Friday, June 14, 2019

Heartbreak Tango, pure genius

Heartbreak TangoHeartbreak Tango by Manuel Puig
My rating: 5 of 5 stars ////  If I could give this book 5,000 stars I would do it without hesitation―even if I had to click an extra 4,995 times to get the job done. Maybe a better formula would be to assign the book 5 stars, as custom dictates, and assign the remaining 4,995 stars to me as a rating for my writer's envy.

It's not going to be possible for me to write objectively about Heartbreak Tango, and that's the highest praise I can give it. When a work of art swallows you whole, like a Venus flytrap, you are not in a good position to describe it from the outside.

In his career-best novel, Puig presents a collage of personal letters, diary entries, newspaper clippings, advertisements, tragedy-tinged tangos played on the radio, overheard one-sided phone conversations, dispassionate glimpses of daily activity observed from on-high (think CCTV footage), and much other flotsam and jetsam, snippets, shreds and scraps of everyday life in a small town, laying them out for the reader to tell a complex tale of love and betrayal and memory and betrayal. Others have tried this narrative technique and succeeded, but none of those efforts come close to succeeding on this level in my reading experience.

Expect to laugh, to be shaken, smacked and shocked, to be dismayed, annoyed, fearful, uncomfortable, and much more. Here is a story of numerous women of various ages in love with the same young man, juxtaposed with a counter-story about that very same rogue―outwardly robust, vibrant, and virile, inwardly somewhat immoral, corrupt, and shallow (but not evil)―and even more inwardly, suffering from a soon-to-be-fatal case of tuberculosis. His eventual demise is a given from the start because it is discussed many years after the fact via correspondence between one of his former girlfriends (seeking to relive the romance of her life) and his bereaved mother. We think we know how it will turn it because we are told at the outset. Except we don't know.

Prepare yourself for one of the most jaw-dropping twists in plot I can remember encountering in my life. And the ending? Not only are the last paragraphs the best example of romantic writing I know of―fully justifying the two words in the book's title (heartbreak and tango)―a miracle is made to happen in the last paragraph, where, out of his magician's top hat, Manuel Puig pulls forth a group of sentences that are―taken all on their own―a perfect scrapbook microcosm with which he ends his scrapbook macrocosm of a novel. It's pure genius.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Great food, great reading...

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese FoodThe Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food by Jennifer 8. Lee
A book so delicious, I wish I could eat it. Despite the fact that it's not edible, I've consumed it twice, and served it to friends often.

I can't separate myself from Chinese food. My body has been processing it in small batches for decades. Now, to read about it like thiswow!this is truly a feast.

From the origins of the fortune cookie, to the creation of food delivery (including the origami-like packaging) as we know it today, the hardworking author covers her topic so thoroughly she leaves no room in the satisfied reader for dessert.

More than descriptions and analysis of the cuisine, she paints a vivid canvas depicting the hustle, the bustle, the joys, the frustrations, the tragedies, and the triumphs of the Chinese immigrant experience. Food feeds the experience. The experience sets the table and cooks more food. The eater and the reader can only rejoice. Five burps of appreciation. Five stars.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Colloquy on the Paumanok Express

This is material from Sayville Tales. The scene: The ghosts of Mary Todd Lincoln and Walt Whitman are conversing in the dining car of The Brown Fox, while riding the Paumanok Express in the direction of Montauk. Mrs. Lincoln opines on the presidency of Donald Trump thusly:

"Oh, Mr. Whitman, the horrors one suffers at the mere sight of that grotesque, ill-favored hair and the scowling, florid face! And the infantile hands fluttering at its wrists like parakeets while it spits venom! What an unfortunate looking creature it is! Quel comportement malheureux et désagréable!

She shuddered suddenly, causing a few precious drops of vaporous ectoplasm to float away from her vaguely-defined perimeter. After briefly sparkling in the sunlight that streamed from the dining car’s windows, the droplets evaporated.

Après les Lincolns, le déluge,” she sighed whilst watching fractions of herself disappear.

Bowing his head as he spoke, Mr. Whitman said, “I cite a phrase taken from our Chinese brethren—some say it is a curse, others a blessing—which is, ‘May you live in interesting times.’ So it has been for us, Mrs. Lincoln.”

