeling that they have spent time in the company of an enlightened holy man – a rare and beautiful accomplishment for any writer.

Precursor to the Beatniks . . .

Robert Lax - Poet, Essayist and Philosopher

Robert Lax – Poet, Essayist and Philosopher

Merton and Lax room together upon graduating in a cottage near Lax’s hometown of Olean. The cottage becomes a hangout for others who, like Lax and Merton, were ambivalent about starting a career. McGregor suggests that their community was a precursor to the beatnik subculture that would emerge twenty years later. Nevertheless, during this time, Lax read the Bible and the works Shakespeare, Dante, Eliot, Blake, Donne, St. Augustin, and St. John of the Cross and others – all of which bring about a deepening of his spiritual beliefs.

All of Lax’s friends grow apprehensive about the conflict in Europe. Lax frets about what he should do and decides finally to register as a conscientious objector, a decision that put him at odds with some of his friends. I do not believe in killing, he writes. I will not kill. McGregor reports the poet writes with the unshakable conviction that “what he did and said had wider, even eternal implications.” In working out his position, Lax writes further, The world is, or seems to be (except for disease, unfortunate accidents, hostile beats, poison plants, murderous thievish, blaspheming, idolatrous, lying, adulterous, scandalous man) for joy.

These statements, all part of a single journal entry, might seem grandiose and naive – almost to the point of humor. Lax knows his mind. What his statements measure is not the young poet’s maturity but his passionate commitment to a view of mankind in the world and his place in it among his fellows.

Michael N. McGregor, Biography

Michael N. McGregor, Biography

Author McGregor seems aware that readers may misjudge his subject, perhaps to the point of dismissing Lax altogether. Yet McGregor never assumes the role of apologist for Lax. The author’s view is not idealized. He trusts his readers and gives a balanced account. Lax is his own victim at times. He is listless and eager to please, indecisive and often unwilling to confront even when it is in his best interests to do so. But McGregor depicts rather than judges, subtly affirming the reader’s judgements rather than enumerating Lax’s shortcomings.

Almost Paradoxical . . .

Friends eventually leave the cottage near Olean, Merton enters a Trappist monastery and Lax is fusses over what to do professionally. Despite holding positions with prestigious publications, He inevitably finds himself out of place. He abhors what the American world of commerce asks of people of talent. His solution is to seek solitude and live a life of poverty. Alone, his quest to discover and live as his true self will be unencumbered. As a man discovers his true self, he also draws closer to God. Man’s inner voice prays and talks to God. From the same voice poetry springs. McGregor writes:

In seeking to hear his inner voice, he was seeking as well to be a center of calm in the world. In making decisions or answering questions, he wanted to take his time, to let the answer rise quietly and naturally from his inner being – not a partial answer but a full one he could agree with completely.

As Lax takes up solitary residence among the residents of the Greek Isles, it is apparent the poet holds an idealized view of his neighbors, a view that is almost paradoxical – so fragile that if it were to be challenged, the impact would be profound, perhaps a shattering disorientation. Yet, his beliefs shape his perception. He sustains his view with the sheer power of his intellect. He wants to believe humans can live simply in the moment, congruent lives, where spirit, mind and body function as one, to live as a circus acrobat dashing toward a trotting horse, leaping into a somersault and landing upright and sure-footed on the animal’s back. Circus performers become yet another fascination for the evolutionary poet because in their movements, Lax see humans approximating his ideal of a pure act.

A Passion for the Essence . . .

Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax as featured on Amazon

Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax as featured on Amazon

Lax’s poetry and other works did not receive much recognition during his lifetime. He worked in the shadow of Merton and persisted with little support from the larger literary community. In his passion for the essence of words, almost an obsession, he sought to strip every word of the accepted connotations and associations so that each would appear on the page, strike the reader’s mind, as a primal, discrete entity. McGregor credits him with the discovery of vertical poetry. In his restricted vertical poems, Lax dedicates a single line to each syllable. Syllables are to words what atoms are to molecules. Finding the true intended self requires purity of language. Pure prayer requires the same. His more expansive pieces are reminiscent of e. e. cummings in form, cummings being among the poets of the previous generation much admired by Lax.

In the 1950’s he meets Jack Kerouac and is impressed with Kerouac’s spontaneous writing, which Lax sees as akin to the work of one of his idols, James Joyce, in the freedom it enables and the belief that it accesses pure thought directly. Lax briefly weighs the merits of a theory emerging among mid-twentieth thinkers that art is to be created as art, as a being with itself as its reason for existing rather than as a mirror of life. Art is art. Life is life. Or so it is argued. Back on his island home, watching a girl weave a simple rug and fisherman repair their nets, Lax rejects the new wave of thinking. Art springs from life.

