i've been having a hard time feeling motivated to read books lately. here are reviews for the most recent books i've finished
Notes from a Wood-Paneled Basement by Alan Ten-Hoeve (Gob Pile): I've spoken with Alan a few times on Twitter, about writing and publishing mainly, but also life stuff. I bought the book without knowing anything about it, vaguely thinking it would be a story collection, but it's poetry, or that contemporary mix of poetry and then some longer pieces that don't look like poems. It is a very earnest, memoiry, sentimental collection that revolves around a few common themes/topics: memories from his own childhood (usually featuring his grandparents and/or divorced dad), memories from his current life with emphasis on his own children/being a dad, and nature/domestic haiku or short poems. I really like this approach and I think it's very well done, though I think my appreciation for it is very much based on being a dad myself and trying to engage with/live in/think about nature more. I really like the quiet moments of domestic life, and the contrast between the fucked up things he experiences as a kid and his experience as a dad (seems like a good dad btw). The pacing and sequencing is good, and I felt engaged by the characters and their dynamics from piece to piece. There are a few melodramatic moments/turns at the end of some pieces, which I get but didn't think were too necessary - kind of jarring in contrast with the otherwise straight forward narrative style. I found the pieces about the mailbox really engaging, funny, and endearing, while the haiku often felt a little out of place and the meditations on nature without the context of his family were to me the least interesting parts, but I understand them and why he wrote them, and I enjoyed some of them for what they are; I can't really comment on what makes good haiku or poems about nature. I also felt distracted by the line breaks often, with many lines being only a single word long. I feel like framing these pieces as poems with a lot of line breaks isn't really necessary in terms of their rhythm and imagery - would have enjoyed it more just as a collection of (often very short) prose, maybe like Potted Meat. I recommended this book to jerome spencer, who just had another kid, by saying it's "a very dadly book."
The Sun Still Shines on a Dog's Ass by Alan Good (Death of Print): alan is a nice guy, and i've really liked his nonfiction writing in the past (eg on the neutral spaces blog) and various stories online. this is a book of fiction and it follows alan's general aesthetic outlined in his previous book the war on xmas: all the stories are about kind of angry, down-and-out smartasses navigating personal/structural setbacks, and they all sort of hinge on satirizing/shittalking contemporary conservative politics/caricatures. most of the settings are in texas, missouri, maybe kansas - the american heartland - and involve shitty cops, religious freaks, pro-gun maniacs, racists, and other kinds of often uniquely american rightwing assholes. while reading, i felt like this was generally a cathartic experience for alan as a writer. the jokes often get pushed to the extreme, the world in these stories is a very extreme place, but the main characters are left in as much disbelief as the reader, usually -- slavery-themed chain restaurants, for example, but also guys doing horse semen protein shake pyramid schemes, doomsday preppers collecting guns and stuff, etc. i feel like in spite of the common tropes and characters, the stories are generally very interesting and propulsive, action-oriented without reading like a car chase, and alan isn't afraid to let things wind up in weird or unexpected places because of some dedication to realism or literary devices. for example, the titular last story is also probably my favorite, and involves a bank heist, and, spoilers, the plucky idiots who just kind of improvised the whole plan end up totally getting away with it. writing this kind of ending requires a special desire of not giving a fuck, of pursuing what would be the most interesting or unpredictable path, which i like and appreciate. the total fuckedness of some of the characters leads to cathartic moments - a guy destroying a bunch of cop cars with a forklift, for example - and dramatic irony, like the ending of the really long story about a guy who takes out a bunch of loans because he's in love. something alan does that i don't like as much is let big story beats enter and exit without much transition, sometimes making it feel like i missed something because one paragraph will end and the next will start with an in media res hook, which would probably benefit from more scene breaks or something. there's a lot of emphasis on humor, wordplay, self-referential asides and jokes from the main characters, which i enjoyed, but sometimes they don't shine as much as they could because the settings and themes are so consistently about social/political commentary, and the sense of humor/attitude is pretty much the same across protagonists. trying to think of why i liked this collection more than, say, something else that seems really based on topical culture/politics, is that alan doesn't try to impress you with twists or unexpected takeaways, but just lets the story be what it is. while everything hinges on some absurd caricature, it doesn't feel artificial in its construction. and while a lot of the writing emphasizes humor, often straight up jokes, the humor feels unpredictable and insane, less calculated and more experimental. i'd be curious to see how he'd approach writing something less pointedly about contemporary politics with this humor and approach to character. pretty good book overall imo.
Bad Poet by Brian Alan Ellis (House of Vlad): i bought this...two years ago? or longer? and i guess i never read it, or didn't finish it. i picked it up this week to give it a real read through since i like BAE and house of vlad and the cover on this bad boy a lot (and the author photo). i remember someone snitch tagged BAE about the cover in a tweet to roxane gay, which was funny (the cover is a riff on bad feminist) (bad poet's cover looks better imo, with the black background). it's 3 sections - poems, tweets, then more poems. i feel like the tweets section is basically just a poems section without line breaks or titles. everything in the book is basically the same kind of thing, which is sort of BAE's thing, which is a pop culture pun mixed with self-hatred - lots of "call me maybe" references, for example, and images of living in squalor, feeling alienated, etc. The same-iness of the book is its main detractor for me, because I actually like a lot of the images, jokes, and some of the puns, but each (very short) poem is limited to a single discrete image + pun, which makes them feel template-based or formulaic, and the onslaught of so many of them makes it hard for any one image or idea to really shine. i feel like the really innovative things he does get drowned out - would like to see more metalinguistic things like the *winks* line and some of the throwaway jokes used to build something bigger, badder, and weirder. was thinking about this book and its approach to poetry when i wrote this tweet, about tweets and poems (tweets as poems?): "a lot of (viral) tweets feel like (bad) poems - a unique image/experience packaged up in some cliche, artificial convention to signify membership of the medium. thinking of things like "obsessed with," "shout out to," "i hope the person who...is ok," "good morning to" etc." in the sense that the poems (and tweets) in this book are a merge of poem and tweet, always framing some image (a bar patron throwing up, not owning furniture, having a shitty flip phone, weird interactions with people, etc) with a formal framing device to designate it as a poem. kind of rambling here. basically i think he should have pushed himself to experiment more with this, even something as simple as merging like 5 small poems into one long poem, as all the pieces are very much the same kind of thing (and length). on rereading this review, i've said the same thing in maybe 3-4 different ways. something i do like a lot is his willingness to treat titles as their own (often unrelated) poem-like object (often the titles are the best part of the poem). i marked a couple poems that i really liked, but i don't have the book with me. i like the one about thinking about calling the cops on people.