Reviews of Alma Lolloon

Another review of “Alma Lolloon” released into the cybersphere, this one by Ashen Venema, author of “Course of Mirrors” and blogger friend. I paste below, and below that, please see the “TinyLetter” opportunity.

Ashen’s Review:

on December 19, 2017
This is fun. Want to write a book? Forget empowering how-to-do courses. Instead, entertain your knitting circle; guaranteed not to be the silent reading audience an author might fantasise about, for good or bad. More, they’re keen to have their characters included in your story.
Do knitters or writers have a plan before they set out to do their craft? Alma, a waitress, determined to write a book about her five husbands has no plan. She shares the process by reading installments to Hattie, Rufa, Anny and Curly, her knitting friends. The knitters frequently interrupt. Hattie, considered to be a writing expert, spouts her wisdom with relish – a book – ha – what makes you think you can …
Alma is undeterred. The first scenes recount the surreal events following the unplanned pregnancy of an American teen. Story or not, the ladies are hooked. They frequently debate the merits of the story, if it is a story, and what the whole point of it might be.
Grammar, speech marks, arc, none of this matters to Alma as she reads to her listeners. They’re obviously entertained by the occasional odd simile, or they wouldn’t show up at the rotating local venues where they meet. ‘Where’s this going?’ they query. ‘But that’s incredulous,’ they exclaim. Stay silent, burst or share and be crucified. Through the sardonic, provoking and lamenting chapters shines Alma’s need to express her unique truth.
Active listeners can be rough, in the understanding, of course, that it doesn’t pay to tell the truth. There are laugh-out-loud moments. Portland’s American lingo weaves through the themes of existential crisis, lost utility and simmering rage, sprinkled with humour and funny lines. ‘My epiphany slowly crawled up the back of my neck, morphed, split, and then two headed to my ears, one each …’ or ‘Rack stood five feet nine inches, nine inches and a half if he would bother standing up straight. Well, Jack Rack is mistakenly shot and the story moves on …
I enjoyed the hilarious discussions on marriage, and on men as occasional providers.
Could it be said that ‘men’ is a category of books?
And then, Alma finds out, there are those who choose a book for its cover.

~~~

My Weekly Tiny Letters

My this week’s Tiny Letter copied below. Would you like to sign up?

Three reviews of “Alma Lolloon” are now loose in the cybersphere:

Bill Currey bound his review in a tweet, to wit:

Bill Currey @williamcurrey
And here I thought I was going to get a Joycean map with footnotes and all to Linker’s Portland! I stumble blindly onwardly towards, if not to summation, at least to termination.

Joe Linker @JoeLinker
Replying to @williamcurrey @PhilippaRees1 and 2 others
Thanks for the review, Bill. Sounds like something Beckett might have said.

And Dan Hennessy posted a review of “Alma Lolloon” to his “Tangential Meanderings” blog (AKA: itkindofgotawayfromyou). Click here to read Dan’s review.

And if you’ve not read Philippa Rees’s review of “Alma Lolloon,” it’s at Queen Mob’s Tea House. Click here.

Bookmark Giveaway!

We’ll be spending the holidays with the grand girls, and for an art project we’ll be making bookmarks for a Joe Linker book.

The bookmarks use standard, toxic free materials, of paper and fabric, thematically linked to the books with original artwork.

If you’d like to receive a complementary bookmark, please send a reply to this tiny letter telling us what book you’d like the bookmark for (Penina’s Letters; Coconut Oil; Scamble and Cramble: Two Hep Cats and Other Tall Tales; Saltwort; or Alma Lolloon), and also include a snail mail address for us to mail you the bookmark. All bookmarks will be sent out by Dec 31st. If you prefer, we can send you an e-bookmark. Reply the same as above but with an email address. What’s an e-bookmark? Not sure, we’ve not made one yet.

You can view the covers of the five books here.

