A Plan in Case of Morning: Prize and Review

by Phill Provance

Coming Sept. 29, 2020, preorder

I received an advanced reader copy (ARC) of veteran poet Phill Provance’s first full-length collection. I was immediately delighted with the book, which amounts to a meaty, accessible memoir of a man’s life written via poetry. Fascinating!

Though I read poetry almost every day, most people are leery of the form, believing poetry to be too high-brow and only for those who’ve taken courses in that realm. That’s absolutely wrong-headed, in my opinion, and neither does the anonymous donor who’s putting up $10,000 to the winner of a contest for this book that runs from now until April.

A journalist by training, to me the deal sounded too good to be true. So I got confirmation from Vine Leaves Press, which will publish Provance’s book Sept. 29, 2020. Apparently a benefactor who loves the poet’s work believes the book deserves a wider audience, a hence began the contest that will end April 16. The promotion states a winner will be chosen from those who do the following:

  • publicly post a selfie on Instagram or Facebook
  • along with a person you consider to be a hero (I assume this means either stating who your hero is or posting a photo of the person if you have one)
  • a favorite line from Phill’s book
  • and the hashtag #APlanInCaseOfMorning

What an amazing opportunity for the poet and his work to help convince more readers that poetry is for everyone and should be embraced with joy, rather than trepidation.

To do my part in encouraging more regular consumption of poetry, I’m posting the review I wrote for Goodreads. Whether you win the $10,000 or not, I hope you enjoy this collection as much as I did.

Review

Phill Provance’s new poetry collection, A Plan in Case of Morning, is truly a fast-changing landscape of emotion riding on varying currents of form.

Just as sculptors and other fine artists allow ideas to choose their medium, so Provance allows each poem to choose its own pace, rhythm and tone to best express the impassioned flow with an end clarity that’s eminently satisfying. In subject matter, Provance flies us around the world, both literally and proverbially, as we visit times and places in his life and within his heart.

That mix of shifting fluidity, instinctual word choice and unpretentious honesty — sometimes gentle, sometimes melancholic, often brutal — make this collection a swift ride you want to prolong.

___

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Book Review: “This is How We Leave”

Memoirs have changed so much since Mary Karr made history with the spectacular success of The Liars’ Club in 1995. Before then, memoir was a realm reserved for celebrities of one sort or another: political figures, movie stars, sports stars. In other words, people designated by their wealth, fame and broad influence as having lives interesting enough to deserve writing about.

But with Karr’s telling of her rough youth in East Texas, she broke open the genre so regular people like you and me can tell our stories. Over the last few decades, one memoir after another has been awarded the spotlight in which to show how so many seemingly ordinary lives are, in fact, extraordinary.

Joanne Nelson is one of those people. Over the years, she wrote essays about her youth that were published in a variety of journals. She collected them in a basket and put them forth as This is How We Leave, which will be published Aug. 11, 2020. I feel particularly fond of this book because I grew up in that same region, so her descriptions of neighborhoods and family angst feel spot on.

Here’s my review of her very deserving work:

Author and therapist Joanne Nelson proves through her tender new memoir, This is How We Leave, that writing is indeed the best therapy.

Through a series of essays, the author shows us her youth growing up in a dysfunctional blue-collar family in Milwaukee. Through detailed, sensory-packed prose, we see, listen and feel the violent slaps; the cursing and criticism; and the drunkenness. When the father abandons the family, the two teen sons go off to their lives, leaving Joanne with her alcoholic mother.

“In the working-class neighborhood the indoor swells of our parents’ dissatisfactions and angers were the most dangerous. The problems — broken appliances, disobedient children, and unexpected bills — often played out during supper with raised voices and smacks to the head.”

Such honesty, combined with the many insights the author imparts, are what make this memoir so touching. She’s neither bitter nor forgiving. Instead, she tells of her anger, despair, fear and disappointment. Ultimately, however, she comes to understand that her parents came from an uneducated background and lived during an era where no one was encouraged to share their feelings. Nor did they have the advantage of parenting classes or counseling. The result were people like her parents, who lived with inner demons from which they never escaped.