“Mr. Whitman, there is no doubt that we have lived in interesting times. And now, like it or not, we find ourselves dead in interesting times as well.”

— Excerpt from Sayville Tales, ("Teatime for the Disembarked").

Print editions are available here.

The Kindle Edition is sold exclusively by

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Doctor, do I have a case of Writer's Block?

"Writer's Block," which affects a small community of creative persons, has much in common with a more widespread condition known as "Insomnia." These annoying states of being are not permanent. If they were, an afflicted writer would, in short order, no longer be a writer, and an afflicted non-sleeper would be in an insane asylum or dead.

These syndromes may not even be genuine afflictions in the strictest sense. Maybe they're rest stops. Maybe Insomnia is a vacation from dreaming, and Writer's Block is a vacation from imagining.

In any case, the insomniac returns to their bed on a daily basis, even if he or she twists and turns all night, and fails to produce a satisfactory amount of zzzzzz's when their sleeping session is over. Similarly, the blocked writer goes to his computer and stares at a blank screen, wishing they could tap into some inspiration and produce some abc's. Really unlucky writers follow that depressing exercise with a session of Insomnia.

The best thing to do in such a situation is to write something. Anything. Forget outlines, goals, success, sales. You can't have Writer's Block if you are writing. I've got Writer's Block, and I've got it bad, and I've just written this.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

A collection of reviews for Sayville Tales

These reviews appeared in the last several months on in their various domestic and foreign marketplaces (USA, Germany, and the UK). They come from readers located in places as far away as Barcelona, Berlin, Crete, and Stockholm.  The marketplaces don't always share reviews with each other, so I periodically look around their worldwide shopping portals and check Barnes & Noble and other retailers as time permits. Appreciative readers are everywhere.  Sayville Tales can be found here. Or you can visit the printer's website and preview the entire book.

A writer of genius.
I was stunned from the first moment by the overall conception of this compilation of short quirky tales strung together. Beautifully conceived and produced, the nuanced use of language, the humor, and the sense of the cosmic brought into the particular with awe and irony, are evident from the first page. The work is seductive, playful and profoundto be savored.  
H. Roberts/Barcelona

Great short stories with a good sense of humor.
First I was a little bit skeptical with the cover, but when I started to read it, it turned out to be a fantastic book. It's well written and after each short story it will bring you a smile in your face. The unicorn story I loved very much. And there are a lot of things you can learn reading this book. If you sit in the train going somewhere that's the book to read--but be careful not to miss the station where you have to get off!  
C. Golker/Berlin

What a journey!
I was recommended Sayville Tales by a dear friend and bought it before I left New York for Stockholm on an 8 hour flight. I started reading...and wasn't able to stop until I've reached the last page. Being on an airplane
or as in the book traveling by train most of the timedoesn't really matter since Sayville Tales is a journey in itself. These stories manage to relate to each other no matter if you're going to Hell, [a town in] Norway or if you like the company of a Vengeful Nun. I loved the way it was written, lots of humor and very witty. And as born and raised in Sweden and a big fan of Ingmar Bergman ...when the Devil is lurking in the background you know you're in for a treat. I recommend this book to like short stories. S. Lindstrom/Stockholm

Highly Recommend.
I really enjoyed Sayville Tales, it's not like any book I have ever read. I very much enjoyed that this book was a bunch of little stories compiled into one major story. The author is very descriptive and there is a lot of humor. Along with the lovely story there are some great illustrations that compliment it nicely. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who appreciates short stories, adventure and humor. 
M. Adams/Tacoma, WA

Great Last Minute Gift for Everyone on Your List!

Sayville Tales - A Winner.
I loved this book. Wonderful visuals and incredible stories all woven together into a whole by the premise of travelers sharing a journey on a train and each sharing their own tale. My favorite story was perhaps the Brown Fox, but then there is the story about the Vengeful Nun, the Rabbi's Interview or the Devil's Tower, to name just a few. There is something for everyone
animals, devils, ghosts, religion, intrigue and mystery, and for lovers of trains, the illustrations and photos are extremely engaging. The writing is skillful and witty. The characters are unique and interesting and the stories are great fun. I expect to reread Sayville Tales, a number of times. L. Cramer/NYC

Lawrence Jay Switzer's book, Sayville Tales, is astute, sharp, and canvases and rooms, seen from within the same interior, Switzer guides us into a world that we seldom allow ourselves time enough to discover. G. Favre/NYC

Charming and witty adventure...highly recommend this treasure! H. Seltzer/St. Petersburg, FL

Friday, June 7, 2019

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach
Wonderfully imaginative while still remaining true to its serious investigatory premise. Research does not have to be dry!

