Friendly Reviews

by Amanda Laughtland

My zine is too tiny to contain many reviews.  Now and then, people are kind enough to trade me zines and books and (less frequently) art and CDs, and I don't mean for them to get lost in the shuffle, but sometimes I even forget to send a note to the author/creator!  Plus, I'm always going to the library, and there are piles of books on my shelves and on the floor.  I'm going to try and post some reviews here to help get the word out about work I enjoy. 

If you want me to review any of your stuff, feel free to ask...




After the Quake by Haruki Murakami and Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx


I was having problems using Google Page Creator with Firefox on my Mac, but it seems to be working fine now, so hooray, back to the tiny reviews!  I haven't had the chance to read much fiction because I've been busy with teaching, so when the quarter ended, I was happy to pick up these two collections of short stories at the library, and I read them back-to-back.  

I really liked Murakami's Wind-up Bird Chronicle, and After the Quake strikes a similar note with me: the writing is very matter-of-fact, and the characters are regular people dealing with irregular/strange circumstances.  But this book is more grounded in "regular" experience than the novel, and the stories all have something to do with the Kobe earthquake.  It's a quick read and, I think, a good introduction to Murakami; I think it's a philosophical book in a relatively gentle way (he doesn't force anything at you), and I felt for the characters.

It was hard getting into Close Range because I couldn't relate to the tough-guy characters and how they thought about women; the first woman in the book is constantly compared to a horse (in the least flattering way possible, I'd say, in that her "haunches" are the focal point).  This first story won some prizes and stuff, to which I say "blah" because it didn't do much for me.  Later on, there's a story called "The Bunchgrass Edge of the World," and I like this story a lot--it captures loneliness and struggle in the story of "the family embarrassment" who listens to cell phone conversations on a scanner and, for a while, hears a tractor talking to her.  The book ends with "Brokeback Mountain," and wow, the movie was really faithful to the story; I do think the story shows a little more of the struggle Ennis felt in terms of his identity (not a word he would use). 

I'm glad I read both of these books.  The end result is that I want to read more Murakami soon, and I might give Proulx another go later (but not right away).



Nothing Left Over and Caught in the Act by Toinette Lippe.

    I very much enjoyed both of Toinette Lippe's books.  I would call both of them memoir, though both were shelved in the self-help/spirituality section of the library.  The first book is the story of Lippe's decision to cut back from full-time editing with a publishing house to freelance editing work (mostly from home) and her pursuit of, well, knowledge about herself, her life, etc.  The tone is straightforward and personal, and I felt in both books a strong spirit of sharing: in short, the books say, "Here's what I've done and learned and what I continue to do and learn, and please take what you can from my stories of my experiences."  Lippe has edited a number of books on spirituality and the arts, and the second book in particular gave me many ideas for further reading.  I highly recommend both of these books, especially for anyone with an interest in thinking about Zen and Taoism in a highly personal, reflective way and/or for anyone who wants to have a serious think about the ways that we live, spend our time, pursue work, and practice what brings more calm awareness into our lives.



Erik and Laura-Marie Magazine no. 40 by Laura-Marie Taylor, 2007


Laura-Marie makes a zine with careful attention to detail: covers with spare yet eye-catching black and white art, and a simple binding of discreet white thread.  Her layout emphasizes her text, which consists of first-person prose narratives and (mostly short) poetry.  The prose reflects the author's wide-ranging interests in the people/things/ideas she encounters and remembers from her daily life; for instance, she tells the reader that she loves almonds but cannot bear hazelnuts, and she remembers attending an elementary school located next to a mortuary.  She even offers a few quick book reviews, and these, too, reflect the breadth of her interests: lately she has been reading novels by Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Sayers and a graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang. 

A fan of the tiny and plainspoken in poetry, I can find much to appreciate in this zine!  There are poems about a tollbooth and a job interview, and a poem about driving a truck and thinking to oneself that "home is a good idea."  My favorite piece is the second section of a three-part poem called "we saw," but I also loved "Sue and St. Francis," in which the speaker says, "My keys are in my hand. / I can hear Phyllis playing / organ in the auditorium."  The zine pays tribute to the wonder of the ordinary, the value of our experiences and our relationships with our partners, friends, neighbors, and the characters we've met in books.

This zine is free, so drop Laura-Marie an email at robotmad at gmail dot com and/or check out her blog.  She has also started a new zine about mental health called functionally ill, which I can also recommend for its honest, straightforward approach to both life and writing/art.




