Bryan R. Monte
AQ35 Autumn 2022 Book Reviews
Appel, Jacob M., Shaving with Occam, Hollywood Books International, ISBN 978-1-735-360133, 2022, 260 pages.
Seman, Pat, Ariadne’s Thread, self-published, available from Amazon, IBSN 979-8-820-227653, 2022, 40 pages.
A slim, beautiful, blue poetry pamphlet (Amer. Eng. chapbook) entitled Ariadne’s Thread by Amsterdam Quarterly veteran Pat Seman arrived in my letterbox over the summer. Seman’s poetry and photography about Greece, and Crete especially, has appeared regularly in Amsterdam Quarterly over the past decade. In addition to the excellent poetry inside, her pamphlet has an eye-catching cover and internal design by her son, Alexander Klerk. The cover features the head of woman or goddess, known as Peplos Kore, in Athens’s Acropolis Museum (Greek Archaic Period), with large eyes and flowing, wavy hair, the perfect image for a Seman’s poetry collection set in a Cretan landscape of sun, wind, sea, hills, fig and pomegranate trees, goats, ancient ruins, and of course, mythology.
The strength of Ariadne’s Thread comes through Seman’s astute observation and juxtaposition of imagery through which she finds the extraordinary in the ordinary. Her first poem, ‘Said she wanted to die’ opens her collection dramatically ‘With the dark flame under the fig tree / where the split tree offers itself to the sun’. And of course, in addition to the sun and the rocky soil, this is a land ‘where sky meets the sea in a pencilled blue line’. The sea is present in one way or another in almost all of these poems.
It is collection of poems about an island that has been the stage for successive cultures over the millennia. From ‘a snake coiled / it held her / motionless / under a dark sun’ a symbol of power and divination in Cretan culture in ‘The Earth Held Her’, to ancient Greek culture in the poems ‘Persephone’ and ‘Labyrinth’ (with its two sections entitled ‘Ariadne’ and ‘Theseus’) to Greek Christian culture in ‘Epitathios’ and ‘Litany’, the latter which ‘…saints have retreated / into their darkened icons, / (and) long tapering candles that burn without a prayer’, and the modern era in ‘The Stranger’ where Seman’s epigraph about Dionysius precedes her poem about a male backpacker with ‘sculptured muscles, / on his bare calves, the broad / tanned feet and naked torso’ asleep on the beach. She muses whether this ‘Young traveller, (is a) vagrant, refugee // or the god himself / on the storm-wracked, shifting shores.’ Her poems reflect the great sweep of human history and cultures Crete embodies.
This thin volume’s 22 poems are also interesting because of Seman’s skilled and varied use of line. Sometimes her lines roll forward on the page like the waves breaking on the beaches surrounding Crete such as in ‘I Am Making No Money’:
just riding the days from dawn till dusk, I check
the weather, what the waves will bring with them, the changing
complexion of a sky, frayed with rain, now washed
Other times, they a thinner but more solid, such as in this excerpt of her concrete poem entitled ‘Building a Wall’
in the shadow
even the sea
These lyrical poems also address contemporary concerns such as climate change and refugees. Furthermore, on the Acknowledgments page, the author also indicates that ‘All proceeds from the sale of this book will go to Medical Volunteers International, an organization offering medical help to refugees worldwide.’ Ariadne’s Thread is a strong, debut collection of memorable poems that I recommend highly to AQ’s readers.
Another book I received this summer was Jacob M. Appel’s new crime novel, Shaving with Occam. It is narrated by protagonist and crime sleuth Henrietta Brigander aka Granny Flamingo, a homeless, and frequent ‘guest’ at New York’s Mount Hebron Hospital’s walk in, night psychiatric ward. I can assure you as a former Magill-Rhoads freshman scholar to Haverford College, where I studied for only one year, due the withdrawal of my parents’ financial support, I completely understand Henrietta’s descent into madness after she had to leave Bryn Mawr due to the simultaneous sinking of her grandfather’s yacht and the loss of the family fortune, and later the tragic death of her twin brother, who fell down an elevator shaft. Since then, Henrietta has lived on the street, wearing a giant hat with a flamingo on top, which is the origin of her moniker.
Granny Flamingo spends most of the book trying to solve a fellow patient’s (now her dead lover’s) Abraham Currier’s murder. She interviews the 15 people (patients, doctors, nurses, and a few extras) who were present on the ward at the time of the murder. In addition, she follows many leads, some which lead her in unexpected directions. She also listens to and at other times ignores her voices, which are largely self-destructive, but which sometimes provide insights. Interlaced in the book are the rich descriptions of psychiatric patient medications and assessments I assume Appel culled from his many years working in hospitals’ psychiatric wards. This makes the book’s setting very convincing, helping to maintain the story’s suspense which is palatable. It’s real page turner, and I could only put the book down at the end of each richly described chapter.
The title of this book refers to Occam’s razor, or the law of parsimony, a philosophy expounded by the 12th century scholastic William of Ockham. It states that the simplest explanation of an event is usually the best and stresses eliminating unnecessary information. Granny Flamingo uses Occam’s Razor to solve the murder mystery, eliminating suspects as she tries to find and interview all people present on the night of Currier’s murder. Some are them, the regulars at Hebron, are readily available for her to question. However, others are outside Manhattan in the boroughs of Staten Island and the Bronx, and some seem to have disappeared entirely, until she meets them again purely through coincidence.
As a counterweight to Occam’s Razor’s simplicity, Appel provides a very entertaining, encyclopaedic, 50-page index entitled ‘Glossary of Things You Should Know By Henrietta Florence van Duyn Brigander’, a compendium of history, filmography, and discography to explain Henrietta’s frequent references to her family tree, American history, and Newport, Rhode Island’s Gilded Age’s descendants. (Remember, this is a Bryn Mawr woman who is narrating this story, even if she was only able to attend for one year). Personally, I think Appel outdid William Faulkner and his Yoknapatawpha county inhabitants and genealogical nonsense with his own rich, crime novel index. If you can’t find an interesting fact on each page that makes you giggle or laugh aloud, then you should check your own pulse to make sure you’re alive.
After following my leads and a few dead ends, including some related to a supposed NYC Albanian mafia that had a hit out on Currier, Granny Flamingo picks up a 91-year-old, limo-driving sidekick, Nënë Roza, who not only provides transportation for Henrietta’s enquiries but also extracts an unexpected confession from two attendings, frightening by Roza’s erratic driving, afraid they’ve been abducted and are about to be killed by a Granny Flamingo. True to form in his past work as a master plotter in The Mask of Sanity (review in AQ18, spring 2017) and Millard Salter’s Last Day, (review in AQ21, spring 2018), all the loose ends are tied up in the end. Through a logical pursuit of the facts of the case, Granny Flamingo solves the crime and the problem of her persistent homelessness, the first, through a clue that was present at the beginning of the story, and the second, from a completely unexpected, but familiar corner.
To sum up dear reader, I can only state (in the style of Mr Appel’s book), What a book! What a Middlemarch epilogue! What an ending! What a glossary after the ending! I sincerely hope Appel is planning a sequel with more crimes for Granny Flamingo to solve. She could certainly become the new Jessica Simpson and Appel, the new Tom Wolfe of crime novels. AQ