Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Book Review: Bridge of Sighs (2007) by Richard Russo

The most important reason I’d recommend Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo is that it’s one of those novels where the characters seem utterly real. You will come away with the feeling of being a part of their families, their town, and their environments. The novel creates the illusion of having known the characters in the flesh, that the plot of the novel is a set of memories from a past actually shared, actually experienced.

Bridge of Sighs is an expansive novel that sprawls outward and outward from a nexus of two boyhood friends, Lou “Lucy” Lynch and Bobby Marconi. Russo uses a variety of narrative techniques to provide the reader with an intimate experience of the lives, families, friends, and acquaintances of both Lucy and Bobby, and Russo generously does the same for many of the “supporting” characters whose lives are intertwined with those of the Lynch’s and Marconi’s.

The novel starts out with 60 year old Lou “Lucy” Lynch writing his childhood memoir as he strives to preserve his past, an impulse that defines the core of this character: his love of family and of Thomaston (the small town he’s never left), his desire for things to remain unchanged, and his unwavering faithfulness to his father’s corner grocery business and his father’s legacy of hopeful optimism. There are shifts from the pages of Lucy’s memoir to his first-person present-tense stream of consciousness which allows Lucy to reveal how things have changed since his childhood, where people are “now”, and the state of his current life. In other sections written in 3rd person point of view, Noonan (a.k.a. Bobby Marconi) and, later, Sarah (Berg) Lynch become the focal points. They too are given opportunity to dwell on their youth and to reflect on who they’ve become in the present.

The Lynch family is revealed as eminently lovable, even though Lucy’s parents “Big” Lou and Tessa never seem entirely on the same page when it come to ideology or temperament. Tessa is tough as nails, practical, and a realist. Whereas Lou is a big softy, always hoping for the best from the world and from others and consistently optimistic while wearing a goofy grin. They are often at odds in their approach when it comes to their neighbors, the Marconi family.

The Marconis are introduced as a secretive family led by an impenetrable patriarch. Bobby is typically not allowed to leave the house after school, to the constant disappointment and longing of his friend Lucy. Mrs. Marconi also seems to be on a short leash, having to conduct her friendship with Tessa Lynch only in the hours while the men are at work and children are at school. The Marconis give off the impression they wish to keep the entire world away, farther than at arms length.

In Bridge of Sighs’ 528 pages, Russo consistently keep the reader in a state of questioning. Will Lucy ever out grow of his neediness where it came to his friendship with Bobby? Although Sarah and Lucy are married in the present, is there a deep dark secret between Sarah and Bobby? Will Bobby and his father come to blows? Will Sarah’s eccentric, school teacher, father finish his novel and win back his ex-wife? Will Lucy and Sarah actually hear back from Bobby, now a famous painter in Venice, before their trip to Italy? A new question is raised on nearly every page. Some are answered quickly, within a few pages. Others are not resolved until hundreds of pages later. As in life, some questions remain unanswered. However, most of the big questions are resolved in a believable and satisfactory way.

One of the most artistically gratifying aspects of the novel is the lovely symmetries between the experiences and actions of the characters. For instance, Sarah’s choice between “bad boy” Bobby and “good boy” Lucy is paralleled by Tessa’s choice a generation earlier between Dec and Lou. Both Sarah and Tessa are the objects of a cross-racial attraction with significant consequences. Another such comparison can be made between Noonan’s painting of his father and Lucy’s memoir; both men at 60 are reflecting on the days of youth and what made them the men they are today. Also there’s the similarity between Sarah’s painting of the Bridge of Sighs and the appearance of the Bridge of Sighs in the background of Noonan’s painting of his father. To mention only one more, there are the unlikely friendships that cross the divide between race and economic class, Lucy and Gabriel as well as Sarah and Miss Rosa. Many more such comparisons are made throughout the novel, creating pattern of reverberations and echoes that enhance the reader’s experience of understanding how each generation faces many of the same challenges and share many of the same epiphanies.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

“The Word ‘Passion’ Comes to Mind in Excess of Five Times”

by Keith Badowski

As I step into the role of President of Georgia Poetry Society, I feel I should introduce myself and offer a few words about my passion for our organization. The introduction first:

