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THE BOOKSTORE BOOK, KARL MARX PRIVATE EYE & NAMING A HURRICANE – 3 Books Reviewed

The Bookstore Book
Ron Kolm
Pink Trees Press, 2023

Karl Marx Private Eye
Jim Feast
PM Press, 2023

Naming a Hurricane
Madeline Artenberg
Pink Trees Press, 2023



THE BOOKSTORE BOOK

In The Bookstore Book: A Memoir, prolific poet and prosaist Ron Kolm submits his own version of looking back. For Kolm, speaking through prose essays and “poems” (really prose essays in chopped-up lines), the life of a bookseller was both a career choice and a special window to the world. As always, if you’re a writer, you don’t have to look for experience, experience will find you. From early adulthood, Kolm would hit town, and, like the rest of us needing a job, went shopping for one. And like many people of letters, he knew that a job in a bookstore would make the best personal fit. More often than not, Kolm’s quest was rewarded. He found his jobs with often ridiculous ease, earning him a not overly strenuous workload, a sustenance paycheck and a trove of stories that happened to walk in the door.

Bookstore Book ron Kolm

After a collegiate stint in a nominally book-vending establishment in Reading, Pennsylvania (“Reading was not a reading city”), Kolm made his way to New York. He swiftly embarked on his lifelong day job vocation, logging time and eventually manager posts at numerous local bookstores, back in the years when the great cultural capital had them. The town’s high-water spots–Strand, East Side Books, St. Mark’s Books, Coliseum Books–burnished his resume. He recalls quirky co-workers before they were famous (Patti Smith, Tom Verlaine), buffoonishly bottom-line minded bosses, and, in his take on a favorite New York pastime, rewarding celebrity encounters of a writerly and non-writerly kind–Philip Roth, William Burroughs, Kathy Acker, William Kunstler, Jerry Brown. Mostly, he proves on nearly every page that between the prim walls of a bookstore things happen as crazy as you’ll find in your favorite roughneck saloon.

An interview with Kolm by Kathryn Adisman, in the wake of the epochal closing of Coliseum Books, takes dead center in the volume, freewheeling briefly and, in parts, illuminatingly on Kolm’s like and work, behind the store counter and over his own written page: “The book is an artifact. It will live forever.”

Occasionally Kolm strays from the bookstalls–in a magic-realist elegy for his merchant sailor father (“And he remembers those days when but the simple act of throwing his book out from the boat would have put diamonds in the sea.”), a couple of maladroit dramas on the New York subway.

Wherever he takes the reader, the key, as ever, is being fully receptive to the moment at every moment. Allen Ginsberg scrupulously tuning in to every fraction of a cent flipped his way with every sale of his book makes for hearty conversation over beers twenty years later. Camus’ The Plague, the last book sold by Kolm at midtown’s Posman Books at the height of the late Covid pandemic, before he left the bookseller’s life forever? A story twist for the ages.



KARL MARX PRIVATE EYE

When he wasn’t looking for trouble–writing the blueprint for world workers’ revolution and all that–trouble found him. So runs the scenario for Jim Feast’s engaging dive into our collective past in his tour de force of historical mystery fiction, Karl Marx Private Eye.

Actually, in keeping with the feint-and-parry spirit of the mystery genre, the title itself is something of a mislead. It’s 1875, and the specter of the valiant and failed Paris Commune is haunting Europe. The narrative unfolds in the spa town of Karlsbad, Bohemia. Marx, on the run from Germany for his incendiary pamphleteering in support of the communards, checks in at Karlsbad under the assumed name Arbuthnot for treatment of an affliction that is never quite elaborated by the author and the bourgeois rituals that go with it. His daughter Eleanor, writing a book on the Commune and fielding a troublesome suitor, shares his company..

Karl Marx Private Eye Jim Feast

At first, the multiple murders in the tale do not accomplish much more than upset hopes for a peaceful shvitz for Karl, but eventually they threaten the unmasking of his true identity. As it turns out, the star sleuth here turns out to be not Karl, but the plucky twenty-year-old Eleanor, the newest member of literature’s sorority of venturesome young female snoops .

In addition, in a sly triple twist on real toads in imaginary gardens, the next character in order of importance is a sixteen-year-old ungainly and precocious Sherlock Holmes, playing his part as a purloined icon of detective fiction parachuted into Feast’s contemporary contribution to the tradition. From there he joins with flesh-and-blood figures from history to create a metafictional suspense with enough artful verisimilitude to shroud any rude questions from the reader about what’s at least partly based on the real and what’s altogether made up.