Most satisfying of all, Nelson shows that though she had a rough start in life — one made easier by her loving grandparents — she went to college, married and created a loving family. Through her training as a therapist and passion for writing, she processed the pain, and while unable to forget, she moved forward, to a place of acceptance and happiness.


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Man’s Search for Meaning

by Victor Frankl

I’ve always thought that as a writer, my first duty is to be curious about people. Not a little curious, but doggedly quizzical until I get as close as possible to understanding how people think and why they act as they do, including myself. But the observation and research skills I’ve built over the years are nothing compared to those of Viktor E. Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning.

Even 23 years after his death, through his work, the Holocaust survivor continues to be one of the best examples of a human wholly devoted to studying the inner workings of humankind. Not because he wanted to write a bestseller, but instead because he believed helping people find their meaning in life allowed them to find happiness, which in turn leads to a better world.

This book is fantastic — and still relevant — on so many levels, determining which to list first is a challenge. And while the book could be simply described as a man telling how he survived three years in not one, but four WW II Nazi Germany concentration camps, including Auschwitz, that would be to excise the many surprising twists and turns.

Twist 1

The first is that Frankl was liberated in 1945 when the war ended. After several months spent recuperating, he sat down and wrote the book in nine day in his native German. The English translation of the title was From Death-Camp to Existentialism. New editions, along with the revised title, came out in 1959, 1962, 1984, 1992, and 2006. I read the last version, which was published nine years after Frankl died in Vienna.

Twist 2

Frankl didn’t leave Germany as so many Holocaust survivors did. Instead, he resettled in his hometown of Vienna where he spent the rest of his life until his death in 1997, by which time his book had sold 10 million copies and been translated into 24 languages.

Consider reading the 2006 edition, which contains extra material, and in particular, these three key sections: Frankl’s preface to the 1992 edition, Experiences in a Concentration Camp, and Logotherapy in a Nutshell.

Twist 3

When Frankl was arrested, he was already a doctor of medicine who’d chosen to specialize in psychiatry and was working on his doctorate in philosophy. The first day he entered a concentration camp, he did so with a fully-researched academic paper in his pocket.

Though immediately stripped of the document, along with every piece of clothing, he found scraps of paper on which to jot notes and so set about rewriting the paper in his head. The credited the task with giving him a sense of purpose so deep as to give him the strength to endure his hardship.

He even determined to build on his paper by including his observations of camp life. The result is that even as he gives very intimate details of his first-hand experience, he also includes a distant, clinical viewpoint, a combination that proves riveting.

“When one examines the vast amount of material which has been amassed as the result of many prisoners’ observations and experiences, three phases of the inmate’s mental reactions to camp life become apparent: the period following his admission; the period when he is well entrenched in camp routine; and the period following his release and liberation.”

As a writer, I appreciated his unsentimental observations of prisoners who fell into two groups: those who found a meaning that helped them survive, and those who lacked meaning and perished.

Again as a writer, I found myself making parallels to creating characters, whether fictional or not. Specifically, it’s a writer’s job to find a meaning worthy enough to propel a character forward with enough strength to surmount one obstacle after another.

Twist 4

I had assumed Frankl’s account of his time in the camp would be the main takeaway. When I began the section Logotherapy in a Nutshell, I did so half-heartedly. In dry, clinical writing, Frankl explains the following is an attempt to answer readers’ questions about logotherapy, a technique that helps people find their meaning in life.

Within two pages I found myself highlighting section after section as either aligning with what I’ve discovered in life, or providing new insights I’d never made before.

Again reading through the dual prism of a human being and a writer, I’ve gleaned ideas for being a better person and a better writer:

  1. What a person finds meaningful in life can change over time according to her/his circumstances.
  2. The struggles people endure should not be a source of embarrassment, but instead a badge of courage and source of pride at persevering even in dire circumstances.
  3. It’s during those rugged periods that people are afforded the opportunity to realize their potential by making a conscious decision about how to act. Will they be terrible to others, or helpful and kind?
  4. Lastly, the goal in life should not be to attain notoriety through awards, but instead, those are simply the outcome of passionately pursuing what one feels is important.

