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Monthly Archives: December 2012

The Bravest Book since Asher Lev?

Unholyland_coverUnholyland, a Novel in Verse: a Review

Every now and then, a reader finds an author who consciously strives to write A Novel of Great Significance. When a writer makes that powerful and audacious claim, a deep and powerful matrix of setting, time, mood, and human verity must be found within the pages. It doesn’t hurt to unearth a nearly unused literary structure, one which was born (and perhaps died) in the arms of Pushkin. Nor does it hurt the author to have functioned at the top level of his art for over two decades. . Unholyland, by Aidan Andrew Dun, is an epic poem made up of approximately 250 sonnets of a form unused since Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Speaking with a level of lyricism that bears comparison to Onegin, Unholyland  depicts forbidden love and a millennium-old legacy against the backdrop of one of the most intractable scenarios in human history, the Israel-Palestine conundrum.

For those who have encountered Onegin mainly through Tchaikovsky’s eponymous opera, a brief review of plot might serve. Set in Tsarist Russia, the archetypal novel in verse follows the dissolute title character, a wealthy twentysomething heritor of the Russian equivalent of a grand Southern plantation, where slaves are replaced with serfs. Onegin befriends a poet, Lensky, not yet twenty, who links Onegin to two sisters, one of whom falls desperately in love with Onegin, but whose passions are rebuffed coldly. Onegin and Lensky stumble over each other’s intentions at a country ball that parodies the social schedules of the idle Russian rich. Lensky challenges Onegin to a duel. Through further mishap, the duel comes off, and Onegin slays Lensky.

Onegin drifts around the world, never able to overcome his guilt. He winds up in Moscow, where he encounters the younger sister. She is now married to an elderly prince.Onegin tries to undo what he had done by spurning her years ago. The girl, now a woman even more beautiful than she had been as a youth, now spurns Onegin to remain true to her husband, while blaming him for the loss of their one opportunity.

Mr. Dun assures me that the saga of Unholyland continues, so that full plot comparisons are premature. To understand what Dun is attempting, it is important to see why Onegin towers over much of nineteenth-century literature, and why the setting of Unholyland provides an epochal parallel.

The character of Onegin represents the beginning of the end of the idle rich. The historical fact of the French Revolution and the upheavals in Europe that paused bloodily in 1848 certainly impacted all the nineteenth century novelists, especially the Russians (think Chekhov and his play The Cherry Orchard). Onegin’s desolation at the end of the novel represents the inherent purposelessness of wealth qua wealth, and Lensky’s martyrdom strikes me as the temporary subjugation of the will of the people that Karl Marx was already writing about. The girl, who we see later as a fully developed woman Tatyana, represents the truth and fidelity of the common man – a prototype for Marxian thought that would define the twentieth century.

Dun’s leading character, Moshe Rambam is the greightieth-great-grandson of the leading rabbi Rav Moshe Ben Maimon, known to history as Maimonides. There is no more famous figure in Jewish history than Maimonides, so the reader is warned against projecting any preconceived notions on his descendant. Moshe (usually called Moss in the novel) is a dreadlocked, pot-smoking, slingshot-rapping youth, about to be forced into his obligatory two years of military service. He crosses effortlessly into Palestinian youth culture, where oppression and poverty are the métier. This creates a paradox that seems more befitting of Lensky in the Russian novel-in-verse than of Onegin, but Dun’s vision of Israel reveals itself not as an old, crumbling estate that will fall of its own weight, but rather, an oppressor that will be just as liberated as the oppressed when the state of oppression ends.  Rambam’s slightly older Palestinian best friend Rayyan never turns against Rambam, but the tension from Rayyan’s people’s occupation by the Rambam’s people grips this reader as a second skin while reading – a shadow of foreboding. Still, the image of a scion of power reaching out and trying to blend with the powerless is almost a trope, having featured prominently since Victor Hugo’s fluid use of power and poverty in Les Misèrables.

