Book Review: San Juan

July 14, 2008

San Juan: Memoir of a City

By Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá

Published June 2007

University of Wisconsin Press

144 pp.

ISBN: 0-299-20370-0

Date reviewed: July 12, 2007

Originally reviewed at:

“It was necessary, in the [James] Joycean manner – because Joyce was the other literary idol of my youth – to open to the sound of the city, to listen to its voices, to eavesdrop on its speech at the bus stop, at the vendor’s stands in Calle de Diego, in the little bars in Capetillo or the ones along the roadside of the 65 de Infantería.”

It was this attitude that, in his own words, accompanied Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá as he entered the University of Puerto Rico on his path to becoming one of the island’s most well-regarded writers. His latest work “San Juan: Memoir of a City” is a sign that he never relinquished that attitude, as he moves through this Caribbean capital with as much care as Joyce covered Dublin.

Rodríguez Juliá lays out the city like a cartographer, moving across the coastline and diving into each distinct region. His eye catches all the details: the mix of Art Deco and Frank Lloyd Wright in shaping the city’s architecture, the decay of neighborhoods intersected by the freeways and the resigned laconism of those drinking outside cafés in the afternoon.

Clearly determined to present the full picture of San Juan, Rodríguez Juliá gives readers a dual lesson of history and literature. He tells stories of the island’s famous visitors and how they affected the city’s politics, as well as lesser known residents that influenced characters in his own novels. He also offers his opinion on the city’s other chroniclers, studying the evocative poetry of Derek Walcott and the vitriolic memories of Hunter S. Thompson.

There is an obvious affection in his writing for the city, which expresses itself in the way he makes himself a character. As a young boy Rodríguez Juliá is overwhelmed by the “uncontrollable, savage Progress” of freeways and strip malls, as a college student he is intrigued by the bohemian flavor of used bookstores and socialist meetings and as a successful writer he moves to introspection of the sea. At every turn the city has given him what he needs to move forward, and he obviously feels each of his younger selves owe it something.

I would have liked to see some of his poetry-inspiring sights for myself – the book only has city maps, no photos – but his writing is vivid enough it compensates for the loss. Rodríguez Juliá has constructed a stirring, often mystical depiction of a city that is always reinventing itself. No visitor to San Juan should go without reading this book first.


Book Review: Death in a Prairie House

July 14, 2008

Death in a Prairie House

By William Drennan

Published January 2007

University of Wisconsin Press

230 pp.

ISBN: 0-299-22210-1

Date reviewed: May 29, 2007

Originally reviewed at:

My first exposure to Frank Lloyd Wright came in fall of 2003, when I took a tour of his Spring Green estate Taliesin. I was pulled in by the beauty of the landscape and the design, but also by the story that it had been rebuilt twice – the first time as a result of a servant who burned half the house and murdered seven people, Wright’s mistress among them. A gruesome story, and yet one that garnered no questions on the tour and got as much time as the design of the drafting room.

The actions of the murderer Julian Carlton and their impact on Wright now have the necessary coverage though, thanks to William R. Drennan’s “Death in a Prairie House.” Drennan, professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County, has written a solid book that gives novices a picture of the famous architect and scholars a new look at his lowest point.

Drennan starts with the blueprints of Wright’s life, showing how his family’s Unitarian roots and his own Emersonian free spirit contributed to his architectural maturation. After years chafing under suburban comfort he entered into an affair with feminist thinker Mamah Borthwick Cheney, constructing Taliesin as their love nest. This piece was shattered by Carlton’s hatchet and gasoline, and Wright’s style – artistically and personally – was never the same afterwards.

Drennan’s research is exhaustive, going over interviews, newspaper articles, memoirs and even decades-old gossip to piece together the full picture of Wright. He shows the opposition of Spring Green’s moral residents to Wright’s “sinful” ideals, how racism played a part in Carlton’s motivations and suggests the killings were what removed the “prairie house” community design from his homes. The book is always reasoned, never committing to a single viewpoint until he finds historical support for it and disproved all other alternatives.

What I really appreciated about the book was its writing style: not the dry academic voice of most conventional histories but discursive, almost conversational. Drennan frequently inserts random facts or anecdotes in the middle of his sentences, and describes the crime with phrases such as “the unhappy calculus of body count.” Though occasionally distracting, they remind the reader of facts that are easily forgotten next to Wright’s personal drama.

“Death in a Prairie House” is an excellent work of both journalism and history, well-written and well-researched. I already plan to make a return trip to Taliesin as a result, and the tour is sure to be more interesting with a picture of the mind that built it and the blood that stains it.

Book Review: Head Trauma

July 14, 2008

Head Trauma

By Gary David Johnson

Published December 2006

116 pp.

ISBN 0-595-40338-7

Date reviewed: April 19, 2007

Originally reviewed at:

Like most everyone who’s taken an English course, I had to sit through weeks of studying English sonnets and memorize the form until I counted syllables in my sleep – which is one of the reasons I enjoyed reading Gary David Johnson’s “Head Trauma” so much. It’s a book of sonnets that keeps some of the basic structural elements, but takes them beyond the boundaries set by Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser.