I’ll be chewing on his lessons of positivity and purposeful living for a long time to come. If you read the book, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Rejuvenation Book 1

by Byddi Lee

Author Byddi Lee has created a dystopian tale in which she’s nailed all three facets of great science fiction:

  • a flawed, yet highly admirable main character readers care about
  • a plot that accelerates in intensity and speed toward en exciting conclusion
  • a deftly-written narrative where facts and descriptions about the world are slipped in around the character’s actions, thus creating a smooth read

Three reasons I loved this book!

The setting is some twenty years after aliens attack the earth, causing billions to die and ice sheets to melt so high there’s little arable land left. Most people live in subscrapers embedded in the ocean floor and that rise high above the surface. To control the population, no one can have a child until someone within the family dies, typically an older person, who feel pressured to die and make room for the younger generation.

Dr. Bobbie Chan is a doctor who works in a subscraper off the coast of Ireland with the ultra-elderly, 110 or older, whom she loves. Every day she tells her patients they have value and should live to the fullest until the very end, a passion that makes Bobbie extremely admirable. What she doesn’t divulge is that the death of her twin sister when they were young so traumatized Bobbie she fights the very existence of death.

When a strange disease spreads among her patients and the elderly elsewhere in the world, causing them to seemingly get younger, Bobbie at first sees the heightened quality of life potential. But when enough disturbing symptoms emerge, Bobbie begins to suspect foul play on the part of the Belus Corporation that runs the world. Bobbie’s diehard commitment to her patients’ wellbeing pushes her to investigate.

The author does such a fine job of slipping in descriptions of this new world and its advanced technology that there’s never a feeling of being overwhelmed. Instead, the story stays riveted on Bobbie’s changing emotional state and her fight for truth based on her belief that no one should be made to feel like a burden.

I’m looking forward to Book 2 in this trilogy!

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Cheers, Somebody

by Katie Lewis

Often books and conferences for writers focus on the big parts of stories, such as plot, characters, pace, dialogue, etc.

I tend to approach writing in the opposite manner. Specifically, that the best writers are those who start from the smallest of details and build upward. My logic is that if they’ve taken the time to imagine a single, spot-on gesture, they’ve thought through the characters and story with equal care.

In the short story collection titled Cheers, Somebody, author Katie Lewis consistently nails the minute details that make the characters and their interactions real. Often simply admirably precise, other details are appropriately blunt and crass, while others are painfully truthful. Together the constant and consistent attention to the smallest parts of each story quickly create the mini-universe that is a short story, while also providing that necessary spin of uniqueness on common themes of love, loss, conflict and culture.

Choosing an example from the multitude is difficult, but here’s one from the first story for which the book is titled:

Collins danced his empty cup on the table, making a pock-pock-pock noise with the indented bottom’s echo until Stew placed his hand on top of the cup to make it stop.

The author continues that careful attention to detail throughout the story’s dialogue. Here’s an example from Ink J, the story I found most powerful.

“I, uh, I don’t know how to bring this up,” Bilson after several silent minutes of chewing rubbery licorice. “Not ‘I got news today’ or ‘Here’s something,’ but, well, I suppose. Anyway. I found out today that my college roommate died.”

While I’d term most of the stories accessible literary, a few stretch the mind, including a dystopian love story and a tale that uses brief and highly intimate scenes to portray the narrator’s relationship, seemingly with one man.

And that’s where I’ll leave the mystery!

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In the Fullness of Time

I was happy to receive an advance copy of this book. I was even happier to truly appreciate the author’s restraint when it comes to telling vs. showing.

I’m not a fan of books that explicitly tell me everything, which implies I’m too stupid to figure things out for myself. Carolyn R. Russell, on the other hand, doesn’t make that mistake in this new YA dystopian thriller, In the Fullness of Time. Instead, she has confidence in the intelligence of her young readers and drops them into the States — a filthy, overpopulated urban environment — right behind the story’s teen protagonist, 17-year-old Somerset, where they have to fend for themselves just as she does.

The slang and terms used immediately create a sense of claustrophobia, both physically and emotionally. In this world, only the children of the elite go to school, where they’re fed propaganda. Somerset is one of the few who reads the “old-timey flatbooks” from the Lost Ages to learn how the world could have changed so drastically. She’s also one of the few who has access to Hydracomputers. She’s afforded such privilege because she’s one of the privileged, a status she despises.