Thanks for reading, Joe

Some Readings

Course of Mirrors (Ashen Venema); Beer in the Snooker Club (Waguih Ghali); Southeaster (Haroldo Conti); Envoy and Ward’s Fool (Caleb Crain)

I was cured a couple of years ago of making unsolicited reading recommendations. Having pushed a couple of suggestions into the hands of a suspecting neighbor, who initially faked appreciation but later made me realize he despised being told what to read, I decided to relax into my own reading and leave well enough alone when it came to the reading or non-reading of others.

I remind myself there are books I once loved and re-loved I’ve since dropped into the free library share box on the corner, always full of suggestions of what we might read. Likewise, there are books I once started reading but could not “get into,” as the old reading saying goes, but on a later look did fall incomprehensibly in love with, which is to say reading is not always placed before, but sometimes after. Before or after what? Something draws us to a text – what? why?

In any case, I’ve decided to talk a bit of some recent readings. A book review, mind you, is not the same as a book recommendation, nor is it the same as a kind of what “I’vebeenreadinglately.” Nick Hornby used to write a monthly column for the Believer magazine called “Stuff I’ve Been Reading.” At the top of each column he listed “books read,” followed by “books bought” [during the month], discussion following that may or may not cover all the books read in any kind of traditional review. It was a personal reading column. I enjoyed it, and always went to it first, to see what was there, even if I but rarely followed up with reading the books myself. The lists may or may not have matched, usually did not match exactly. Also in the Believer, Greil Marcus contributed a monthly column called “Real Life Rock Top Ten,” a personal Billboard of his monthly music experience, a perfect column, a ten paragraph countdown full of Greil’s unique style where Edmund Wilson takes over “At the Movies,” talking about popular music not as sub-culture but as the culture, which means it can be read into, in to, too. I don’t know if Hornby and Marcus are still writing for the Believer, my subscription of a few years having been let lapse. It now appears the old Believer, out of San Francisco, is giving way to a new life at Black Mountain Institute at UNLV.

My reading experience with Ashen Venema’s “Course of Mirrors,” a book of contemporary mythical fantasy, a coming of age story, a memoir disguised in allegory, was enjoyable. Sometimes, a reader must let go and simply read what’s there and stop underlining and marking up the text with marginal notes as if he too were going to write something brilliant in the Believer. That is called reading for enjoyment. I remember reading somewhere Harold Bloom saying he never underlined or marked up a book, he remembered everything, he “internalized” the text as he read it. I have to read up and down, back and forth, settle in and settle up, spend time in the dictionary, if not in the loo.

Maybe readers enjoy books most they discover on their own. Lists, which can be useful, lead to argument. Rely on the list in that link, for example, and you’ll miss Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac. There are lists and anti-lists, counter canons, counter intuitive lists. Good reading is often subversive to one’s own assumptions and preconceptions.

Youssef Rakha recently mentioned (in a tweet or at The Sultan’s Seal – I can’t find the reference now) “Beer in the Snooker Club,” which I bought and read. It’s a coming of age story of a mid-century Egyptian who is impoverished by the privilege he’s born into. It’s about identity, alienation, love, and the economic and intellectual frustration of compromise amid what Thoreau called in a different time and place the “quiet desperation” of the lives most men lead. It’s both heavy and light. The setting is Egypt and England around the time of the Suez Crisis. The first person narration is witty and sharp, literary and sarcastic, self-aware and penetrating. The characters are real, the events depicted clearly and with a detached empathy that brings world events close to home and headlines into one’s mailbox. The narration employs styles that mimic without becoming parody – the Hemingway set piece, for example. You see it coming, realize you’re there, but in case you missed it, are given his name. It’s a great book. I’m glad to have read it, and I’m going to turn around and read it again.

“Southeaster” I first heard about at the Boston Review, where Jessica Sequeira gave a thorough discussion of the book, its setting, author, and times, and with a focus on the translator, Jon Lindsay Miles, including an interview. I might be one of the North American readers Jessica refers to, though I read “Southeaster” not as exotic literature, although I did think of “The Old Man and the Sea” in more than one place, but also I thought of Steinbeck, but I read “Southeaster” as an old surfer might, aficionado of water flow, enjoying the very similar way of being on the water, though not, given the crowds these days, as solitary an experience as Haroldo Conti’s river. This book sat in a stack for over a year before I finally gave it a proper reading.