The critical three-day period occurs on the first days of the Hebrew month of Nisan, on the Passover festival, in which Jews commemorate the Exodus from slavery to freedom. Dun leaves the Biblical reference more or less unexploited; he’s an artist, not a demagogue, but the irony is not lost on the reader. Moss, as Moshe is known colloquially throughout the book (except when he faces certain death at a Palestinian nightclub, where his fluency in Arabic and his Mediterranean features allow him to pass as Musa), is nearly killed as he crosses over to Palestine, and is rescued by Rayyan’s sister. In any other setting, and in less inspired hands, what follows would not be exceptional. Girl saves boy. Girl heals boy. Girl falls in love with other boy. First boy is set up to meet second girl. They fall in love. Will they live happily ever after?  But nothing is certain, not even love, under the shadow of occupation. I will make two further literary references, and in these two references, the detectives among you will find a spoiler. Therefore, I will not annotate these: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (cited by Moss Rambam in the text) and John Singleton’s 1991 drama Boyz in the Hood.

The structure of the sonnets that comprise this novel and Pushkin’s work is three quatrains with contrasting rhyme schemes ABAB, CCDD, EFFE, and a concluding rhymed couplet. Unlike Pushkin, who stuck strictly to iambic pentameter in Russian, Dun allows for excellent bleedthrough of the “slingshot hip-hop” resistance culture of the West Bank. Liberating the stanzas of the strict rhythmic leg-irons allows the poetry to dance when this is called for, such as in the following description of Jalila, the sixteen-year-old leader of the Slingshot Hip-Hop movement:

When I first heard her in Shatila

I realized she was a healer,

a poet and a peacemaker,

a woman and an earthshaker.

She’s what the Arab world’s waiting for…

I feel a shift from the first couplet (itself a pivot from the more classical verse that preceeds it) to the second couplet, which calls forth Jimi Hendrix to this reader. The actual raps are Dun’s imagination of the English translation over the Palestinian background music. This flexibility might have been unacceptable in Pushkin’s time, but it is mandatory in ours.

Dun ranges from the rough graphics of the above quatrain to verses that sound more like the Song of Songs, like this description of the heroine Jalila:

To some she brings velvet fruition,

to some, disastrous attrition,

the wearing down of all their dreams.

Or how about this couplet, and its simile across three thousand years:

Nazareth: Mobile phones, like ears of barley,

buzz with life in her underbelly.

I was captured by Dun’s lyricism from the first page, but never more so than at the first idyll between Moss and Jalilah. I quote the sonnet in its entirety, and an analog from the Song of Songs:

The atmospheric garden pleases;

it’s like being on another planet.

Here’s a waterfall that freezes;

here’s a fruiting pomegranate

where – through the dark – a nightingale

sang last night its lyric tale.

Ah! Here they are, sharing a joke

it seems, by a Palestinian oak.

Jalilah wears her black-fringed headshawl,

Moss has let his dreads hang loose.

Dove-calls seem to plead and seduce.

Now they wander by the waterfall

talking where a rainbow – over ferns –

makes a promise, while cool silver churns.

And Song of Songs Chapter 4: 10-17 (tr.

10: My beloved raised his voice and said to me, “Arise, my beloved, my fair one, and come away;

11: For behold, the winter has assed, the rain is over and gone.

12. The blossoms have appeared in the land, the time of singing has arrived, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.

13. The fig tree has put forth its green figs, and the vines with their tiny grapes have given forth their fragrance; arise, my beloved, my fair one, and come away.

14. My dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the coverture of the steps, show me your appearance, let me hear your voice, for your voice is pleasant and your appearance is comely.

15. Seize for us the foxes, the little foxes, who destroy the vineyards, for our vineyards are with tiny grapes.”

16. My beloved is mine, and I am his, who grazes among the roses.

17. Until the sun spreads, and the shadows flee, go around; liken yourself, my beloved, to a gazelle or to a fawn of the hinds, on distant mountains.

I found that the more intense the plot became, the less tight the poetry. By Chapter 7 (out of eight), I found myself given a green light to speed through, and this disappointed me. Dun’s poetic forces surge back in time to create a dramatic climax, right when it is needed.  Even on the very last page, Dun gives us a plot twist in verse. I would imagine that, as the author of a novel in verse that was premiered at Royal Albert Hall, Dun is well in control of the theatrical elements in his writing.

Unholyland is not for the passive reader. This is not simple art. It’s not even an uncluttered story of young love. It’s not a one-sided political screed; not any apologetic for either side. Dun calls out the British, the Turks, and the Zionists, and (do NOT read a comparison or edit out this parenthetical note!!!) the Nazis without equating anyone to anyone else This is dangerous, challenging reading; don’t look here for a right or a wrong.  There is an ample, excellently documented preface and good enough endnotes to establish Dun’s own point of view. In the end, the art will have to stand on its own. This reviewer believes that it will do just that, long after the inevitable firestorm disappears like sand in a flash flood.