The only hope of getting fresh air in this chokingly-controlled society is for Somerset to follow the trail of mysteries that begins on the first page when she snatches up a little girl who falls amongst the street masses and is almost trampled. By showing such compassion for innocence, and such intolerance for the few privileged at the top, Somerset reveals the bravery and independent spirit of a true hero.

Wearing her clerical robes, Somerset clandestinely performs acts of rebellion with her antiauthoritarian friends. With every action she takes and every questions she asks, she forges ahead to expose the government’s criminal acts, both in relation to the masses’ cheap food source, ‘Brix, and the mysterious means of Revving, an act the government bills as a spiritual transformation and that Somerset suspects leads to a much darker outcome.

At some point I plan to write a book about showing vs. telling, probably the trickiest aspect of writing anything. When I do, I’ll call upon such examples of how to respect readers’ intelligence.

Happy writing!

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Photography for Writers

by Melanie Faith

I grew up in Chicago and about once every winter would wake up to a mountain of snow outside my window and more falling by the minute. At that moment, utter delight would shoot through me, because I knew this would be deemed a snow day and school would be canceled. That’s the same transformation — from this-will-be-good-for-me to fantastic! — that occurred upon reading the first page of this book.

I assumed by the title I’d be learning how to use photography to better market my next novel via social media. What an utterly fantastic thing to learn that the goal of the book is not to make us writers work, but instead invite us to play! That by messing around with photography, we can explore and improve our writing tenfold.

What a powerful concept!

We creatives tend to think we’re creative in one area or another. We’re writers, but not painters, or vice versa. Whereas this book espouses that people who create do so across their lives, so using one medium of creativity to fuel another makes perfect sense.

Rather than think of ourselves as just writers, we should consider broadening our self-image to think of ourselves as photographers, too. I have no idea why that didn’t occur to me before! I love photography, yet would never have considered submitting a photograph for publication, until now.

Melanie Faith

The chapters are flash-fiction-brief in the best way possible. Melanie uses a single, often humorous, anecdote from her personal or professional life as an all-around creative to illustrate one main concept, then ends with a writing and photography prompt. Such brevity encourages thought about basic, yet potent, concepts. For example, don’t worry about equipment. Use whatever camera you’ve got. And rather than worry about composition, take photos that snag your interest, then go back to look at why the image called out to you.

While I read the book once chronologically, I plan to use it as a long-term resource I can dip into regularly to flush my work with new creativity, almost like visiting a spa for writers!

Happy writing!

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The Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry

As I read this book, the writing became “gorgouser and gorgeouser,” the very term the main character uses to describe — with full-on melancholy — the love of his life that he slid away from. Rather than lyrical in the way harp music or a serene river flowing by, the book’s language is akin to an Irish beach where you’re likely to cut your feet on the sharp rock not yet ground into fine sand, despite centuries of pummeling.

The story begins with lifelong Irish mates Maurice and Charlie Redmond sitting in a humid, dirty fairy building in Algeciras, Spain, hoping to intercept Maurice’s 23-year-old daughter, Dilly, who disappeared herself. While most of the story is told through dialogue and flashbacks, of which I’m not a fan, Kevin Barry’s writing is so marvelously shard-like in its poetry, and the revelations so simple and shocking, that the story sails. The mystery of why the daughter felt the need to lose herself from these men’s lives is apparent when the duo strong-arm a young dreadlocked man for news of Dilly and the vagabond says, “Why’d she take off? You ask yourself that ever?”

And there provides the entrance to the back-in-time tunnel that reveals the rough road taken by Moss and Charlie Redmond, and the heartbreak they’ll live with for the rest of their crooked lives.

Besides the Irish colloquialisms, Barry has filled the tale with sensory descriptions meant to be cloyingly rich as the various atmospheres both of Spain and Ireland, back when and now, like this scene of Maurice on a past night in Malaga:

“The city ran a swarm of fast anchovy faces. The surge of the night traffic ran. The harbour lights were festive and moved across the oily water. He walked as far as the beach of Malagueta to get his head right and let the fear settle. He recognized at once there was heroin in the vicinity of Malagueta by night. The heavy sea was constrained on tight lines. He sat in the dark on the sand and listened to the night, the traffic; the fast, sibilant hiss of the Andaluz voices.”