The summer issue of “The Paris Review’ arrived, with a story by Caleb Crain, “Envoy,” just a few pages, but an extraordinary narration by a first person who lies twice about his age and almost misses the epiphany of a flattery. The appearance of “Envoy” reminded me I had yet to properly finish Caleb’s story, “Ward’s Fool,” in the Winter 2017, n+1. “Ward’s Fool,” set in some non-specific future, appears to be a kind of phrase writer’s bureaucratese, until another epiphany slowly dawns across another river.

I enjoyed a beer yesterday late afternoon with a few colleagues from my past. Not fiction readers by vocation or avocation, they were nevertheless aware of my “Penina’s Letters,” and had even read the Amazon reviews, and had perhaps glanced through the “look inside” Amazon feature. I was not offended, but happy they had showed any kind of interest, shared any kind of mention. I thought of audience and occasion and the discipline of respecting both. Marketing can at times rival literature for its subversive practices. The marketing of literature might be doubly subversive.

Ashen Venema’s Course of Mirrors: An Odyssey

As we begin our trip with Ana, leaving her teens and moving from a self-renounced medieval privilege to her own renaissance, we get the feeling she has no interest in becoming the subject of some troubadour’s love song or any knight’s lady waiting in a fortified manor house for her man to come home with the meat and mead. She’s interested in neither shame nor honor. The holy grail of “Course of Mirrors: An Odyssey” is a story of one’s own. This is not your mom’s fairy tale.

A medieval mystery play, a miracle play, directed by an evil Preacher, brings Ana a quick and unwanted celebrity. But the Preacher is a vaudevillian, the sacrifice, like the Catholic mass, intended to be bloodless. Fine, Ana wonders, but what was his plan for her if she was not to die? And something about the Preacher, his looks, his bearing, his power to pander, attracts Ana. We don’t always want what’s good for us.

We are on a rogue adventure in a picaresque tale where disguise and subterfuge are necessary and ordinary. Ana dresses as a boy, learns to live off herbs and small animals from her mentor Rheine, and, in the course of their travels and travails, embraces a realism rooted in the fairy tale. For example, now hiding from her mother now searching for her girl disguised as a boy, in the hold of a boat where,

“Far too many horses, mules, sheep, goats, fowl and pets were cramped together with hardly any ventilation. The sickening stench of urine and droppings eventually defeated me. At daybreak I retched and escaped onto the first deck. Bent with pain, I was violently sick over the railing, onto the oars below.” Also realistic is the humor; Rheine says, “I’d an inkling your night would be disagreeable.”

The miracle play motif is picked up by a traveling theater troupe: “Rheine had squeezed my hand on occasions. The irreverence brought to the miracle made us simultaneously cry and laugh with the audience. Humour softened my bitter memory. I told myself that the saint business was a mob dream.”

But we are as quickly brought from a saving humor to a murderous reality: “People and animals thrashed in the water or floated lifeless in the wake of the burning…The men pulled three bodies into their boat and attacked the rest with oars. They pushed the living underwater to their deaths.”

In the space of a few episodes, then, we are caught in our runaway’s fallopian fall from innocence to experience, pushed by a stubborn insistence on an existential rebirthing, from parental expectations to a daughter’s commitment to freedom. The contemporary allegory may have its roots in the counter culture movement of the 1960’s, when costume and disguise, stage renaissance fair updated with hallucinogenic lighting, pretend sacrifice, and children on the run from the neurotic, war damaged psyches of their parents figured out new ways to live and tell the old stories.

In any case, the future is never far behind, where our decisions have consequences. This is time travel, in the form of foil character Cara’s journal: “A handful of us are perched on the flat roof of a skyscraper; I can’t see the faces of the people with me, they are strangers. The tower sways like a ship tossed about in an ocean, climbing a rising wave, only to plummet. The tower tilts. I slide and cling to the leaded rim of the flat roof. There is a sudden lurch.” Cara’s time altered mirrored narrative within a narrative both clarifies and complicates Ana’s predicament as the plot unfolds like a house of falling playing cards. The story’s movement is metallic, its setting competing communes, its joy food and drink, its darkness plague and plundering and penury, beggary and politics. Its themes include independence, movement and flow, archetypal psychological imprints: the quest, journey, river, the map; loveless marriage and surrogate parental forces and mystery births; instinct and intuition, magic, alternates – including love and sex and the confusions one brings to the other.

