River Bend Chronicle: The Junkification of a Boyhood Idyll and the Curious Glory of Urban Iowa

By Ben Miller

Lookout Books | 458 pages

Reviewed by Sally Cobau

Voracious Appetite

Lookout Books has done it again.  First they published the marvelous Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman, then they published a short story collection by Steve Almond which had the pizzazz and quirkiness of all of Almond’s work, followed by the devastatingly beautiful collection of poems by John Rybicki.

Now they’ve come out with a memoir by Ben Miller.  One of Lookout Book’s missions is to publish “undiscovered” or “underappreciated” writers.  I don’t know where Ben Miller fits into this—maybe underappreciated?   For surely I feel that I should have heard of him.  But his memoir follows in the footsteps of the other books by Lookout—it’s original, risky, irreverent, and wholly engaging.

In River Bend Chronicle: The Junkification of a Boyhood Idyll and the Curious Glory of Urban Iowa (I know, I know—quite a title, which matches the maze-like sentences), Miller moves from the disgusting to the sublime in a single dash and no topic is off limits, whether it be defecting in his pants during an orchestra concert or discussing the suspicious way his mother rubbed him down with oils. 

In fact, the topics that are most uncomfortable are the ones the author returns to again and again.  One of these is his epic weight loss.  As a child he became obese, partly due to the way his mother and him would roam the local Target in the middle of the night and binge on candy and other junk food. 

Miller’s mother would “choose” Ben over the other children to be her co-conspirator.  Perhaps you could say they were co-dependent.  But when Ben loses a colossal amount of weight (over a hundred pounds), she is actually angry at him.

It is hard to describe the mother in concrete terms.  She is trained as a lawyer, but has somehow failed greatly along the way.  Her failure eats her up, maybe consumes her, but also feeds a voracious appetite (a literal and metaphysical appetite).  With Ben she sees a young apprentice or at least promise.

She wants her children to be different, but you do not hear too much about this.  It’s hinted at, as most things in the book are only hints.  I’ve never read a memoir (especially such a long memoir) where things are so fully discussed, yet so slippery.  The mother is not evil, just bizarre, clingy, ravenous.  One of Miller’s great attempts is to not be so ravenous.

His father may be the opposite—he is sedate.  He is portrayed as a man glued to an armchair, sponge-like and gloomy.  He too is a failed lawyer and Miller returns again and again to the image of the father’s legal files left out in the rain to rot.  This mess seems to describe the decay of the father and his fatalistic pull towards death.  Both parents have given up in a sense—the house is a wreck with cat feces shoved into room corners and mold and decay cluttering the house.  After reading a chapter or two the reader can literally feel the filth of the house.  Now wonder Miller wants desperately to escape.

But there is a sunnier version of life and this version lies with Mr. Hickey, a neighbor who takes Miller in.  Mr. Hickey is the opposite of the parents—sane, orderly, chipper, with a collection of bow ties and sweaters.  (When Mr. Hickey dies, Miller actually inherits the bowties.) He routinely lets Miller come to his house to chat, to watch sports, and to feed Miller food that will actually be good for him.  He suggests exercise for the overweight kid.

Other friends also become a surrogate family for Miller.  He becomes part of a writer’s group, a collection of eccentric misfits, who Miller feels at home with.  And later when Miller moves to New York, he leaves his family behind for good in favor of the company of a select group of writers and his wife.

Yet in spite of physical detachment in New York, he becomes consumed by his family even as he tries to free himself from their grip.  In the end, he writes a letter to his siblings, explaining that he was molested by their mother.  Instead of getting the support he craved, his siblings responded by denial and by downplaying his pain.

He lashes back and that is that.  He calls up his mother and father, begging them to “get help.”  When they don’t, he never sees them again.  The last part of the book is made up mostly of the attempts at reconciliation and the disbelief that his family is gone to him.  When he learns from a friend that his father and sister have both died and that he wasn’t invited to the funerals, all illusions are shattered. 