I was born and grew-up in New York State. In 1994, I moved to Athens, Georgia. I’m forty years old now and have been writing poetry for over twenty years. I dearly love my wife Christina. We currently live in Phenix City, Alabama where I am the Assistant to the Pastor at our local Methodist church. Both my bachelors and masters degrees are in English Literature. My poems are published or forthcoming in Oxalis, Monkey, The Reach of Song, Rambunctious Review, Birmingham Arts Journal, and FutureCycle Poetry. For me, the performance of poetry aloud is as important as the written page—which explains the hundreds of poetry readings I’ve participated in over the years. I’m also a big enthusiast about revision and being in community with fellow poets, motivating my active participation in the local poetry workshops in Columbus, GA. These are focused gatherings where poets give each other feedback and suggestions for improving their poems. (If you don’t have a poetry workshop near you, I urge you to start one; it may do wonders for your writing!)

Now let’s move on to my passion for our organization. My relationship with the Georgia Poetry Society (GPS) began back in 1997 when I made my way to one of the quarterly meetings in Atlanta. I remember the warm reception I received and how I was urged to read a poem in the “Member Readings” section of the program. How I enjoyed hearing so many different voices and such a variety of styles of poetry. It impressed me to see such an encouraging spirit among the members of the group. I felt as if I were “home.”

Since that first meeting, I have served as webmaster, newsletter editor, publicist, and board member for the Georgia Poetry Society. I urge and encourage all of you to volunteer to help with some aspect of GPS. We are a non-profit organization, driven by our passion for poetry and relying entirely on volunteer power. In other words, your creativity and passion is needed!

Over the years, my experiences at the society meetings have only enhanced the sense of value I find in GPS membership. My favorite thing about GPS is the camaraderie among poets—all of us giving each other energy and encouragement to write our visions, to revise and craft our writing, and to send it out to the world, entering contests or submitting it for publication. In addition, we get to hear some fabulous featured poets, the likes of Beth Gylys, John Stone or Thomas Lux—contemporary poets of the highest quality. Through our chapbook competition, we participate in “discovering” poets who, as is often the case, have been diligently honing their craft over the years while we were unawares. From time to time, we hear extraordinary lectures on poets or poetry, encouraging our journey in learning more about our craft. And who could forget the inspiration (and fun) we get from participating in our frequent poetry workshops? (It’s great to hear the spontaneous results and more than once I’ve come away with a workable poem.) Not to mention the plethora of contests and the chance at getting published in The Reach of Song. (Why not mention them? Well, most folks mention those things first, so I chose to be contrary!)

I see my job as president to be the passionate keeper of the flame that is GPS, aiming to encourage all of you to attend as many quarterly meetings as possible and to participate as fully as possible in all GPS activities. As we grow together in our craft together, I’m sure we’ll influence each other to greater heights!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Poem Publications

I’m excited to announce two recent publication acceptances. My “spontaneous” poem “Dream Theory,” prompted by some random words submitted by Todd Stiles, has been accepted at Birmingham Arts Journal and is slated for publication in the April 2009 issue. Another poem “Pursuit of the Sweet Spot” is currently available for your reading pleasure on the FutureCycle Poetry website. Later in the year (round about November) FutureCycle will produce a print anthology that will include this poem and all the other poems appearing on their website in the past year. My poem can be found at Drop me a line and let me know what you think!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Book Review: Lines & Shadows by Joseph Wambaugh

Lines and Shadows by Joseph Wambaugh depicts the results of a real-life law-enforcement experiment that was conceived of by Dick Snider, an officer with the San Diego police department. Snider had a deep sympathy for the illegal immigrants crossing over from Mexico through the canyons on the border. Snider was well aware that these illegals were being attacked, robbed, beaten, raped, and abused by Mexican bandits who ambushed them in the dark, treacherous canyons. The boarder patrol was only interested in arresting boarder crossers, not protecting them or policing the canyons where visibility was nearly nil at night. Snider launched a one-man media campaign to raise awareness of the horrors experienced by these illegal immigrants. Somehow, against all odds, he convinced the media, the public, and (most remarkably) the Chief of Police that a task force was needed to protect the poor, suffering immigrants from the bandits in the canyons. Thus a San Diego police task force (The Board Crime Task Force) made up of mostly officers of Mexican decent, a rarity in the force, was formed.