The writing style moves with the themes. Some of the descriptions are like Hieronymus Bosch paintings, people burning in fires, drowning, children screaming, animals too, faces hiding in the brush. As our heroine prepares for her first kiss, though, the writing changes to the lavender prose of a teen romance novel. An entire chapter is given to what becomes the disappointing epiphany, where the “peeling” of one’s clothes reveals a plush orange that screams when split. She gets used to it, but then the prose turns to the stark realism of relationships: “Naivety is a curse. Crushed like a rose and tossed into the pale remains of a fire, I was of no use, not even as fuel for kindling. I should have asked the river to take me when it offered to.”

There is an economy to the writing that is expedient, efficient. A history of a people and a land must be told, but so must a personal diary be explained. The narration moves from first person to third person without any introduction or worry. The switch is simply necessary to keep the story moving. And our first person has other ways of knowing, of omniscience. Sentience appears as a kind of hallucinogen usually hidden within things. Perception pulls life force from stone, going forth as well as taking in.

How serious is all this? First, it’s great fun. And shouldn’t writing, particularly the writing of a novel, bring pleasure to both the writer and the reader? The risk is a flatness, two dimensional characterizations, an animated film, the artistry of which undercuts its own reality. Myth when expanded usually fills with irony. Second, there are borrowings of form from myth and fairy tale that legitimize the atmosphere of magic and fantasy. But it takes a great leap of imagination to enter an invented world open eyed, to pretend even after all pretense has been lost. But this is the writer’s explanation of things, of life, of a life, anyway, this book. In some purviews, every thing must be explained. So the mechanical pencil might come to explain safe sex.

Of course sex is not to be mistaken for love, or the prostitute would be out of business, but does the withholding of sex from one’s willing marriage partner signify un-love? Ana is consumed by the adults in her life, ignored or suffocated, and suffers from the only child curse, which requires the fantasy playmate so she’s somebody to talk to. From the pretend playmate the child learns mimicry. The playmate passes on the talisman. There is a kind of shorthand to the method that results, again, in a two dimensional telling, even though the attempt is a mimesis of the whole. When does the whole break into parts of sentimentalism, and from there to irony? “My poetry, he [Lionel] said, is devoted to the feminine spirit.” Ana responds, a severe critic: “They were bad poems, overly sentimental.” And this only a few pages from sharing Cara’s poem the reader may find sentimental in its longing to find some meaning in the “void.” Later, Professor Ruskin will fill in the blanks. We must remind ourselves the sacrifice was staged. But even a staged sacrifice has consequences. That’s where the repetition comes from. “It breaks my heart that the feud of brothers should repeat itself into another generation. It’s like a curse.” No, it’s not “like a curse”; it is a curse. The curse is metaphor, allegory – but even the language of the physicists can’t adequately explain what we either see or don’t see. All of creation is just that – an artist’s rendition, a depiction, a deduction.

But the epiphany does come, or comes down, and “she will compose her own song.” A song of one’s own. A myth of one’s own. “I could no longer strangle my voice.” She composes her own poem:

“I’ll kick your ghost
out of here – I’ll make no more
bargains with your fear…”

But have we instead cut a deal with our therapy? The troupe now performs a parody of the miracle, as if we need reminding it wasn’t a real miracle to begin with. “In the shadow of each mask lies desire.” Desire for what? Power? Or to be used by some mad man’s “mad ambitions?” And what’s the ambition, the obsession, all about? We’re back to teen romance, now darkened with a certain amount of experience: “Unsure whether to laugh or cry, I cancelled my response, flattening my lover’s pleasure.” As if he cares, which might be part of the attraction. By the time we get to Batin’s place, we’re ready for the details of the dark side. We come across “Cults of Ecstasy” and the “pit” of “correction.” Are these bridges to the real world?