The trio dine and hobnob with fellow guests until the shooting of a visiting American robber baron properly kicks off the story. More bodies drop, suspects and motivations abound, between betrayed sexual partners and political score settlers.

Karl Marx Private Eye is a scaled down Grand Hotel in the outer garb of a mystery, arraying nationalities and classes together out of necessity, when not from choice, creating alliances and enmities that are always shifting. .

A dazzling polymath fully armed to the task, Feast regenerates nineteenth-century fiction’s penchant for rich physical detail of place and character and for trawling for pearls of bookish arcana (the book’s cover notes throw a cleverly appropriate nod to the example of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories). He faithfully maps the dipping byways of Karlsbad’s more outlying districts, airs some of the prevailing, often oddball political and medical theories of the day and lingers clinically and delectably inside the high regimes of the day’s fashion, in the familiar practice of popular romantic fiction (“Mary was wearing a stylish walking dress and an imperious frown. Her dress was a pleasant dun color with wavy dark lines placed at the neck and midriff and on a bottom ruffle. The lines were also on the sleeve cuffs so that when her arms hung loose on her sides, they continued the line of the garment.”)

In its middle parts the novel does court the built-in hazards of the mystery fiction form, spooling out the actions and pecCadillos of its several suspects, who for the most part play their role as handy ciphers in service to the whodunit’s diagrammatic progressions that, in a dutiful geometry, feed the story line, yet can test the reader’s sustained interest. But in the end Feast makes it work by imbuing the most key characters with the enlivening personality traits that both round out their portraits and advance the machinery of the story, in the way good detective fiction should. Masquerade revel intrigue and a chasing crawl over glass rooftops quicken the pace to the needed climax.

Always a great mystery-making convenience, the spa’s patron swells and its radical nationalist staffers can’t be accused of parading an excess of virtue, making for a handy pool of victims and suspects, the former prey to its reflexive snobbery, the latter a little fast on the trigger in the name of their cause, though the author does impute some righteousness to their proletarian anger. Feast stays far enough inside genre norms to prevent larger points about politics or the state of humanity in general to stand in the way of his otherwise excellent story.


NAMING A HURRICANE

Madeline Artenberg has the classic writer’s biography. In her case, it would seem earned more out of hard necessity than a thirst for experience. Whatever the motivating factors, in Naming a Hurricane, a picaresque memoir in poetic form, she meets the fundamental test that faces any writer, gainfully mining the riches that every life moment brings her way–from early family trauma to the perils (and rewards) of the open road to dicey hours on motley jobs to love relationships as they fracture before the reader’s eyes.

Naming a Hurricane Madeline Artenberg

Rebalancing a large roster of past personal wrongs, Artenberg seeds her characteristically serene pace with stealthy bursts of vividly disconcerting, even visionary imagery, her clincher line frequently closing the full nose of her target inside a hard-shutting door. Sentences like “‘I’m your English teacher, I’m your Rheingold girl,” “I flapped my arms. /Dragon Girl!”, “You scoop up your therapist’s shingle,/ eight-leg-it out of here,” “I hereby affirm I’m beautiful inside and out. I hereby/affirm I’m ugly inside and out. I’ve put down my finger./Now, please, put down yours,” “‘I’m your roadside Jew-girl, fresh/from Coney Island’s fun house./Marvel at my horns, if you dare,/but when you come up behind me,/watch out, I’ll swat/your beastly face/with my tail” are the final say in last lines.

Artenberg titles her recollections that chronologically follows the arc of her life with chapter headings that enumerate the stages of a hurricane, “Disturbance,” “Low Pressure,” “Storm,” “Hurricane,” and “Dissipation,” As an organizing principle, practically applied the plan may work better for the author than the reader. In any case, best to savor the stops where the wind takes the poet and her travel mates.

Artenberg occasionally detours from the first-person material to character sketches, topical observation or mythic themes–an apple seller stand-in for Eve, Lot’s wife, a Spanish working man running from the bulls, a stripper stumbling off the stage (not the author, or is it?). Hitler. But it’s the very personal life studies that fill out the book. Throughout the unending litany of challenge and pain the poet shows the recurrent gift for keeping her feet planted and her gaze unclouded.

From “From Nothing”:

I inherited your flat feet. Thank you,
Father. They led me
to fields of rustling quills
and emptied sky
on which to write.

–Lehman Weichselbaum


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