McGregor refreshes his narrative at intervals with engaging first-person accounts of his own travels and visits with Lax. The author’s voice is unpretentious and authentic. If his personal beliefs ever differ with those of his subject, it is never evident. Catholicism figures prominently in the lives of Merton and Lax. When Lax is asked why he converted, the poet states  that as a young man he needed more structure. Readers expecting more from a man of profound reflection and immersed in the writings of Aquinas, Augustine, John of the Cross – to name just a few – may be disappointed. Merton and Lax, aside from profound respect for the teachings of Christ – especially the Sermon on the Mount – are not reported as engaged much in the life of Jesus, the mystery of the redemption and resurrection. Both men seem more theist than Christian. In the end, Lax realizes almost as a concession that no one religion is ever enough. It is important to go beyond.

Pure Act is a book to own. Beautifully written, there is wisdom within its pages. Everyone’s walk is different. Pure Act has a place along everyone’s way to be read once, slowly, and referred to again and again. Life is to be lived slowly, Lax admonishes, because answers come slowly – as slowly yet persistently as questions do.

This review, in somewhat condensed form, first appeared on the web site, bookpleasures.com.

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Mystery Writing at its Best — The Collector by Steven M. Moore

Monday, December 15th, 2014
John J. Hohn, Writer and Reviewer.

John J. Hohn, Writer and Reviewer.

Steven M. Moore’s most recent mystery novel, The Collector, is an impressive addition to the author’s Castilblanco-and-Chen series. The book is out is of the gate on the first page as a narrator awakens to find herself bound, gagged and locked in the truck of an automobile with another unknown female companion. The trunk opens and narrator’s companion is stabbed to death.

Enter Castilblanco, Moore’s big guy detective, a rough and tumble city veteran who suffers from a chronic indigestion. The detective is called in to investigate the apparent murder of an art gallery owner, Brendan Rafferty. Accompanying him is female sidekick Chen, an exquisite beauty who has mastered the art of disguising her feelings behind what Castilblanco repeatedly refers to as her Mona Lisa smile. (Ah, the thriller tradition where female detectives are good looking. Makes one want to run a red light just to encounter one.)

Castilblanco takes over the narrative with a voice reminiscent of old radio noir mysteries like Johnny Dollar or Boston Blackie, perhaps Steve McQueen as a more contemporary example. The big guy pops Tums like M & M’s, refers to his wife by her last name, professes to be a convert Buddhism and opines about everything from modern art (hates it) to the vicissitudes of daily life in the Big Apple and contemporary politics. The detective’s raconteur style is abrupt as he presumes the reader recognizes that subject of his sentences in the breezy style of a personal letter. Found myself backing up to make sure I understood. Prefer that the subject is in a sentence. Don’t like the break in the flow. Although in Castilblanco’s case allowances are in order. He scores a lot of idiosyncratic points.

Steven L. Moore, Author and Blogger

Steven L. Moore, Author and Blogger

The plot thickens when an autopsy of the gallery owner produces a horse pill size capsule containing the names of three stolen masterpiece paintings. Art theft, kidnapping, child pornography and snuff films enter the mix. Readers share Castilblanco’s outrage and visceral repugnance at the horrific exploitation of the children. One vivid scene has Castilblanco finding scores youngsters surviving the dark stench of railroad box cars. One wishes in earnest that nothing like what described could actually take place in the world today.

The detective wants to solve the murder, yes. But above all else, he wants to bring the scum bags behind the pornography, kidnapping, and murder to justice. His rage drives the plot as day by day an elaborate financing scheme unfolds – the stolen masterpieces serve as collateral for financing the video productions. Solid citizens, at least as far as appearances go, are backing the evil enterprise. The plot takes several twists and turns, harkens back to Nazi Germany, involves Scotland Yard, and the FBI, “feebies,” according to Castilblanco—a nickname new to this reviewer, but then Castilblanco indulges in nicknames of all sorts, acronyms and slang. He also is keenly aware of ethnic differences.

The Collector -- Book Cover from Amazon

The Collector — Book Cover from Amazon

Author Moore changes point of view, or voice, frequently. Most of the time, his hero detective narrates. When Castilblanco is not on the scene, Moore uses third-person omniscient voice, a conventional practice. The compelling mystery story line would be better served, however, if the omniscient narrator sounded less like Castilblanco and a more like a detached, discrete voice of its own. Readers may find it a tad difficult to identify who the narrator is in some passages—a minor distraction.

The Collector is vigorous, forceful storytelling at its best. Moore’s moral perspective is clear. Castilblanco’s world is rich soil for nurturing cynics and pessimists. Moore’s detective, however, is a force of one, brimming with gruff optimism and hope. An idealist thrives underneath his sarcasm and his story makes for a great read for mystery fans or anyone looking for an entertaining tale.

The above is a somewhat shorten review that initially appeared in bookpleasusres.com.

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