Constructive Living by David K. Reynolds, U of Hawaii Press, 1984.


I happened upon this book at the library while looking for books on meditation.  In just over 100 pages, David Reynolds introduces the ideas of "Constructive Living," a therapy or way of life based upon ideas from Japanese psychotherapies developed to help people cope with the anxieties of living.  Reynolds' approach to living might be called a two-step approach.  The first step is to become more aware and accepting of reality, and this reality consists of both internal feelings and external situations, neither of which you can control.  The second step is to ask yourself what you can do in the present moment and then to respond to reality sensitively and appropriately through your actions and behavior, which you do control.

Reynolds' emphasis on awareness, presence, and receptivity makes a strong parallel to the skills of a poet, as does his emphasis on focusing attention outward rather than being overly self-focused.  He even suggests as an exercise that you write poetry.  For another exercise, he suggests that you take a walk in an unfamilar place and "take in as much as possible," such as "the colors of the tree trunks, drapes in the windows, [and] advertisements" (88).

Not that he calls for an abandonment of the self, but it would seem that the self is a product of its present action(s): one such action might be quiet reflection, another might be making a gift for a friend, another might be working hard at your job.  There is an unmoored feeling that I take from this book, but also some optimism.  Try your best each moment, Reynolds seems to be saying, and if you struggle one moment, the next moment is another opportunity to try again, or try something new.  The book leaves me a little unmoored because I usually think of self-development as somehow centered on reflecting on, well, the self, but here the center is action, with the idea that internal changes will follow from changes in behavior. 

Maybe it's a balance of actions that is the best help: time for reflection and self-assessment and so on, and time for doing what you need to do.  Ideally, if you can acheive the awareness and presence in individual moments that Reynolds describes, you can experience what I think is his main goal for you, a richer life as experienced more fully by more attention to the process of acting--of living.  To use a term from English grammar, you are living in the present progressive tense.




Simple Taoism by C. Alexander and Annellen Simpkins, Tuttle Publishing, 1999.


A friend mentioned to me that some of my thoughts and ideas reminded her of Taoist ideas, and we had an interesting discussion about the idea of a person's path or way in life, and I wanted to know more about the Tao.  I checked this book out from the library, along with a couple of translations of the Tao Te Ching and some other books, and this book is the most accessible and informative so far. 

The authors first give a historical overview to familiarize readers with some of the context of the beginnings of Taoism, and my favorite part about this section of the book is that it mentions several different authors/thinkers, which is a nice way to direct further reading; in fact, this little book seems designed to gently encourage further reading, practice, reflection, etc--and always in a nonprescriptive way (which I like very much!).  Then comes a section to acquaint readers with the basic ideas/ways of Taoism, and finally there is a section of ideas for incorporating Taoist practice into everyday life. 

Essentially, the authors offer a survey course, a combination of ideas that could fit into the reader's life right this very moment and ideas toward which the reader may want to devote further reflection and study in order to better understand.  I found a nice meditation exercise called "allowing body relaxation" as well as two visualization exercises that I have already found to be calming and helpful.  I think this book has some little bit of information for everyone, should everyone want to find it, that is...




Selected Amazon Reviews by Kevin Killian, edited by Brent Cunningham, Hooke Press, 2006.


It seems only fitting to start posting little reviews with a review of this wonderful little book of Kevin Killian's reviews.  The layout is clean and crisp, with plenty of white space and a very cute cover design and accompanying "key" with symbols to indicate reviews in different categories: books, film and music, luxury items, and food, shelter & clothing.  I had enjoyed reading several of these on the Amazon website, but it's more fun sitting down with a book of them, especially as the editor has made an effort to include a wide variety of reviews arranged in an almost random (but never jarring) sort of way that had a cheering effect on me as I read because who could not be cheered by a book that offers (in a consistently helpful tone) opinions on everything from khaki shorts with ugly yellow stitching to the collected works of Amy Lowell? 

The reviews are equal parts smart and funny, and I liked reading the introductions by the editor and the author, in particular for the editor's comment that "a given reader will extract from a review the kind of things they already believe" and the author's comment that "It's surprising how many texts you can actually experience in a lifetime, or, say, in the span of a year."  This book reminded me of some of my own beliefs about the texts I enjoy and of the good it might do me to take time to reflect for a moment on some of the many texts that make up so much of my life.