Monday, July 31, 2017

5 * Review for #BHBW author Larry Neff's #memoir 'Rigger' #MondayBlogs

I had the pleasure of meeting Larry Neff, a fellow author, at a recent book signing. After listening to him talk to me about his book for a while, I decided I had to buy and read it, especially since my dad worked there for many years, retiring in 1980. He never really talked about his job, but because Larry Neff wanted to share his stories, and near death experiences, I learned a lot about being a steelworker.

The demands of a rigger were much more than many employees could stand up to and Larry told the stories with great passion, humor and depth. I never knew that working there was that dangerous, again, probably because nobody I knew who worked there shared their stories.

I would recommend this book to anyone who would like to know more about what working at Bethlehem Steel was like. Granted, not everyone worked like riggers, but Larry Neff's book will give you a great overview of a lot of the steelmaking process.

Available here!
Rigger: A Memoir from High School to High Steel

This world doesn’t exist anymore. It was a time when jobs were plentiful and workers were scarce. The Vietnam War raged on, dividing the county. The sexual revolution was here, embraced with open arms. The selective service was collecting young men who didn’t wish to be soldiers. Women sought a well-deserved equality. Music was changing, giving us protest songs to help stop a war. It was a time when, with only a high school diploma, you could follow your father into a high-paying but very dangerous industry. This is a story of a young man’s quest, raised on traditional morals and values, to find his way through this tumultuous era, adhering to some of his values and discarding others.

It is also a story of survival in the very dangerous occupation of “hanging iron”. Mr. Neff, the son of a steelworker, joined the ranks of Bethlehem Steel employees in 1972, and became a rigger in 1975. The rigger crews in the Steel Company did the jobs that were deemed too high, too hard, or too dangerous for other departments to handle. They also had a certain reputation for being somewhat crazy, but able to get the job done.

This is a sometimes light-hearted and always uncensored view of day-to-day work in the Bethlehem Steel mill. You’ll read about close brushes with death, about a young woman’s quest to become the first female rigger in a male-dominated workplace, and the playful and sometimes rough antics of co-workers. This book talks of life among rivers of molten iron, walking steel hundreds of feet in the air, and the men (and the woman) who were tough enough to do it. You’ll read of “snakes”, rats, ghosts, picking locks, explosions planned and unplanned. It will illicit snorts of laughter and perhaps a tear or two, and give you a view into a world that few have ever known. 

Monday, July 24, 2017

Welcome Fanny Barry, #BHBW author of Map of Life and Beauty #MondayBlogs

I am Joanne Fanny Barry, a yoga teacher, artist and engineer who lives in Tulum, Mexico. I am also a cancer survivor who found that yoga and my love for writing, drawing and painting were the things that helped me survive cancer and then build a life from the ground up in Tulum, Mexico. You can see it and feel it in my cancer booklets, I Wish I Knew. Now, you can read about it in my memoir, Map of Life and Beauty.

Map of Life and Beauty

This is the story of a woman who falls in love in Tulum, Mexico—before the maddening crowds descended and made it a hip destination. Fanny fell in love with Tulum but mistook it to be part of an interesting, dysfunctional and violent relationship with a beach bum she met the day she arrived in 2004. He introduces her to all the wonderful things about Tulum: the pace, the nature, the lifestyle. And, as she falls in love with Tulum—the new feelings, places and experiences—she thinks she’s falling in love with him as well. He begins to control her and help her move her life from straight-laced Boston to a pre-discovered Tulum: savagely beautiful, raw, amazing and intense. Before electricity, before hip cool restaurants and people, before it was the tourist destination that it is today. But as her relationship gets increasingly abusive and achieving her dream life in Tulum increasingly impossible, the question becomes: how can she leave? In this wonderful story of love and discovery, Fanny Barry conjures the magic of a place that enticed her to abandon the secure life of a professional on the rise to start anew in a jungle hideaway on a beach she thought was worth dying for, or at least worth dying on. She lets go of her traditional life and jumps into the deep end with this man and this place. Her story is riveting and captures the essence of a paradise that is quickly fading. Tulum 12 years ago, before Johnny Depp, before Meg Ryan, before all the hipsters could hack it, Fanny built herself a little bungalow in the jungle with no electricity where she could practice yoga, detach from hostile men, ant, and scorpion invasions while she healed from breast cancer treatments, lost loves and opportunities. She turned her life upside down and inside out and came out on the other side of Tulum: at the beach, alive and willing to share her story.