Wambaugh reveals in the opening lines of the book that this experimental task force had a detrimental effect on the psyches of the officers who were assigned. We learn right off that three members of the team needed psychological counseling in the years that followed. Step by step we learn that their initiative of stopping the bandits in the canyons was much more like warfare in Vietnam than any ordinary (i.e. safe, normal) police work in San Diego. Over the course of the book the reader is privy to the gradual erosion of each officer’s sanity as the job gets more and more dangerous. The marriages of a few of the officers hang by a thread, not only because of the physical risks, but also due to the drinking and carousing the cops indulge in as a sort of celebration of another day of survival. Acclaim and notoriety go to their heads, as reporters and groupies swarm around them, as they are held up for public consumption as the last of the mythic gunslingers. If only their fans had the inside view that the reader is afforded, that their busts were typically characterized by bungling to such an extent that it was a miracle that they survived to reach the bar that night. Wambaugh makes it clear that each man had his own personal demons driving him to make this task force work and that each man displayed extraordinary bravery by taking on this work in the first place. However, as things got worse and worse, it’s almost funny how awful their performance as team really was. For instance, two of the cops were shot by their own team members. Also they clashed repeatedly with their counterparts on the Mexican side of the boarder and with the US boarder patrol. The reader is left with the impression that the canyons were an untenable disaster and that in some ways the cops amplified the messiness of an already messy situation.

One cop especially stands out from the team, Manny Lopez, the obvious leader and spokesperson. What’s memorable about Manny is his unflinching egotism about the job. Manny consistently laid aside caution and went in with guns blazing. The other cops came to regard him as a bit mad, or at the very least a very lucky psychopath and spotlight hog. There are several instances when the members of the team shake their heads in wonder that Manny didn’t get himself killed, that he didn’t get them all killed. Wambaugh leaves the reader with a vivid visual impression of Manny too: his extraordinarily expressive eyebrow that craws up his head when he’s confronted or challenged, his John Travolta suit right out of Saturday Night Fever, his swagger, and his intimidating presence. Each officer on the team is vividly realized by Wambaugh, but Manny’s charisma and insanity is depicted with special flare.

Wambaugh’s style might be thought by some as heavy handed and a bit manipulative. Yet I found the foreshadowing at the beginning of each chapter to be quite successful, mainly because I knew the content was reportage of real events. Wambaugh’s storytelling strategy is to hint, warn, and prophecy that things are going to get worse, marriages will pay a price, officers will become paranoid of each other, someone will get shot, things will be as awful as the nightmares the officers were starting to have, and ultimately the myth of the gunslingers will not hold up to the scrutiny of reality. Wambaugh also effectively uses refrains of quotations to carry themes through out the book. The reader is invited to share in the code words used by the cops and mottoes they told themselves to keep themselves going. There is a feel of ritual to the book as a whole.

Reading Lines and Shadows by Joseph Wambaugh put me inside the skin of ten cops who experienced the essence of fear and the poison of celebrity. This was the first Wambaugh book I’ve read; it’s also a rarity for me in that it is a true story. Apparently Wambaugh is well revered for producing non-fiction that reads like a novel, and although I’m a bit late jumping on that bandwagon, I wholeheartedly agree with that reverence. Lines and Shadows is suspenseful as any thriller and these real cops are equally as empathetic as any made-up characters in a novel. The book is eloquent, literary, and grants the reader a look inside the heads of all those involved in this unprecedented experiment in law enforcement.

Friday, January 02, 2009


At Under the Boardwalk in Eufaula, AL where I eat a polish sausage topped with onions and peppers, a vampiric flamingo with spiked feathers stands posed on one bony and impenetrable leg in ripples of molten lava and glares hideously at the swaying palms in the shadow of an erupting volcano.