Monday, February 20, 2006

Reviews: #9 (Keenan) and #10 (Oliver)

Before presenting today's capsule reviews, I should perhaps recommend that you all take them with a grain of salt. It seems A.M. Homes' THIS BOOK WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE, which I panned here (and waffled about in Publishers Weekly [this version heavily edited from what I wrote, mind you]), is not only getting lots of praise elsewhere, but has just been optioned for a movie. So shows what I know.

by Joe Keenan
(Little, Brown, January 2006)

A prescient publicity chap sent me this one, name-dropping P.G. Wodehouse as a comparison; how did he know that I am a passionate adherent of the Wodehouse school of novel-as-musical-comedy? I've actually been watching the BBC Jeeves & Wooster miniseries lately, and have been reminded how much I love all that goofy wordplay and lighthearted peril, averted at the last minute. But mostly the wit. Joe Keenan is an author I've heard compared to Master Wodehouse before, if Wodehouse was a gay TV writer. Keenan writes for Frasier and has a couple of other novels to his credit, which I've always meant to read but never gotten to. I'm awfully glad I got to this one – it was a cheerful romp of a thing, narrated in Wooster-ish witty bumbler fashion by Philip Cavenaugh, a struggling playwright who is lured to Hollywood from New York by his unscrupulous pal Gilbert, and drags along their practical, moral and brilliant friend Claire for protection. (Incidentally, it's fun to read a story with a gay male protagonist and his straight female best friend, instead of vice versa.) Complications too numerous to detail ensue, and Philip, Gilbert and Claire are treated to equal portions Hollywood glamour and mortal peril. There are a series of gay sex scenes that made me blush and hope no one on the subway could read over my shoulder, but even these were treated with such lighthearted wit that they seemed less pornographic than, well, rompish. (The story climaxes during Oscar season, and while I haven't seen enough of the contenders to plan to watch the show this year, the timeliness may make Keenan's book even more appealing.) Claire plays Jeeves in this setup, managing to save our heroes (and their new movie star friends) from ignominy and jail eventually, and the ride is well worth it. Customers are always asking for "a really funny novel," and I'm glad to have Joe Keenan's work to add to my arsenal of suggestions – if they don't mind a little bit of the naughty stuff, any reader is sure to be thoroughly entertained. What ho!

by Mary Oliver
(Beacon Press, paperback April 2005)

On a completely different note – I've also been a fan of Mary Oliver for a very long time, and I'm not sure why it took me so long to get around to reading her latest collection (I think we're selling the hardcover in remainder at the store already). I came across a copy at that blessed institution, the Brooklyn Public Library, Central Branch – walking over there to check out the newly acquired books and DVDs has become a Saturday morning ritual for the ALP and I, and we often come across books we've been meaning to read, and brand-new discoveries as well.

When you say the phrase "nature poems," your listeners are likely to roll their eyes imagining some hippy-dippy hooray-for-trees kind of stuff, perhaps replete with a New Age-y "spirituality." Mary Oliver, for the most part, transcends the stereotype. Her poetry is serious minded, skillfully crafted, full of a deep joy, and observant of the dark and light reality of the natural world. I equate her with my nonfiction heroine Annie Dillard, another woman willing to turn an honest eye to the strange and the beautiful going on unmindful of the human in the world. Like Dillard's, Oliver's sensibility seems to be growing more Christian (or just theistic) as she grows older – her poems of observation and joy often turn to praise. But it's a perplexed faith – as she muses in "The Wren from Carolina," "All things are inventions of holiness. / Some more rascally than others." I made the ALP listen to me read aloud this and some other of my favorites, including "This World," where the poet despairs of writing a poem with "nothing fancy" when the whole world seems extravagantly beautiful, and the rare semi-political poem "What Was Once the Largest Shopping Mall in Northern Ohio Was Built Where There Had Been A Pond I Used to Visit Every Summer Afternoon," which is a humble, quiet and stoic rant against consumerism. As Oliver seems to be drawing further apart from the rest of the civilized world, her poems become ever more deeply engaged in the world apart from society – the world of the individual, animal life, lit by the sun, the reason she wakes early. Easy enough for non-poetry readers to get into, deep and layered enough for the more sophisticated (though not the cynical), Oliver is a poet whose unconcern with human society makes her all the more humanistic.