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Thursday, July 20, 2017

#BHBW author Jim McGarrah @jmcgarra on writing #memoirs

Misdemeanor Outlaw - available here

Mediocre or Just Ordinary

I heard many people use the words mediocre and ordinary as synonyms. I don’t believe that’s reasonable in most instances. Mediocre implies that whatever circumstance you find yourself in, you will deal with it in a less than creative way. Ordinary, on the other hand, indicates that your life experiences are comparable to many other people who may fit some way in your demographic, not necessarily how you deal with those experiences. For a writer of memoir, or really any nonfiction, this is an important distinction. 
            It has been remarked by some great critics of memoir writing that most of us shouldn’t bother because we’ve done nothing special with our lives. We’re not celebrities or professional athletes or rock stars, and therefore have nothing of value to say regarding our personal lives. I respond to that particular criticism in this way—that’s exactly why we should share our stories. For example, I was wounded while on patrol in Vietnam. More than a quarter of a million Americans were wounded in that war. More than fifty-eight thousand died. Many thousands suffered in wars before that and many more after. It is a fairly common experience and has been described in a myriad of ways by some of the best and brightest authors on this planet. Why would my description be a worthwhile one read?
            If, I have developed my craft well enough and if I have been visited in this one instance by that nebulous and undefinable quality called by some inspiration, then the way I describe that event in my life will connect with people on a conscious level, but more importantly, on an emotional one as well. For those who have participated on some level in the horror of war, it will help generate an exorcism of sorts and for those who have not, it will create an empathetic understanding relatable to some trauma in their own lives. In this way, a universal connection is made and connection should be the goal of any writer because through a series of joined images, fresh images get forged. Synthesis often creates possibilities greater than the sum of their parts and the feeling that you are not alone in your struggle to be human helps heal the injuries accumulated by being human.

Discover Jim's books on Amazon here
Jim McGarrah's poems and essays have appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including After Shocks: Poems of Recovery, Bayou Magazine, Breakwater, The Bitter Southerner, Café Review, Chamber Four Magazine, Cincinnati Review, Connecticut Review, Elixir Magazine, and North American Review. His play, Split Second Timing, received a Kennedy Center Award in 2001. He is the author of four books of poetry, Running the Voodoo Down (2003), When the Stars Go Dark (2009), Breakfast at Denny's (2013). and The Truth About Mangoes (2016). His memoir of the Vietnam War entitled A Temporary Sort of Peace received the 2010 Eric Hoffer Award for Legacy Nonfiction and was followed by The End of an Era (2011), an account of life in the counterculture during the sixties and seventies. In September of 2015, Blue Heron Book Works published his third nonfiction book, Off Track. McGarrah is editor, along with Tom Watson, of Home Again: Essays and Memoirs from Indiana. He holds a master's degree in liberal studies from the University of Southern Indiana and an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He taught creative writing and literature at the university level for several years, but has also been a horse trainer, a janitor, a social worker, and a mailman.

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Monday, July 17, 2017

#BHBW author Vincent Francone: #reading poetry is a spiritual quest #MondayBlogs

“Why I Read Poems When They Are Often Quite Bad”–guest blog post by Vincent Francone

I just finished Rosemary Tonk's posthumous collection of poems, Bedouin of the London Evening I wanted to read Tonks ever since I saw this quote: “The main duty of the poet is to excite – to send the senses reeling.”  I quite agree.  Sadly, I disliked the book.  The poems have some flashes of brilliance, but Tonks’s work is a bit callow and ultimately dispensable.  The experience left me bummed.  I’d been looking forward to these poems for quite some time, had searched for them in bookshops in Chicago and San Francisco, only to be very disappointed.