Yet, his greatest attempt at loving his family is in the words themselves.  Miller writes about the cathartic process of writing, “It had nothing to do with material gain or fame, and nothing to do with any calculated and dry system of symbols.  Writing for me was one way of living—of utilizing life’s gift…  The writing had always been my best shot at synthesis, at regaining a happy wholeness lost to the strangest circumstances.”

These circumstances included developing anorexia and recovering one morning by the delight and fulfillment of tuna fish on a Ritz cracker.  If this sounds strange, well this book is strange.  It is also massive at 460 pages, but this is a life, after all.  For Miller, any less dense book wouldn’t seem right.  (So much of the book seems to be about excess—excess weight, excess greed, etc.)

It is fitting that the very last pages of the book describes a meal at Shannon’s, a popular Iowa restaurant.  Miller describes the meal this way: “My favorite meal at Shannon’s was the eerie Twenty-Piece Chicken Special, a heap of minuscule breaded drumsticks: tender two-inch meshes of gristle and grease that went down in delicious lip-drenching bites.”  He goes on about the custard and fruit cocktail which he describes as “white as a ghost of Eden,” but you get the idea.

We’ve all run into (I’m sure) people who tell us (gently or emphatically), “Don’t think about that any more; it’s all in the past.”  When Miller writes about those files kept out in the rain, he does so with wonder, with curiosity, with feeling.  He returns to that image several times and each time it’s as if he’s looking at the image as if for the first time.  Looking back on painful images can be cathartic.  They remind us that we are alive, that our experiences and observations are unique to us.  By returning to what is the worst, Miller has given us the best.

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Travels with Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life

By Daniel Klein

Penguin Books | 2012 | 162 pages

Reviewed by Fred Beauford

No Zorba

At first I didn’t know quite what to make of this slim volume. Daniel Klein, an author with many books to his credit, was in his seventies when his dentist told him he needed tooth implants. But instead of summiting to at least a year under the drill, he heads to Greece, with a bag of books, to see if one of his favorite philosophers, Epicurus, could teach him something. about being an old man, with all its many problems, and dreaded fears.

I could tell from the very beginning of this book that this was no robust Zorba the Greek. Instead, the author mainly sits alone in Dimitri’s Taverna in the village of Kamini on the Greek island of Hydra, and watches closely other old men, natives of this small island, as they spent their final days in close, familiar contact with each other.

As he sits, always keeping a close eye on the old men, he ponders not only Epicurus, but also heavy hitters like Camus, Aristotle, Saint Augustine, Sartre, Aeschylus, Longfellow, Kant, Plato, Nat King Cole and a host of others.

It is clear that Klein puts his degree in philosophy from Harvard to good use here; and it is equally clear that at this stage in his life, he favors the writing of Epicurus because Epicurus believed that old age was the pinnacle of life, the best it gets.

Writes Epicurus: “It is not the young man who should be considered fortunate but the old man who has lived well, because the young man in his prime wanders much by chance, vacillating in his beliefs, while the old man has docked in the harbor, having safeguarded his true happiness.”

Yet, despite this sage advice, we find the author himself vacillating from this “safe harbor.”

As he admits: “The idea of being an old man safe in the harbor buoys me up as I sit under Dimitri’s awning, pondering the best way to spend this stage of my life. It is the notion of being free from vacillating beliefs that gets to me.”


Should the aging author Klein take seriously-- unsaid, but strongly implied-- the famous injunction of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas: “Do not go gentle into that good night.”

Or, should he follow the example right in front of him of men as old as he, contently staring out at the water, or grazing fondly at a passing, voluptuous young woman, or telling each other the same stories, that each have heard dozens, if not hundreds of times?

Which could give him the answer and comfort he came so far for?

In the end, this reader had no firm idea. Perhaps if I knew a little more about what led Klein here in the first place, and what his life was like in America. In that sense, there is little blood on the floor, which, whether we like it or not, can give great clarity to big ideas.

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Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream

By Neil Young

Blue Rider Press: A Member of the Penguin Group | 2012

Reviewed by M. J. Moore

An American Romantic

The old joke about the 1960s goes something like this: “If you can remember the Sixties, then you weren’t there!”  Well, there’s no doubt that singer-songwriter-activist-musician-environmentalist-philanthropist and filmmaker Neil Young was there. 