And back in Cork when Maurice has come undone, “He was more than possessed by his crimes and excesses — he was the gaunt accumulation of them. He wanted an out, but he could never be a suicide. He could not willingly deprive the world of himself. He was almost forty-six and if fate did not intervene, he would have to sit it the fuck out.”

Neither delicious nor beautiful, his scrappy prose is a fantastic addition to world literature.

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Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental History of the Mind

I woke up this morning dreaming about a book I finished three weeks ago. That’s the highest praise I can give a book, to still be contemplating the ideas within the text long after I’ve finished. That’s the case with Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Mystery of the Mind by Annaka Harris, a consultant to science writers who specializes in neuroscience and physics. The book offers concepts you’ll chew on for a long time, and rather than in the laborious way of gnaw on gristle, what Harris serves up is a trippy feast I had to step away from occasionally, then rejoin, to make sure I got the full flavor of dishes far outside anything I’ve had before.

Comfort food, this is not!

All of that, yet the book is only about a hundred pages. That’s because, as Harris explains, while scientists have launched forward in the study of how the brain works, especially in the last decade, there are few experiments on human consciousness. Why? Because consciousness is so hard to grasp. What is it? Where does it reside? In the brain? A gene? Did consciousness evolve, so that after billions of beta versions, humans get the honor of running the official first release of the software? Or has consciousness always existed and we humans are simply incapable of getting our heads around the fact we share a commonality with other matter, but experience the feature in a different way? Are we really behaving out of free will born of consciousness, or are our actions at the mercy of a parasite, bacteria or other life form that needs us to do something so that it can continue to exist?

Perhaps the best question, though, is the one Harris asks in the book’s first paragraph:

Why would any collection of matter in the universe be conscious?

As a writer, I love these questions because I’ve never felt humans are the top bananas in the universe and love the idea of other forms of consciousness. I’m also a huge science buff and am not scared by explorations that question the idea of souls and humans’ place in the universe and other questions our specie grapples with. Even so, certain theories put forth in the book — especially those relating to our concept of time — had me holding my head in complete inability to imagine the theory or implication.

Which is exactly why I’ll encourage you to read the book. Taste a little, step back, clear your palate, then taste a little more. Then consider allowing the ideas to shift your world view — your universal view — because that’s what such books are meant to do: push humans farther down the celestial road.

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The Rich Inner World of Asperger’s

My sister and I believe my dad, now deceased, had Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), a largely hereditary form of high-functioning autism in which people function within a socially acceptable norm, but have a neurological disconnect that messes with their ability to communicate with others at a fundamental level. In Pretending to be Normal, Liane Holliday Willey describes what it’s like to be AS, and to such a deep degree the reader can’t help but be absorbed into the confusing, perilous world where she fought daily to understand and be understood until coming to terms with who she is.

The memoir takes readers through Willey’s youth, marriage and birth of three daughters. When her six-year-old is diagnosed with AS, the author realizes she’s neurologically atypical, too. Rather than dark, her beautifully-written story is filled with light, insight and encouragement about a condition that affects millions of people worldwide:

No matter the hardships, I do not wish for a cure to Asperger’s Syndrome. What I wish for, is a cure for the common ill that pervades too many lives,; the ill that makes people compare themselves to a normal that is measured in terms of perfect and absolute standards, most of which are impossible for anyone to reach. I thik it would be far more productive and so much more satisfying to live according to a new set of ideals that are anchored in far more subjective criteria, the fluid and the affective domains of life, the stuff of wonder… curiosity…creativity…invention…originality. Perhaps then, we will all find peace and joy in one another.

A professor of psycholinguistics and learning style differences, Willey seeks to educate people who don’t have AS so they’ll be more accepting. The author also includes tips for success for AS when they go to college, look for jobs and establish a home. Then Willey finishes the book with a long list of resources and organizations and a glossary of terms.

For those readers who loved to be pulled into another life, world or universe, this book is for you!

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