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Black Lamb


Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.


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Archive for the 'Book Reviews' Category

Sic transit horror mundi

Reading in prison

June 1st, 2016


The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World
by A.J. Jacobs
Simon & Schuster, 2004

I take for my inspiration the somewhat geeky, wannabe metrosexual (“Why do they think I’m gay?”) A.J. Jacobs, Senior Editor of Esquire and author of this quirky memoir, which chronicles Jacobs’s ambitious project of reading the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Jacobs’s book is loosely organized by letter of the alphabet. Within this purported order, it proceeds in cheerful disarray, which suits my reading preferences just fine. Few things appeal to me as much as aimless wandering, and Jacobs happily wanders haphazardly through the Britannica, plowing through volume after volume, trying to gain unstructured knowledge. While Jacobs does achieve some wisdom through this project, he mostly proves himself a hopeless dilettante. Dilettantism works fine for me and my fellow prisoners; it goes hand in hand with the disordered chaos of our lives, much of which is governed by acronyms: ADD, ADHD, XYZ, WHATEVER. The more convulted, the less direct, the more puzzling and specious, the better we like it. It is something we can identify with. Excepting Jacobs’s flights of intellectual fancy, and his obsession with Mensa membership, this book is for us a perfect, jumbled read.¹

All of which goes to prove a point Jacobs makes in his introduction: “I used to be smart… then… I began a long, slow slide into dumbness… At age thirty-five I’ve become embarrassingly ignorant. If things continue at this rate, by my fortieth birthday, I’ll be spending my days watching Wheel of Fortune and drooling into a bucket.” Which is exactly the state to which one of my recent cellies has been reduced.

Throughout the book — which is catalogued 031-General Information, sharing shelf space with The New York Times Book of Lists — Jacobs tries to reconcile his own sense of self-worth (IQ-based) with the dreaded Ebbinghaus “forgetfulness” curve (curse?). I suggest it is a losing proposition.²

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Posted by: The Editors
Category: Black Lamb Review of Books, Book Reviews, Books and Authors, Suess | Link to this Entry

A decent man

Betrayal in Wisconsin

June 1st, 2016


Recollections Of A Long Life: 1829-1915
by Isaac Stephenson
Privately printed 1915.

I like reading books that no one has heard of. The 1950 memoirs of Valentin R. Garfias, Garf From Mexico, was limited to 2,000 copies, one of which was discarded by Cal State University, Hayward, ending up at a Salvation Army store. An excellent read — and if you do read it, you are one of only dozens, like Spix macaws.

stephensonisaacIsaac Stephenson’s autobiography is easier to obtain — there were three copies available on eBay the last time I checked — but there is a good chance I’m the only person on earth reading it right now. That makes me Martha, the 1914 passenger pigeon.

Is it an important work? Very important. Just because something is obscure says nothing. Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat languished for more than a century before it was rediscovered. And what about Moby Dick? So there.

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Posted by: The Editors
Category: Black Lamb Review of Books, Book Reviews, Books and Authors, Roberts | Link to this Entry

Big Dave

Before Dylan, Dave Van Ronk was the bull goose

June 1st, 2016


The Mayor of MacDougal Street: A Memoir
by Dave Van Ronk, with Elijah Wald
Da Capo Press, 2005

One night on MacDougal Street, one of the major thoroughfares in Greenwich Village, I was listening to Dave Van Ronk at the Gaslight, a cellar folk club much mentioned in this book. It was, maybe, 1962. The cliche description of Van Ronk as a “bear of a man” was both easy and correct.

He was big, broad, bearded, and lank-haired; his head almost hit the top of the proscenium. Two drunk high school kids sat at one of the minuscule tables and kept up a loud conversation during Dave’s set. He warned them twice, but they resumed chattering before long. vanronkFinally, Dave set down his guitar, stepped off the stage and grabbed the bigger of the two by the collar. “I told you to shut up!” he growled, then cold-cocked the kid. His shocked buddy dragged him out of the club and up the stairs to the street, accompanied by the applause of the other patrons. Dave then resumed the stage and continued as if nothing had happened. There were giants in the earth in those days.