But here’s the thing: I don’t regret the money I spent on the book ($26.00 plus tax).  I’ll likely not read any of the poems anytime soon, but the day I spent laboring over lines like “My gutter—how you gleamed! Like dungeon floors which / Cobras have lubricated” and “Those evenings you were mutinous / Against the tyranny of kitchen tables where / The flat iron cools its mirror of blue ore” was not wasted.  I take a lot of chances on poetry, and most of the time they don’t pay off.  Poems should, indeed, blow the top of your head off, but often they are dull, affected, over-wrought or, worse, dashed off and trite.  Yet I still search through them looking for the one poem—hell, the one line—that will remind me that the effort is worthwhile.
Writers often speak of the struggle to produce one goddamn line that is close to good.  Hours spent in front of the computer, booze within reach and eyes near tears, all in vain when nothing much comes.  But when it clicks—oh, what magic!  What a thrill.  There’s nothing like it.  I know full well what writers mean when they rhapsodize about their specific form of self-abuse.  But the same can be said of reading poems, which requires a level of focus rare in today’s tech-obsessed culture.  I’m often left feeling empty and unengaged by the poems I read, but when I do stumble on that rare wonderful creation, the search is more than validated.
I liken this process to what Dostoevsky seemed to be up to in many of his works: the struggle to understand what it even means to be a soul in search of god.  Reading poetry is a spiritual quest, a meditation of the unnamable entity that fortifies us against the collection of absolute crap accumulating just outside the door.  How to sustain sanity against it all?  Some look to god.  Others look to poetry.
This is not to say that I find comfort and meaning in Yeats on par with what the average Christian gets from the New Testament.  But I do see something beautiful and mysterious in his best work that does suggest a force greater than my understanding.  I am probably not anywhere close to explaining it here, but I am often invigorated by a poem to the extent that I can face whatever hell awaits the moment I set foot out of the apartment.
But again, this is rare.  Most poems are bad or dull or good in a sense, sure, but nothing that really stays with me.  My tastes are fairly specific.  I am all for ambition and experimentation, but the trend today seems to be toward coded poems that rely so much on their playfulness that they fail to convey anything worthwhile and, thus, seem hallow. Keeping in mind that the primary audience for poetry in the USA is other poets and academics, I understand why so much poetry written today is full of turgid, dense language. (Though I’m aware every generation has produced good and bad poems.  Surely there was a lousy, pompous tale being told by the campfire alongside Beowulf.)  This is why I’ve been gravitating to Yeats and Kavanagh and a score of more contemporary Irish poets who value the felicity of language but rarely at the expense of a worthwhile subject.  Content is as important as language in a Seamus Heaney poem.  Ciaran Carson never sacrifices either.  The balance is impressive; the effects astonishing.  I’ll take that over whatever John Ashbery is up to.
If one is going to write a poem that is more concerned with language than content, fine.  Sometimes these are the poems that are so intriguing they border on the rhapsodic.  But they are few compared to the majority of obfuscated, image heavy curiosities. Sifting through them requires patience and faith.  The search is worthwhile, even if it’s never ending.  Maybe in death we will understand the secret of poetry.  Maybe the afterlife waiting for us is built on rhyming couplets.
Who can write challenging, obscure poems that are simultaneously engaging?  It’s a tie between Medbh McGuckian and Cesar Vallejo, though they can come from E. E. Cummings, Joyce Mansour, Mina Loy, William Blake, Guillaume Apollinaire, Vicente Huidobro, and Coral Bracho as well.  All of these writers have penned at least a few visionary, bizarre, compelling poems that have consumed a good amount of my days.  I spent most of a plan ride from Washington DC to Chicago trying to get my head around Paul Muldoon’s “The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants”; much of June 2012 saw me puzzling over Huidobro’s book length poem Altazor.  Still, I usually return to Philip Larkin when I wish to be reminded of the daily truth on which poetry can, and should, focus.
Today, I read a poem that awed me: “Aubade” by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill.  I read it once, then paused at the end, unsure of what I’d just encountered, then reread it and saw the simplicity of it leading to a conclusion that floored me.  Go look for it—it’s really grand, as is much of her work.  This is why I pore over poems, in the hope of finding one that takes me to a place I couldn’t have imagined before.  Ironically, poems like “Aubade” do it best, poems lacking testing, obvious ornaments.
Vincent's memoir is available here: Like a Dog
Vincent Online:

Sunday, July 16, 2017

#BHBW presents: Off Track by Jim McGarrah #memoir

Book Review: Off Track by Jim McGarrah

- Stars & Stripes, September issue, 2015

by Susan McCarty

Let the full title of Jim McGarrah’s latest memoir, Off Track or How I Dropped Out of College and Came to be a Horse Trainer in the 1970s While All My Friends Were Still Doing Drugs, be your guide to McGarrah’s loquacious, funny narrative and narrator. Let it also locate the reader in the epicenter of Baby Boomer counterculture while promptly letting you know that this story isn’t going to be that story.