All you have to do is tune in at any time to Classic Rock Radio and within the hour it’s likely you’ll hear a performance that features either a Neil Young lead vocal; or his background vocals and harmonies; or at the very least his guitar or his piano playing.  Have you sung along lately to a radio replay of “Teach Your Children” or “For What It’s Worth” (“Hey, children!  What’s that sound?  Everybody look . . .”)?  Go ahead.  You can probably finish singing that chorus.  Just as you can probably sing along with “Old Man” and “4+20” and “Carry On” and “(Four Dead in) Ohio.”

His name will be forever spoken of in league with Crosby, Stills and Nash.  It was cosmic timing of the most beneficent sort when David Crosby, Graham Nash and Stephen Stills (all of whom, like Young, were moving in and out of bands like Buffalo Springfield, the Hollies, and other ensembles in the late 1960s) recruited Neil Young. 

One of CSN & Y’s first gigs was the Woodstock Festival in August of 1969, and their performance as preserved on the Woodstock album and film launched their legend. 

Their sound, their looks (a blend of hippie artistes and Kit Carson-era long-haired renegades), their unique admixture of lyrics that bordered on poetry and also their occasional political proclamations, combined with their deep connection to the youthful masses of Boomers who in the latter half of the Sixties dreamed of a bona-fide Counterculture, found CSN & Y serving as larger-than-life troubadours.  Pronto.

And yet, before Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and after CSN & Y (in fact, even at the height of the quartet’s success in the first half of the 1970s), it was part of Neil Young’s mystique (and also an excellent career move) always to be committed as well to solo works or his partnership with Crazy Horse.     By not limiting his voice or his presence or his songwriting efforts to one group only, it seemed as if Young was everywhere.  Doing everything: Writing.  Singing.  Playing.  Fundraising.  

Now comes Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream, and as a personal memoir and also as the chronicle of an era, it is rife with passages that validate the old joke about the 1960s.  “I think it was” and “I think I was” recur often.  Here’s one example:

“When I came to Topanga Canyon to live, I think I was still in Buffalo Springfield, but it was near the end.  There was a lady, Linda Stevens, who was a friend of mine who put me up in her house.  She knew both Stephen [Stills] and me.  It was 1968, because I remember during the time I was there at her house, my dad came down to cover the aftermath of the assassination of Robert Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.  My dad was working as a columnist for The Globe and Mail in Toronto, and the paper sent him down on special assignment.”

Young’s father was a prominent writer and though his son inherited the genes of an author, there’s no doubt that Young also personified the Generation Gap that was then in the air: “That may have been the first time I saw him since I left Toronto two years before.  We talked and may have shared a meal.  He was just as shy as I am, so there wasn’t a lot of heavy communication.  Just being together and seeing each other was enough for both of us.”

And it’s that species of low-key, self-effacing, tentative half-recollecting that gives the book its apropos “Hippie Dream” texture.  In the space of the two paragraphs just quoted from, Young has repeatedly qualified his own hazy memories: “I think I was . . .”  “That may have been . . .”   “We . . . may have shared a meal.” 

Somehow, it all works.  Neil Young refuses to present himself as an icon or as an avatar of any cultural fantasia.  He is not pretentious.  If anything, he is both wonderfully and woefully simplistic: “Religion is not one of my high points.  I do feel the Great Spirit in all that is around me, and I am humbled.  The moon means a lot to me, as does the forest.  All things natural speak to me with a rhythm that I feel.  It is this that probably makes me a pagan.” 

Young follows in the Transcendentalist tradition of Whitman and it’s no accident that the Young albums that are most enshrined (apart from his work with CSN & Y) offer titles like “Harvest,” “Journey Through the Past” and “Harvest Moon.”  Themes of renewal and life’s cycles infiltrated his lyrics through the years.