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Posted by: The Editors
Category: Black Lamb Review of Books, Book Reviews, Books and Authors, Goldberg | Link to this Entry

Raiders of the lost tombs

Archaeological adventure novels

June 1st, 2016


American Caliphate
by William Doonan
Oak Tree Press, 2012

Were’s a spellbinding archaeological novel about a “dig” (archaeologists prefer the term “excavation”) on the north coast of Peru, the ancient home of the Moche Indians, who built adobe pyramids. These pyramids, and one pyramid in particular, are of particular interest to a team of North American academic archaeologists, but in this high-stakes adventure novel there are other parties equally interested in what might be found inside a certain tomb. The CIA, for example. The Vatican. A strong-minded old Muslim woman in Lima. And whoever it was that shot and nearly killed Ben and Jila, a pair of romantically involved archaeologists, the last time they poked around the Santiago de Paz pyramids.

American Caliphate has a cast of intelligent, risk-taking characters driven by academic jealousy, political intrigue, religious rivalry, love and lust, outright greed, and insatiable nosiness about the ancient past. The plot is full of danger and discovery. And what these archaeologists discover may confirm rumors that Muslims fleeing the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal brought Islam to the New World.

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Posted by: The Editors
Category: Black Lamb Review of Books, Book Reviews, Books and Authors, Daniel | Link to this Entry

An instant classic

A novel in verse for the ages

January 1st, 2016


Human Landscapes from My Country
by Nâzim Hikmet
translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk
Persea Books, 2009

One of the drawbacks to running my website is that I rarely read books that are still in print. Browsing in new bookstores is always frustrating. I find things I’d love to read but then struggle to justify the time away from reading books I should cover on the site.

hikmetLast week, however, I couldn’t resist buying a new book. We were at the Istanbul airport waiting for our flight back to Brussels, and my wife and I were killing time browsing in the D&R store in the international terminal. There was a small section of English translations of Turkish literature, and in it, a copy of Nâzim Hikmet’s Human Landscapes from My Country, published by Persea Books in 2009. I thumbed through it and saw that it was a long poem (Hikmet’s subtitle is “An Epic Novel in Verse”), which would usually constitute strike two for me. I have to confess that I do not read as much poetry as I should.

But I soon found myself five pages into the book, almost inhaling the text like air. Although written (mostly) in blank verse, Hikmet’s style is transparent and effortless to read. Unlike the only other verse novel I’ve read (Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate, which I did enjoy and do admire greatly), Human Landscapes from My Country could be published as prose with little effect on the meaning — though certainly not the form — of the text. I decided to buy it, and I read over 150 pages in the course of our flight back. I went on to devour its more than 450 pages in the course of a few days.

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Posted by: The Editors
Category: 13th Anniversary Issue, Bigelow, Book Reviews, Books and Authors | Link to this Entry

Nobel thriller

Patrick Modiano surprises

January 1st, 2016


After the Circus
by Patrick Modiano
translated by Mark Polizzotti
published in France 1992

After the Circus seems like a very simple story. The Modiano-like narrator relates events from when he was eighteen; in contrast to many of this author’s works, in which he often (re)considers and comments on events and his actions of the past from a later or present-day perspective, Modiano barely intrudes on the timeline here, making for even greater immediacy to the story than usual. He does describe revisiting one of the locales, café, from his story at one point, ten years later, around 1973; once outside: “I stupidly broke down in sobs,” a rare emotional outburst from Modiano’s otherwise so passive and passionless alter-ego-protagonists. This prefigures just how devastating the blow to come to the eighteen-year-old in modianothe story proper is (a sense further reinforced by the fact that the story is only finally written by Modiano when he has distanced himself from events by another two decades, After the Circus coming out only in 1992).

The opening of the novel already suggests vague menace and unease, the young narrator being questioned by the police. He doesn’t know why, and when he asks at the end of the interrogation is simply told “Your name was in someone’s address book” — without being told whose. The names he is questioned about are ones he doesn’t recognize, so he is left with no idea what they think he might be mixed up in.

The narrator is a young man of barely-formed personal identity. He’s escaped from six hellish years at boarding school, with hardly any family support system; his father is in Switzerland — occasionally in contact if often barely understood over the telephone line — and the young man shares an apartment (that soon has to be vacated) with a man named Grabley. Grabley calls him Obligado — a nickname — and it is only very late in the novel that we learn his actual name, Jean. “I was struck that she’d call me by my name,” he says when it is finally revealed, a so-personal marker that only in an extreme situation (“Please, I’m begging you,” she pleads) does it come up.

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Posted by: The Editors
Category: 13th Anniversary Issue, Book Reviews, Books and Authors, Orthofer | Link to this Entry


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