Sallie’s Book Reviews and More: Interview with DM Yates, Author of Always

Sallie’s Book Reviews and More: Interview with DM Yates, Author of Always

Magic Words, a Review

I like reading important stories. I like reading well-written stories even more. I even hope that 3 Through History ( is such a tale. When both needs are satisfied in one reading experience, I like to make it clear to as many people as possible that I have found a gem, a book that will live with the reader as a work of art and as a collection of memorable scenes and unforgettable characters.
Such a book it Magic Words, a meticulously researched historical novel by Gerald Kolpan (2012, Pegasus). The title is a complex play on words. By themselves, the magic refers to two magicians, an older and a much younger brother, who both used the same stage name and between whom there was bad blood boiling, both personal and professional, that extended to affairs of heart and bed, finally resulting in the murder that opens and closes the book. The “words” belonged to the protagonist and major character, Julius Meyer, whose rare gift for languages earned him the title of Speaker of the Ponca Indians, that tribe that was decimated in the Trail of Tears exile. As a phrase, the title captures the power that words, language,  and books have always had for Jews, and when this particular Jew, Julius, finds the Ponca, the phrase is transformed into a kind of prayer.
Kolpan sets himself a prodigious task. The mystery of the murder at the beginning is only solved at the end, and then in such a way that the reader is almost banging the book against the nightstand, demanding that three new questions be answered. So if this were a mere whodunit, it would stand up well. If it were the improbable story of the intrigue between two brothers, several assistants, and other figures of nineteenth-century hocus-pocus and illusion, the reader would be well-rewarded. But this narration informs us of a timeless revelation into what it means to be Jewish, discovered only by Julius One-Tongue Meyer after years of living at once an “egg-eater” and a Ponca: “Sometimes,  I imagine the Ponca are this tribe that was lost to me all that time ago – my people returned from wandering,” Julius tells his betrothed. Our wandering brings us closer to ourselves, if only we can recognize the lost tribesman from whom we were separated, literally or figuratively, so long ago.

Guest interview – The Fab Vallory Vance and her Main Character, Lena

Hi, Vallory and Lena I’m glad to have you on my blog. First off, like any good partnerships, I want to know how you first met.
Vallory: I should probably take this one. I was at an outdoor concert totally into the music and had a thought about what these guys, who had to the power to hold a crowd of thousands entranced, were like at home. I kept thinking about their wives and girlfriends and parents and kids. Ethan spoke to me first and then I met Lena.
Vallory, tell me what you would tell me if your character weren’t listening. Why do you love him/her? Hate him/her?
Vallory: I love Lena. I wish I could be her. Super-mom with a clean house and balanced meals and yoga and looking all cute!
What drives you craziest about him/her?
Vallory: I hate shopping and I have to envision outfits to keep up with her image.
You might know my son through his fictional avatar, Ezra the Dream-Traveller. He’s eleven-years-old. Would you introduce your character to Ezra – do it now, please!
OK, (character wakes up). 
ROFL!! Nothing like dodging a question by claiming that the questioner was asleep! 
Lena, welcome to my blog. I don’t get a chance to talk to fictional characters often; perhaps that’s why I wrote someone else’s character into my latest novel. Now that I have your ears, how would you describe Vallory Vance? Do you like being written by her?
Lena Spencer: Vallory has her moments, but she can be a little scattered and is frequently late.
Each of you, tell me about a time when you had to share something with each other.
Lena: I shared with Vallory the importance of having a schedule.
Vallory: And I shared with Lena that the muse cannot be scheduled!
Now, how about a time when you had an argument.
Vallory: I think this is it right now. As Lena and I have discussed, I’m not as organized as her. Therefore she has to cut me some slack. Jeez, I feel like Ethan!
Lena: Do you think that was…
Vallory, describe your novels in a way that will appeal to my audience.
I like to think I write sweet and sexy romances that allow the reader a fun escape.
Lena, what do you think about being fictional?
Lena: It’s very hard to explain. I’m pretty real to myself!
Vallory, I’m going back to that first question. Did you start the book with Lena, with the plot, or some other way?
Vallory: I think I started with the hero’s job and went from there.
What in your life made you want to do this crazy thing of putting words on a page or in a file, and hoping someone cares?
Vallory: I’ve always wanted to be a writer and finally at 40, I decided just to do it.
Now, Vallory, tell me all about this book and prequels/seuels. – Spoilers can be left out. Lena, you may interrupt, but I have the delete key!!
Vallory: Music for Her Soul is a contemporary second chance romance. Ethan Holden is returning after a 10 month European tour to reclaim the heart of Lena Spencer. And as you’ve seen if it’s not on Lena’s schedule, it takes a lot to it done.
OK: Goofy stuff.
Favorite piece of music:  I’m really into Ray Charles and B.B. Kings’ Sinners’ Prayer right now.
Favorite recording artist: The Purple One – Prince
NY Times or Post? Times
Wine, beer, or liquor? Wine – Pinot Grigio
Poetry or song lyrics? Song Lyrics
Pizza or paté? Pizza (but still love pate)
How do we find your blog, email you, or buy your books? You can find me on the Vallory V Blog, Smashwords and Amazon!