Available at this link!
McGarrah, a Marine and a Vietnam War veteran, is no stranger to counterculture, or memoir for that matter. Off Track is the third memoir for McGarrah, which takes up where A Temporary Sort of Peace (his Vietnam combat memoir) and End of an Era (his counterculture memoir) leave off.

Part war memoir, part bildungsroman, part American folk-tale, part historical lament, Off Track tells the story of a young McGarrah, returned home from war, injured, angry, and rudderless. In Chapter 2, “The Road to Angst,” we get a glimpse of McGarrah’s youthful attempts to answer his existential crisis--a wild-hair road trip to Mexico. Though the Mexico trip reads romantic, we understand that it stands in as a kind of shorthand for what feels to McGarrah like a ceaseless alienation-and-return leftover from his time in combat in the DMZ. McGarrah writes:
The emptiness in my bowels became a metaphor for the emptiness in my soul upon our return…Forced by a strange desire for normalcy after the war and a disastrous four years wandering the now failed counter-culture utopia, I returned to my hometown and attempted a year working at the post office and being married. Both failed miserably.

The outsider status conferred on veterans when they return home from war is well-tread territory, but McGarrah’s memoir is a redemption tale: When they make you an outsider, become a gypsy.

The decade he spent as a groom and horse trainer makes up the bulk of this book, though the chapters are only roughly chronological—McGarrah gives himself plenty of room here to play around, to move backwards and forward in time at will, giving the reader the experience of a “present rummaged through” by the past and of a life lived “in two places at once.” Here, McGarrah is speaking of his PTSD. The two places are the complimentary worlds of his time in combat and his time in the horse world, but as I read Off Track, I got a strong sense of many pasts and presents at play in this impressionistic work: McGarrah’s relationship with his father and his own conflicting masculinities as a young man, an obsession with the culture of the track, his marital struggles and the encroaching corporatization of the sport of horse racing.

In one chapter entitled “The Artist,” McGarrah ruminates upon a talented mechanic who worked for his father, a painter in his own right, and the man’s warning that people should not “live in one life while they belong in another.” This becomes a kind of artist’s statement to McGarrah, a call to do well what one is able to do, but it is also a description of writing, and reading a book. And Off Track—with its interesting slippages in time and echoes of PTSD recurring (as PTSD does) in unexpected places—becomes a kind of meditation on what happens to a man when he must live both lives at once out of necessity, since, as McGarrah notes, “A combat veteran lives in two worlds simultaneously, the present and the past.”

And the racetrack proves to be a nice analog for combat: The grueling work, the comradery and hierarchy of the track, and the darkness of many of its denizens, makes it a space for McGarrah to work out his place in the world post-Vietnam through fascinating slice-of-life descriptions of track-and-horse work and folksy tale-telling. The reader gets a round, full feel for the allure of the life and its quirks.

When McGarrah recounts shoeing a two-year-old colt, he writes, “Everything living created its own comfort zone.” For McGarrah’s young narrator, a man without comfort, the track becomes this zone, as do the ways of the track. There is something about the oral tradition (I can see McGarrah’s narrator lighting up with raunchy glee at this expression) of storytelling that circulates wherever men labor—this tradition takes up residence in McGarrah’s prose, which modulates between psychological realism, lyric, and tale. This blend of genre, this mustering of all forces to tell the story, may be one of the most rewarding aspects of Off Track—the books feels multilayered and multivalent, which makes sense given that McGarrah is also a novelist and an award-winning poet. Jobs make for great material, and the added depth of McGarrah’s backstory and struggles make Off Track a rewarding memoir.

Susan McCarty is professor of creative writing and literature in Salisbury University in Maryland. She is the author of the short story collection, "Anatomies" published in June 2015.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

#BHBW Hello those who don't know me... #authorinterview Name is Vincent Francone

(Reblogged from Scott Mullin's This is Writing Blog)

My book is called Like a Dog. It’s a memoir, but I also write poems, which have been picked up from time to time. I’m trying to get a book of the poems published. I may publish it myself if the wheels of the publishing bus do indeed finally fall off.  
You can connect with me via my website and Facebook.

When and why did you start writing?

I started writing seriously in my late thirties. Prior to then, I was playing with poems and dashing off Bukowski and Kerouac parodies because I was a twenty-two year old white male. I quit for a while, then started writing record and book reviews for small online journals.  I had a decision to make when I finished my BA and was heading to grad school: study English or Creative Writing. I decided to give being a writer one more try, so I chose Creative Writing (Poetry) and have been pushing the boulder uphill ever since.  