Some of the book’s loveliest passages highlight Young’s stable, long-term marriage to his wife, Pegi, with whom he was married in 1978.  They’re the parents of a son, Ben, who was born a nonverbal quadriplegic in ’78 and who is siblings with two other of Young’s children (Amber and Zeke).  Young’s devotion to family is profound.

There is no doubt that when the author writes about his wife, he’s bearing witness to the love of his life: “She is my life partner.  My confidante.  I can tell her anything.  After all these years together, I am still getting to know her.  I would be an island without my ocean if we were not together in our hearts.”

Waging Heavy Peace is illustrated with more than 50 photos.  Anecdotes abound about everyone from Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell to Bruce Springsteen and Kurt Cobain.  Such a vast array of musical acquaintances illustrates why Young has been inducted twice into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Once for his work as a solo artist and then again for his time as a member of Buffalo Springfield; doubtless he’ll be honored a third time when CSN & Y are inducted.

And chances are, he’ll be alive and well for that.  Now in his late sixties, Neil Young tells us:  “I stopped smoking weed [and] I threw in drinking, too, because I had never stopped both simultaneously and I thought it might be nice to get to know myself again.” 

His memoir succeeds beautifully at allowing us to get to know him again, too.

(M. J. Moore is currently working on an authorized biography of novelist James Jones.)

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The Tale of the Heike

Translated By Royal Tyler

Viking—published by the Penguin Group | 2012

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe

The Jetavana Temple bells
 Ring the passing of all things
 Twinned sal trees, white in full flower,
 Declare the great man’s certain fall.

In the Twelfth Century AD, while in the West the Crusaders were marching in droves to the re-conquer the Holy Land from the infidel Muslims (both Muslims and Christians referred to the other as “infidels”) and the main characters that strut that stage were Richard the Lion-Hearted and Saladin, in the far East, in Japan, another pageant was being played out between the Heike and Genji samurai clans. The star in this play was the ruthless Taira (Heike) war-lord, Kiyomori.

In the West we have Homer’s epic Iliad and Odyssey; and, in the East we have The Tale of Genji (also recently translated by Royall Tyler, an Oriental scholar retired from the Australian National University where he taught Japanese language and literature) and now, The Tale of the Heike. It’s illustrated with 55 woodcuts from the 19th Century artist Teisai Hokuba, a disciple of Hokusai, and is supplemented by maps, genealogies and notes.

The Tale of the Heike (平家物語 Heike Monogatari) is an epic account of the struggle between the Tairaand Minamota (Genji) clans for control of Japan at the end of the 12th century in the Genpei War (1180-1185).

The Tale of the Heike's origin cannot be reduced to a single creator. Like most epic poems, it is the result of a conglomeration of differing versions passed down through an oral tradition by biwa (similar to a lute)-playing bards known as biwahṓshi.

The 14th Century monk Yoshida Kenkō (1282-1350) offers a theory as to the authorship of the text, in his famous work "Essays in Idleness" (Tsureureguas), which he wrote in 1330. According to Kenkō, "The former governor of Shinano, Yukinaga, wrote Heike monogatari and showed it to a blind man called Shōbutsu to chant it." He confirms the biwa connection to that blind man, who "was from the eastern tract,” and who was sent from Yukinaga to "recollect some information about samurai, about their bows, their horses and their war strategy. Yukinaga wrote it after that.”

It has been translated into English at least five times, the first by A.L. Sadler in 1918–1921. A complete translation in nearly 800 pages by Hiroshi Kitagawa and Bruce T. Tsuchida was published in 1975. It was also translated by Helen McCullough in 1988. An abridged translation by Burton Watson was published in 2006. In 2012 Royall Tyler completed his translation, which seeks to be mindful of the performance style for which the work was originally intended. Royall Tyler’s translation conveys not only the words of this grand tale but also a taste of the way it was performed.

When Neworld Review Editor Fred Beauford sent me The Tale of the Heike to review, at first I found it daunting, but I once I started reading it, I fell under its enchantment. Royall Tyler’s lively translation makes it imminently readable. I was amused that sometimes he uses American slang, such as Brooklynese “Whaddaya want?” “gobblegook,” and it seems entirely appropriate.