We continue to meet new characters, travel, encounter new adventures. The book is divided into 29 numbered chapters, each divided into smaller, titled sections. There is a prologue and a short epilogue, and useful lists of characters, and a map and a list of places. The lists contain short descriptions of character and place. Time moves back and forth, like eddies in a river. We fall deeper into the encyclopedic epic. We are not out of trouble yet, as the short section “Cockroaches in the hellhole” makes clear. Ana is saved from a “sickening concoction of smells – rancid fat, stale urine, sweat and rum,” and “broken teeth.” Little Snake is a welcomed if late well-developed character. Cassia appears. We discover what “dissolves a curse,” and what it’s like to make love “truly naked.”

What gives shape to a life drifts off with words. We close the book, glance up, and there we are, again, leaving, looking for something new. Myth is individual experience repeated, over and over again, until it becomes universal and a story everyone understands. Myth is not false news. It’s a way of telling a story.

Course of Mirrors: An Odyssey, by Ashen Venema; 2017, Matador, 377 pages.

The Sufi in You, The Sufi in Me

For a couple of years, I took classical guitar lessons. Once a week, I arrived at my teacher’s house, obediently left my shoes on his front porch, and sat with James in chairs arranged in the middle of an empty room, Feng shui, he said, facing south into a single music stand, while in another room, unseen, his partner exercised on a mini trampoline. James was fond of what he called Sufi sayings, and used them to convey guitar techniques. In our first lesson, James asked me what I was after. I had already been playing the guitar for years, a kind of folk jazz free-lick fingerstyle, but I wanted to learn something about music theory, better learn the fretboard, and better read notes.

“Playing classical guitar,” James said, “is not about musical theory. And once you get the notes, you don’t think about them, any more than you think about individual letters when you read a text. The theory is in the work, placed by the composer. What the guitarist does is technique.”

James frowned at my guitar. I had a better guitar at home, I told him, but a steel string folk guitar, unsuitable for classical playing. And I had a three quarter size nylon string acoustic, but it didn’t hold tune. “Get rid of all those guitars,” James said, “and get a good instrument, the best you can possibly afford. You play an instrument to make sound.”

Then James asked to see the fingernails on my right hand, and he took a steel file to them, and then sanded the nails smooth with a fine piece of wet and dry sandpaper. The rest of that first lesson was spent learning how sit and hold the guitar, how to breathe and relax the shoulders and neck, where, James said, I appeared to carry all my stress and tension.

Regarding the care of fingernails, I mentioned to James I was playing on a city co-ed softball team, where I might wreck his fingernail work. “If you are a good softball player,” James said, “you won’t hurt your nails. Fielding a ball is technique.”

James was an excellent guitarist, but he had difficulty performing in public. One day, James informed me he was moving away. He was giving up the guitar and going into typing. He was going to be a typist. He was passing me on to another guitar instructor. I was never sure if his move to typing was true or if he was using a kind of Sufi-like koan to send me a message about my guitar playing ability. In any case, I was not dissuaded; I thought about composing a piece for typewriter and guitar.

“What have you learned in your time with me?” James asked, in our last lesson. “That I want to play the guitar beautifully,” I replied. “You already can play beautifully,” he said, “but you are a poor listener.”

img_20170102_141921I thought about James, recently, reading through Heart of a Sufi: A Prism of Reflections (Arch Ventures Press, 2010), about Fazal Inayat-Khan (1942-1990), also known as Frank Kevlin, a name Fazal invented in an effort to circumscribe his legacy as grandson to Pir-o-Murshid Hazrat Inayat Khan, who was instrumental in broadening awareness of what Fazal apparently preferred to call the “Sufi Way” around the world. The book is a high quality, sewn bound hardback, and includes black and white photographs, and informative appendix matter (contributor profiles, bibliography, glossary, website links). The primary content of the book consists of anecdotal, testimonial, and essay-like pieces contributed by people who knew Fazal as students or followers or were community members, particularly of Four Winds, a kind of commune located near Farnham, UK, and which was Fazal’s home for a time.