What inspires your writing?

These days, small things. My dog. A train ride. Chicago. A glass of really good scotch. The smell of morning after rain. Little things seem big to me now, so I try to write about those when I approach poems. When I wrote the book, I was obsessed with work: why we work, where we work, how our jobs begin to take on something bigger than we may have initially intended. I dreaded having a “career” and, as I saw one beginning to form around me, I decided I needed to write about what it means to work, or, I should say, what it means for me to have been employed at a number of places, often to the mutual determinant of me and the employers.  

How would you define creativity?

Creativity is nebulous, malleable, and a lot of other nice 50 cent words.  But truly, I do feel that it something different for different people, which I find liberating. My creativity is my own. It comes out in my way, with my voice, and it would totally not work for someone else, just as my friends—many of them writers or musicians—exercise a form of creativity that I envy. If only I could write like that! But once I accept that creativity is a subjective, odd thing, I can put aside envy, fear, doubt, and let the work begin.

Do you have any writing rituals to get you in the mood for writing?

Sort of. I write early. I used to write at night with a cigarette and a drink, but that only got me so far. Now I get to it in the early morning with coffee and quiet. I write better when the apartment is still, before the dog wakes and needs his walk. After 10:00 AM, there are too many demands on my time.

If you could, what would you go back and tell yourself as a writer starting out?

Make a schedule; make a plan; stick to both. I used to assume I would just sit down whenever inspiration struck and make something great. I didn’t understand the importance of deadlines, especially those that are self-imposed. 

What do you believe make for great writing?

I am a fan of humor, and mine can be dark—or, as one former employer put it: “caustic”—and think that humor is underrated in so-called serious literature. I look for writers who understand that the world is pretty sad and, thus, the need for laughter is among the most important things there is. Kafka is hilarious in this way. Vonnegut. Sergei Dovlatov. G. Cabrera Infante. All laugh riots, even when they are writing about deadly serious subjects. And I think poetry is the superior form of writing. In an age when we are beset by political spin and buzzwords passing as commentary and discourse, poetry is the most crucial thing we have.

Which writers have influenced your writing?

See above, but I would add to the list: Ciaran Carson, Italo Calvino, Reinaldo Arenas, Ernesto Cardenal, Mikhail Bulgakov, Jeanette Winterson, and Nicanor Parra. I don’t write like Faulkner or James Joyce or Samuel Beckett or Paul Muldoon or Seamus Heaney or Medbh McGuckian, but they have also been tremendously important to me.

How do you measure success as a writer?

Finishing a manuscript. I was unable to do that for a long time, so it became my measure of success. Publishing a book was also nice, but I realize, a year after the book has been out, that writing and revising something you’re proud of is itself a huge feat.

Have you ever hated something you wrote?

Only everything. 

What’s your biggest fear as a writer?

Rejection, but I get over that quickly. Then I build up the fear of rejection again, submit anyway, get rejected, get callus, laugh at the fear, then it comes back, then I begin the process over.

What traits do you feel make a great writer?


Describe your latest book to our readers

Like a Dog is a memoir of my life in Chicago as a working stiff. I document my time as mail-sorter, clerk in a used bookstore, and adjunct instructor getting exploited by academia. There’s plenty of booze, slacker quasi-philosophy, literary references, and curse words

What would you like readers to take away from your writing?

A sense of who I am and how I see things, which may or may not be how they see things, but in comingling our worldviews we may collectively grow. Or laugh.

Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?

Be open to criticism and stay determined. Giving up is too easy.  Remember what Beckett wrote: “Try again. Fail again. Fail Better.”

Can you give our audience a writing prompt to help get them writing?

You have to live a year of high school over again, but you spend it all in detention. A hierarchy develops—who would be the de facto leader? Or another idea: You go back in time and interview your parents before you’re born. In fact, it’s the night of your conception. You have to explain everything that will happen to them, who you are, what all of your lives will become. They plague you with questions. What do they ask and do they decide not to have sex as a result of your discussion? 

Like A Dog

Vincent Francone’s “Like a Dog,” as in “Work like a dog,” is a great read. A working class guy who comes up on the South Side of Chicago and moves north in a quest a better life, Francone takes us on a dazzling tour of minimum wage America over the last couple of decades. He’s has done it all; “I’ve tried telemarketing, copy writing, editing; I managed a courier center, I conducted background checks on potential healthcare employees, and worked in a stock room. . . .”