When We Danced on Water by Evan Fallenberg, a review

<a href=”; style=”float: left; padding-right: 20px”><img alt=”When We Danced on Water: A Novel” border=”0″ src=”; /></a><a href=””>When We Danced on Water: A Novel</a> by <a href=””>Evan Fallenberg</a><br/>
My rating: <a href=”″>5 of 5 stars</a><br /><br />
When We Danced on Water, by Evan Fallenberg, a Review<br /><br /><br />Dear Hitler:<br /><br />If the word didn’t strangle me, I might thank you for creating a world that brought forth the legendary power and strength of my people. You yourself, through your propaganda film department, documented our ends, but you left it to masters of fiction like Evan Fallenberg to tell our stories of survival. You have created a universe of pain behind you. It’s not our deaths we rage against in the generations that follow; it’s the pain of the last three years, the last five years, the last twelve years, even, in the case of some of us, the last fifty or sixty years of our lives. You called us vermin; we looked our torturers in the eye and spat on them as we endured their blows.<br /><br />Just ask Teo. Ask him, Herr Hitler, what he did the final moment of the War, when he escaped his six year slavery as the personal plaything of an obsessed monster, who rose to be your top Minister of Culture before this slavemaster was pressed into service as an increasingly overmatched lieutenant, Captain, Lieutenant General, and finally, escapee. Ask your Baron Friedrich von Sadistschafft how many boys he demolished on the way to his enslavement of potentially the best male dancer of his era, possibly even a rival to Nijinsky. Go to Israel, and ask Teo’s friend of his twilight, Vivi, whose life was dissolute, fading, even, at the age of forty-two, who met your survivor of Reichskutltursschafft and, fired full of passion, the holy twin of obsession, created legendary installations in defiance of everything you were and everything you twisted your people into becoming. Ask their child, conceived on the very last night of Teo’s life, the eternal tribute to the fact that you were defeated, whereas we were merely destroyed. From every destruction there are survivors, memories. From your defeat, a shame that no one nation could bear, not even one Germany.<br /><br />We, the readers of Evan Fallenberg’s masterful tale, will feel the passion that Fallenberg nurtures, from the Teo’s first studio, the parks and balustrades of Warsaw, to the school in Copenhagen where he would emerge, ready to take over the Reich’s balletic imagination, to Teo’s capture, enslavement, and violation at the hand of the evil of this culture officer’s obsession. We will walk the streets of your Berlin with Vivi, the Israeli whose life, and passion, had fallen out of focus at the hand of another German, who could not shoulder your burden alone. We will feel the would that seared your city’s heart for thirty years. We will follow Vivi back to the streets of Tel Aviv where, through her association and eventual romance with Teo, discovered a wellspring of passion inside herself and went from coffee-shop waitress and dilettante to the artist to whom presidents paid obeisance. Finally, I call on your rotten bones to twist and cry out like the Biblical victims of Dathan and Abiram, wailing your apologies to the grave while Teo’s and Vivi’s son Nathaniel, “Given by G!d,” dances in some decades on your metaphoric and real grave.<br /><br />We, the survivors, their grandchildren, their neighbors and the descendants of their neighbors, read the words masterfully imagined by Mr. Fallenberg, and we give praise for passion, for it is passion that creates true art.<br /><br />You can watch Evan Fallenberg read from his novel When We Danced on Water at the PEN Written on Water festival at <br /><br /><a></a><br />
<a href=””>View all my reviews</a>