Now, one must realize when diving into this investigation of the "ins and outs" of sex, that the lion's share of modern scientific research on sexual matters concerns itself with the elusive female orgasm. If you don't have the requisite body parts, you might not understand everything as clearly as someone who does. 

I can not resist applauding the author for her intrepid investigatory techniques. She does not cheat the reader in any wayin fact, she bravely sallies forth, her husband in tow, and bonks in a MRI machine. It's all for science, isn't it? The experiment would have been a bit more interesting if she did a second run at it with a stranger, just to see if the results were different.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Stiff:The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
Everything you'd ever want to knowand maybe some things you wish you didn't come to knowabout cadavers.

What will really happen to your body if you donate it to science? 

  • ready to be dropped from a plane?
  • shot with rubber bullets?
  • thrown through a plate glass window? 
  • crucified and, three days later, wrapped in gauze to test theories about the Shroud of Turin? 
This is one helluva funny, chilling, educational, and entertaining read, and it is not in any way irreverent or disrespectful.  Now, that's not easy.

Serpent in Paradise

Many readers and moviegoers are familiar with the story of Mutiny on the Bounty and most are aware that the mutineers eventually settled on a hard-to-find rock known as Pitcairn's Island in the South Pacific (hard to find because it had been charted incorrectly by the Royal Navy). There they remained undiscovered for about twenty years. 

In the interim, the European mutineers and their Tahitian slave/companions engaged in continuous violence, which resulted in the deaths of all but one of the original mutineers. When the British Navy discovered the island, the sole survivor of the Europeans was John Adams. As to the Tahitian's, the men were all dead. Nine native women were still alive, along with their numerous mixed race children. Several of them were the offspring of leading mutineer Fletcher Christian, most notably his first son, Thursday October Christian. How's that for quaint?  And there's quite a bit of "lore" surrounding this morsel of human history from the Hollywood alpha-male standpoint: Fletcher Christian, by all accounts a rather unappealing looking gentleman, was successively portrayed by Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando, and Mel Gibson. Marlon Brando went on to marry his Tahitian co-star and father children whose lives were eventually marked by violence.

Meanwhile, back at Pitcairn....Jump ahead almost 200 years to the present day. Our authoress, Dea Birkett, is overtaken by a sudden urge for an adventure, inspired by the Mel Gibson film "The Bounty" and heads for Pitcairn on a freighter. Something already smells "fishy" before the freighter arrives at Pitcairn, population now 48 persons, 49 counting the authoress. 

The islanders who are about to make Dea Burkitt's acquaintance are insular, somewhat inbred people, who have established a unique society. They are isolated and they like it that way. Enter our authoress, the protagonist and the antagonist rolled into one. Now the trouble begins. 

Very few persons are permitted to visit Pitcairn. Written applications are reviewed and very few persons have ever been accepted. The writer begins her South Sea adventure by fabricating her answers, completely misrepresenting her reasons for wishing to visit Pitcairn (she claims to be doing a study of their post office and philatelic output!) Once accepted and arrived, she begins to make mischief while accepting the island's hospitality. She knowingly beds a married local man, while ignoring the romantic attentions of a readily available alternative suitor. Does it take long for the entire populace (48 persons) to figure out they've been duped? Then what?

Birkett doesn't attempt to deny that the "serpent in paradise" of the title is self-referential. There are other snakes to be found on the island, but it's fair to say that Birkett is the worst of them. 

It's rather interesting to read a story where the person who tells it is the worst person within a radius of a few thousand miles. Actually, this is fascinating stuff. It's just hard to describe because Pitcairn is a society unlike any other in my recollection.  A healthy five star rating for this unusual escapade.