While his poems mostly keep to the “abab” rhyme scheme and the quatrain format, Johnson is nowhere near as strict as the old masters. Syllable count changes, one sentence runs on for three lines and there may not be a single rhyme in the poem until the last couplet. Johnson claims in his introduction that he is drawn to the discipline of the sonnet form, but I think the fact that he deviates slightly from that discipline is what makes his poems unique.

Johnson branches out topically as well as stylistically, covering a broad portfolio ranging from “Tookie” Williams’ execution to a woolly mammoth hair. My personal favorites include “I Make No Pact With You, Walt Whitman,” which makes no secret of his distaste for the legendary poet; and “The Life Electric,” an excellent metaphor connecting people to light bulbs. Honorable mention goes to “Starkweather’s Confession, 1958,” a sonnet assembled solely from lines of a serial killer’s actual confession.

“Head Trauma,” the poem which the book takes its title from, is an outlier in the book and an interesting piece of work. It’s a blend of free verse and sonnet, mixing Latin phrases and Greek mythology with insect metaphors on par with William S. Burroughs. Less accessible than the other poems, it’s still an interesting read that exposes mankind’s false perception and apologizes for the consequences.

When I read poetry, I look for someone who’s willing to experiment with tradition, and that’s what I got out of “Head Trauma.” Johnson’s work removes the sonnet from the bondage of iambic pentameter and crafts some truly innovative prose.

Cardinal Column #5: Literary Halloween Costumes

July 12, 2008

(Editor’s note: More of a niche column than anything else, designed for me to be timely and expound on a few things. Didn’t age as well as the others, but it has its place.)

Les lists literary costume ideas

Originally published in The Daily Cardinal, October 26, 2005

I love Halloween for a lot of reasons: the thrill of blowing close to a hundred dollars on a costume, sugar rush of eating a whole bag of mini candy bars and the backlog of drunken pictures better than any house party. It’s the one holiday where it’s simply not acceptable to stay inside and read, as the whole point is to go out there and be seen in a new light.

Of course every year there’s the pressure to be more creative with a costume, finding something that hasn’t been done before or you can do better than others. It’s especially hard on a State Street Halloween, where at least half of the people are looking to stand out at a major house party or make an amusing mug shot for later that night.

To break out of the shell of repetition and avoid going as a stereotypical vampire or sexy devil (I apologize for calling up an image of me in that costume), I usually turn to the unexplored world of literature costumes – and I’ve found some great ones. This year I plan to don a top hat and cane for Willy Wonka, and earlier I mumbled and staggered my way down State Street in the guise of Hunter S. Thompson.

If you pick a favorite book for your costume, there’s endless room to improvise. A “Lord of the Rings” fan can put on a gold ring and cloak to go as Frodo, get a tall grey hat and beard for Gandalf or cover themselves with tree branches as an Ent. Douglas Adams fans can either be as simple as a bathrobe and towel, or strap mannequin arms and heads on as Zaphod Beeblebrox.

If you want to travel out in a group, book costumes can help there because there’s plenty of partnerships and organizations that are begging to be interpreted. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, a class of Hogwarts students and the entire Fellowship of the Ring are all opportunities to bounce quotes off other people and develop a show of solidarity.

Of course, most of these costumes have an advantage – they’ve gone from simply being books to movie adaptations, meaning it’s easier to put the costume together and be recognized when you go out. Red leather jackets and spiked hair are now associated with Tyler Durden instead of a simple punk, and a person wearing a grey cloak is rightly seen as a hobbit instead of a short ghost.

There’s a downside to this popularity, however, since the movies have made it harder to be original with the costume. A book forces you to come up with your own image of a character – especially when the author skimps on the details – but a film leaves no room for interpretation and simply provides a blueprint for the costume and quotes you should adapt.

My advice is that if you pick a costume based on a book and a movie, don’t be afraid to have some fun with it. If you’ve seen the movie twice, skim over the book at least four times, and if there’s cover or inside illustrations pick out some of those details for yourself. Figure out if you want to impersonate the film version’s voice or devise your own unique accent, and with either choice pick out at least three good lines you can quote at random at whatever party you go to. Falling back on the book image may make you seem a little out of place among the sea of film copycats, but on a holiday where reality is suspended there’s really no reason not to stand out.

And also, regardless of what image you step into this weekend, keep safe – if a pack of riot control officers moves down State Street, you’re better off remembering how to run then you are remembering your accent. Archive #1

July 12, 2008

In the interests of time and boredom for my archiving project, I’m going to be doing something a little bit different with this post.

As you may know from my biography section I was formerly employed as a freelance literary critic for, a website based out of Monona, WI and the oldest book reviewing website in the country. I began writing for them in April of 2007, when I was looking for a freelancing option and saw their notice posted in the English department. Though we got off to a slow start they quickly called my practice writing the best of what they’d seen and I began work for them, reviewing 33 books on commission and another 12 for my own personal edification.