The stories told in this epic are engaging and profound—just as many of the stories I encountered in my study of Islam, they aren’t known in the West. They are a reflection of the Buddhism that infused the psyches of the Japanese people in medieval Japan. Their dominant themes are impermanence, the fall of the mighty, and karma. As a Christian, The Tale of the Heike was of particular interest as it gave me a window into the lives of medieval Japanese Buddhists.

Those who inhabit The Tale of the Heike have an ardent humanity, and they tend to adhere to a strict code of conduct and ethical behavior.

The favored punishment then, other than death, was banishment: Conspirators against Lord Kiyomori, Naritsune, Yasuyori and Shunkan, are exiled to the Kikai-ga-shima Island near the Satsuma province. Naritsune and Yasuyori are recalled, leaving Shunkan alone on the island. A famous tragic scene follows when Shunkan follows their departing ship into the water, and, when he realizes that they intend to leave without him, beats his feet on the ground in despair. Sometime later, a loyal youth in his service, Ariō, journeys to the island. He finds Shunkan barely alive. Upon hearing the news of his family’s death, Shunkan kills himself by fasting. His suffering, as well as the whirlwind that strikes the capital, are seen as signs indicating the fall of the Taira.

Another famous episode characterizes the arrogance of Lord Kiyomori: when his favorite court dancer Giō persuades him to watch Hotoke, a beautiful young dancer who has presented herself at the palace, Lord Kiyomori becomes so enamored of Hotoke that he deposes Giō and instates Hotoke in her place. Giōand and her mother withdraw from the world and become nuns. Hotoke’s conscience dictates that she leave Kiyomori’s service and she joins them.

In another section, Lord Kiyomori is angered by the participation of the Retired Emperor in a plot and prepares to arrest him. Shigemori, his eldest virtuous son, successfully deters his intention by reminding him of the Confucian value of loyalty to the Emperor. He says to him:

“There are in this world, you see, four great obligations:
 to heaven and earth, to sovereign, to father and mother,
 and to sentient beings. That to the sovereign is greatest:
 ‘Under heaven there is no land that is not the king’s.’

“Accounts often have a delicacy of feeling, especially expressed when people who love each other say goodbye and dab their tears on the sleeves of their kimonos; there is a poetic sensitivity to the beauty of the natural world:

“Two who spend just half a day 
happily beneath the blossoms 
companions for a single night
 passed contemplating the full noon,
 travelers caught by a shower,
 who shelter under the same tree:
 All these grieve when they say goodbye.
 How much truer, then this must be
of two who have suffered together
I sland exile, shared sea voyages,
 braved the waves, and in life
 both experienced the same karma.
 Surely they understood full well
 the strength of a bond from lives gone by.”

The following story indicates how karma plays itself out in the life of Lord Kiyomori:

In 1181, Retired Emperor Takakura dies troubled by the events of the last several years. Kiso no Yoshinaka plans a rebellion against the Taira and raises an army. Messengers bring news of anti-Taira forces gathering under the Minamoto leadership in the eastern provinces. The Taira have trouble dealing with all the rebellions.

To make things worse for the Taira, their leader, Kiyomori, falls ill. His body is hot as fire and no water can cool him. Water sprayed on his body turns to flames and black smoke fills the room. Kiyomori’s wife has a dream about a carriage in flames that will take Kiyomori to Hell for burning Buddhist statues (in the Tōdaiji temple). Before dying in agony, Kiyomori makes a wish to have the head of Yoritomo hung before his grave. His death (in 1181, age 64) highlights the themes of impermanence and fall of the mighty. Kiyomori’s evil deeds will become his torturers in Hell. His fame and power turned to smoke (he was cremated) and dust (bones).