The text is, then, an oral history. Twenty-one writers contribute experience with Fazal profiles primarily, it seems, from the 1970’s, a time when interest in communal life and alternate inquiries into how one might live flowered in many countries around the world. The book will be of interest to researchers working on oral histories, religious or spiritual movements, charismatic leaders and followers, or the period in and around the 1970s – as well, because Fazal was a trained psychotherapist, researchers interested in therapy fields as well as the functions of the mind and its potential spiritual energy or in foundations of learning and being and becoming.

What I learned of Sufi from James amounts to about as much as I learned of guitar, which is to say that I am not a good listener. But the Prism of Reflections text is a good read for those interested in experiencing vicariously the era noted for gurus, spiritual quests, alternative life styles and approaches to religious and spiritual questions. The book is not an attempt to convert readers to any kind of Sufi practice. Its purpose seems to be primarily a vehicle to remember and give tribute to an influential teacher while describing his impact on the individual. Little attempt is made to venerate or hold Fazal up as a saint. And indeed, my own general skepticism of movements and teachers was catalyzed by some of the anecdotal evidence presented.

For example, there is this conversation with Fazal related in one of Ashen Venema’s pieces:

“After the Earthing event at Four Winds Fazal invited me to stay on, with a condition,
‘You must at all times do as I say.’
I was speechless, and held his gaze for what seemed an awesome long time. He must be joking, I thought, he can’t be serious. I did not know then that Fazal’s teaching respected doubt, deeply, as the true measure of one’s faith. I struggled for a tactful answer. All of a sudden Fazal smiled and winked an eye. He didn’t have to say a word. I trusted the light of intelligence in his eyes” (49).

Fair enough, but something a bit creepy lingers with that “at all times do as I say,” which he apparently said to others also. And the passage above might leave the reader, as many of the pieces in the rest of the book also might, with a cryptic experience. At the same time (and of course, as several contributors seem to suggest, the anecdotes may say as much or more about the writers than about Fazal), the memoir-style remembrances seem honest and balanced in their critical approach. Ashen goes on to say:

“The Sufi family was and is an enigma, a spicy mix of characters with little in common. We could have come from different galaxies…Groups reveal to us our place in the human family, reflect the warring crowd within our individual psyche, where we struggle towards a dynamic balance and optimal functioning in a complex world. Groups quicken the process of psychological integration – and, ultimately, the freedom to be what we are already” (49-50).

Later in the book, though, I came across this, a bit shocked and surprised:

Principles relating to the customer

  • Serve our customer
  • Satisfy our customer
  • Service and maintain our customer’s products
  • Delight our customer” (128).

In context, a section on the meaning and strategies of leadership, the principles are not at all jarring – I mention it here to help illustrate the wide spectrum of approaches the contributors took to remembering their experiences with their teacher. Fazal himself seems to have been somewhat isolated or even alienated by his own persona as potentially viewed and distorted by others. As a kind of celebrity, he seemed aware there would be students who would not necessarily benefit from a mentor they filled with their own projections. But in that sense too, the book acknowledges the difficulties inherent in the entire enterprise.

There is great value in this kind of book, a collective memoir remembering a time, place, and person influential in helping shape the direction of individual lives and responsible for the continuity of group efforts that will no doubt be compromised by the vicissitudes of individual needs and desires as principles move through changing environments and meanings and time. The book may serve as an introduction to further studies, as its bibliography and glossary make clear. The book is learned and credible, and will be valuable to specialists and researchers of various topics, but again, its greatest value to the general reader is probably in the diary or memoir like diversity the individual contributors bring. The book is engaging precisely because it’s readable. These are very interesting people, people who have struggled with self and meaning, direction and efforts to contribute to something larger than their individual awareness might project. And many of the anecdotal pieces are down to earth descriptions of the man Fazal and his work and time. Taken as a whole, they create an oral history biography.

And if you find, after reading the book, there does not appear to be a Sufi in you, you can always pick up the guitar.

Heart of a Sufi – Fazal Inayat-Khan: A Prism of Reflections (2010), Arch Ventures Press, Edited by Rahima Milburn, Ashen Venema, and Zohra Sharp.

img_20170102_142010