I’ll refrain from posting all of them individually as I have the others for two reasons: the first being that they are all posted online with links and images already, and it would take up too much space. Second, a lot of the books are fairly obscure or one-off printings where information on them is non-existent (and to be honest, quite a few of them are god awful). I’ll be reprinting all of the reviews of books I selected myself, and select reviews of the ones I particularly enjoyed reviewing or I felt turned out the best.

However, I do want this website to reflect all the work I’ve done, so below please find links to my reviews with publication dates.

The Grand Experiment: An Expedition of Self-Discovery, by Gale Gregory/Madren Campbell/Karen Johnson, reviewed March 27, 2007.

Killer Cain, by Bryan Foreman, reviewed April 21, 2007.

J.P. Homer’s “The Thesoddy,” by J.D. Peterson, reviewed June 3, 2007.

What Happened to Little League Baseball in the Inner-City? by Mark O’Neal, reviewed June 3, 2007.

Awaiting Whisperland: The Calling of Galahad Green, by W.G. Palmer, reviewed June 29, 2007.

Wild Weather: The Truth Behind Global Warming, by Reese Halter, reviewed June 30, 2007.

The Book of Life: Ascension and the Divine World Order, by Michael Sharp, reviewed July 25, 2007.

Deep Inside LiteBlue and Thinking Inside the LiteBlue Box, by Ronald Williams Jr., reviewed August 6 and 13, 2007.

The Balkan Secret Conspiracy, by Barbara Shenouda, reviewed August 25, 2007.

Pursued, by John R. Beyer, reviewed August 29, 2007.

Say What? The Manhandling of the Constitution, by James A. Dueholm, reviewed August 30, 2007.

Cardinal Column #4: University Bookstore

July 10, 2008

(Editor’s note: I still think of this one as the best for the first half of the year, chiefly because it was the only one that involved actual reporting in the form of a very nice chat with the fellow who ran the University Bookstore. To date, I have probably dropped at least $200 on those tables from various visits, and still have a nice little stockpile of books I have yet to read from there.

I took a bit of flack from Ben Schultz, my mentor of literary journalism, for choosing this store over the better local bookstores, and to be fair for the general browser in Madison I’d still recommend Avol’s Bookstore over the University. That being said, I still think that basement is the best place if you want to buy something quickly or be overwhelmed with choices, and I killed many an afternoon between classes browsing down there.)

Used books rock Chappell’s socks in cold WI weather

Originally published in The Daily Cardinal, October 12, 2005

The six months of sub-zero weather are almost upon us, and that can only mean one thing – it’s time to go into hibernation. Trade the lake for a warm armchair and the margaritas for Irish cocoa, pull out the heavy quilt and curl up with a decent book.

However, before you can hibernate you need to store up for the winter, and for someone like me who has to have twenty books to read at once there’s only one place to go: the used book collection in the basement of University Bookstore. I’m sure this will shock some people, as why would I choose a place that biannually takes students for an unfair amount on textbooks when so many cheap bookstores are already in town?

It’s simple – those half dozen tables and bookshelves provide one of the best cross-sections of reading material in the entire campus. On one table you can find Dave Eggers, Roald Dahl, Chuck Palahniuk and Art Spiegelman five feet apart, while the neighboring shelf has Jane Austen and H.P. Lovecraft right under Oscar Wilde. It’s pointless to go down there looking for something in particular, as you’ll get distracted within the first five minutes.

It’s also one of the easiest places to pick up a book on the spur of the moment, especially if you’re shopping for textbooks. Since you’re going to be spending a couple hundred in one sitting, there’s no problem in adding “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” to the top of the stack – it’s only five bucks more, you’ve got something to read for fun and it gets the clerk wondering what class you signed up for.

But where does this bizarre collection come from? According to Steve Scheibel, who handles the store’s used book purchases; the majority of titles come from college wholesalers who buy their stock from universities around the country. Once a college takes a book out of circulation the wholesalers scoop it up, offering it to used book stores in good condition and high quantity.

“It’s amazing to stand out there and look at the breadth of subjects,” Scheibel said – and it is, both in terms of geography and topic. Where else can you find a Woody Guthrie biography possibly from a New York liberal arts college, bordered by two hardcover erotica textbooks courtesy of the University of California?

The trend of used books in the basement, Scheibel said, began in 1987 following the death of Allen Ginsberg. Ordering used copies of his classic “Howl,” he was surprised to see how well they sold and started developing what he saw as a “strong college backlist” of authors students typically get into during college.

That backlist has stayed relatively constant over the years – writers such as Kurt Vonnegut, Jack Kerouac, J.D. Salinger and Philip K. Dick are always popular favorites – but there’s always some variety. Former best-sellers are also available through the wholesalers, and old book collections are often sold to the store.

“Anybody who can’t find something to read down here doesn’t want to read,” Scheibel said, and I have to agree with him. Putting this much literature in one place is no less than creating a buffet line for bookworms, and only charging half price – titles average around seven dollars each – makes the selection just begging to be raided.

Unfortunately, the table does its job too well on pack rats like myself: immediately after talking to Scheibel, I wandered over there and spent 35 dollars on Oscar Acosta and William Burroughs. Freezing to death may actually be cheaper these days.