I find the concept of karma utterly just—each person gets exactly what he or she deserves—no more, no less (in contrast to the Christian concept of grace, the death of Christ as an expiation for the sins of the world, which is somewhat confusing.) Karma, on the other hand, seems to conform to mathematical precision and the laws of physics: each action produces an exact and equal reaction…

Shintoism was the indigenous religion of Japan. The word Shinto ("Way of the Gods") means "spirit," meaning a path or study that is associated with various venues--some human, others animistic, and others associated with "natural" forces in the world such as mountains, rivers, lightning, wind, waves, trees, rocks. It’s a more primitive religion than Buddhism.

Buddhism was introduced into Japan in the 6th Century. It’s a religion indigenous to the Indian subcontinent. It encompasses a variety of traditions, beliefs, and practices largely based on teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, who is commonly known as “the Buddha” (meaning "the awakened one" in Sanskrit). The Buddha lived and taught in the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BC. He is recognized by Buddhists as an enlightened teacher who shared his insights to help sentient beings end suffering (dukkha) through eliminating ignorance (avidyā) by way of understanding, seeing dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda) and eliminating craving (taṇhā), thus attaining the highest happiness, nirvāņa (nirvana).Buddhism was the predominant religion of medieval Japan, the religion operable in The Tale of the Heike.

Certain themes that have their origin in Buddhism are reflected in the tales told—renunciation, withdrawal from worldly affairs and the embrace of a monastic life of asceticism and contemplation; karma, “the total effect of a person’s action and conduct during the successive phases of his existence, determining his destiny” (from The American Heritage Dictionary); and reincarnation, or rebirth. When a soul finally reaches nirvana, he will no longer be reborn.

This is book is a wonderful treasure. I think that anyone who has an interest in Japanese culture and literature will want to add it to his library. As stated in the publication materials: “No one work of Japanese literature or music has had a greater impact on subsequent Japanese literature, theater, and music—indeed on the Japanese people’s very sense of their own past.”

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Bad Little Falls

By Paul Doiron

Read by: Henry Leyva

Macmillan Audio | 2012 | Running time: 9 hours | 7 CDs | $34.99

Reviewed by Michael Carey

Searching for the truth.

Paul Doiron is the award-winning author of the crime novel series centered around Maine game warden, Mike Bowditch. Bowditch is your well-rounded hero with a rough upbringing, a quick fuse, and a penchant for shortsighted decisions that get him into trouble time and again, both with his superiors and the locals.

Bad Little Falls is the third adventure that Doiron has plotted for our enjoyment, and Bowditch’s antics in the first two books have landed him in no man’s land, or District 58, “down east” near the Canadian border. It’s a community of high poverty, where a profitable drug trade is common knowledge and those running the show are feared.

Mike Bowditch is asked to provide assistance when a frostbitten man appears at a local cabin out of the flurries and gales of a fierce snowstorm.  The impending search uncovers a dead man. The corpse’s tattoo helps Mike identify that the body is none other than the local drug dealer and the ex-boyfriend of an attractive McDonald’s morning shift manager (and his soon to be love interest).

Bowditch senses foul play, as if a drug deal had gone wrong; and when the medical examiner proves him right, the only suspect is the survivor of the storm. That survivor turns out to be the half-witted, innocuous brother of the local beauty. As a warden, the investigation is out of his jurisdiction, but that doesn’t stop Bowditch’s search for the truth. Mike ref

The guilty conscience of one of the locals sends Mike on a risky chase that could claim his life. The multitude of factions troubling the warden make Mike’s “suspicion compass” waver and spin. The final twists have been set in place from early on in the novel, which diminishes the pay off somewhat but not the journey. And while falling into some of the pitfalls of this kind of character driven story, Bad Little Falls maintains an engaging and suspenseful progression that is certain to have listeners’ attentions.

Moreover, author Doiron is a registered guide in Maine and proudly puts his knowledge on display in this first person novel: listing tracking methods and ice safety rules of thumb. Through his words, we can sense the cold and landscape that he knows so well. When you combine the expertise of Doiron and the seasoned vocal talents of Henry Leyva (and his authentic Maine accents), we can’t help but feel like were on a ride along with Mike Bowditch, flying over the wilderness, being saturated with skunk spray, and trudging through the snow, as he tracks down a murderer and uncovers a deeply guarded secret.

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