Jennifer Johnson’s review of The Brothers Silver in Vox Populi

A Review of The Brothers Silver by Marc Jampole in the July 9, 2021 edition of  Vox Populi

Jennifer Johnson: A Haunting Novel of Childhood Trauma

The Brothers Silver takes a hard look at how children who endure growing up in dysfunctional families, suffer dire consequences and are left to a lifetime of personal struggles. In the case of The Brothers Silver, which debut novelist Marc Jampole admits has many autobiographical elements, two brothers, Jules and Leon Silver, are both full of promise. But at a young age, the boys must reinvent themselves and navigate the rough road ahead with a broken parental compass and a fractured sense of their own self-worth.

The story of their mother, Ethel, herself a childhood victim of sexual abuse, runs parallel to that of Sylvia Plath, another mother and victim of suicide. Ethel gives birth to her boys during the 1950s. She is trying to live the American housewife dream by marrying a man who will take care of her. Instead, she finds herself alone and struggling with clinical depression. Plath, too, was abandoned by her husband, the poet Ted Hughes. Hughes runs off with his lover, and Plath is left to care for her two young children in a small flat in London with no telephone.

Ethel becomes overwhelmed by a multitude of new responsibilities that spell out mental and physical exhaustion, which is, perhaps, apart from genetics, the catalyst for the onset of an otherwise latent, full-blown mental illness. She suddenly must work full time to make ends meet and put food on the table for her two boys, whom she truly seems to love. She gets fired from menial jobs. Without child support, a mother to help her, or modern-day conveniences, she ends up sprawled out on a couch in her basement at her wits’ end. Her older son Jules recognizes her need for help, but Ethel’s own unresolved guilt causes her to lash out at him:

“You didn’t do the dishes, ungrateful child. You did them to show me how bad a mom I am.”

Ironically, Ed, who beats her in front of the children, is the one with the power to put her into a succession of mental institutions where maybe he himself should be incarcerated. Plath claimed that Hughes beat her before she suffered a miscarriage, and she, too, spent time in mental institutions, dependent on anti-depressants and sleeping pills.

Ethel is prescribed hundreds of pills for anxiety, and, after overdosing on them numerous times–sadly witnessed by her sons—they end up killing her. The fact that she was prescribed so many of these addictive pills is testament to the system’s failure to treat her. Year later, Hughes actually argued in regard to Plath’s suicide that the pills she was taking were known to prompt suicidal feelings.

Just like Plath, Ethel kept a diary. But Plath, unlike Ethel, was able to go to college and fulfill her dreams of becoming a published writer. Ethel’s diary represents perhaps the only peek into the aspirations of a woman who never got to live her dreams. One criticism of The Brothers Silver is that Ethel is barely heard from—she gets to narrate one chapter that is little more than a page in length. I yearned to hear more from her and less from her sadistic husband. Ed is the one who is a danger to the children. In one scene, he purposely holds the toddler Jules under water:

Without fright, I bend my legs to spring up at the last moment before the water crowns, but my father’s strapping-strong arm holds me down. A wall of cold water crushes me like one hollow-sounding, stinging slap at my whole body, head to toe…My flapping mouth swallows part of the flow and I start to blow out water and cry.

After Ethel’s death, the novel continues to trace the lives of the brothers into adulthood. We witness how loss manifests itself in the men Jules and Leon eventually become. Although their inner lives are more similar than they suspect, their outer lives become increasingly different. Jules ultimately decides to leave an aimless life behind and head… “straight to Straightsville after shedding all my freight—events, people, feelings,” settling for a steady job, a wife and child, and a home in the suburbs. Leon revels in being a drug-dependent deadbeat forever, no matter what encouragement he received from others to use his academic and musical talents. He remains single and promiscuous, jumps from job to job, and chooses to live in a teepee in the middle of nowhere. His attitude:

I am the god of the here and now. Follow me. I never think about the future. I never think about the past…

Is Leon’s fall from a ladder later in the novel an accident or not? Sylvia Plath’s younger son, Nicholas Hughes, commits suicide. He was a passionate professor of fisheries and ocean science who never married. Did these highly capable younger sons who grew up with such similar family dynamics—one actual, one fictional—meet the same fate for the same reasons? Plath’s older daughter, Frieda Hughes, still alive today, is an accomplished children’s book writer, poet, and artist. Jules remains alive at the end of The Brothers Silver, too, having made a comfortable life for himself despite his continual search for solace. Did they survive because they were the first-born? “I felt my parents were stolen,” Frieda Hughes once said.

The Brothers Silver is a haunting novel about the human survival instinct that employs both rhythmic prose and poetry to move the story along.

Buy The Brothers Silver on Amazon:

At Owl Canyon Press:

At Barnes and Noble:

Chill out your sun-fevered brain with some interesting contemporary poetry.

Most book review sections approach summer as if it were a time to turn off the brain and wallow in escapist plots and fantasy characters.  Summer reading, we are told again and again, should focus on light, easy-to-digest genre fiction like mystery, sci-fi, gothic and romance.  The assumption, I guess, is that when sitting on the beach or in an airport your brain wants to join your body in doing nothing.

And maybe it’s true that a lot of people like to turn off the brain when on vacation, but I think to a great degree, the mass media approach to promoting summer reading material reduces to more indoctrination in anti-intellectualism, one of the underlying ideological tenets of our consumerist society.  We don’t think about it, we buy it.

I’m going to make a few recommendations for some books I’m reading this summer that I think offer a little more substantial fare; then do something self-serving and give you a list of poetry journals that have published my poems so far this year, in hopes that you will pick up a copy and delve into some interesting contemporary poetry as part of your summer reading.

First some books I’m looking at this summer:

Viet Nam: History of an Unwinnable War, John Prados: A masterful retelling of the Viet Nam war that pays special attention to narrating the sad litany of similarities between Viet Nam and Iraq-Afghanistan. 

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace: I haven’t started it yet, but the collective opinion of serious book reviewers is that it’s the literary masterpiece of the 90’s.

Poems of the Late T’ang, A. C. Graham, translator and editor: Some of the most interesting and beautiful sounding poetry I have ever read.

Populuxe, Thomas Hine: Okay I read this one last summer, but I thought this history of mass market product design and selling in the 1950’s was absolutely fabulous.  “Populuxe” in Hine’s shortening of the idea of popular luxury, which was a common theme to autos, house, appliances and vacations in the 1950’s, our first era of mass consumption.      

Now for a list of places that have published my poems so far this year, in alphabetical order, with the name of the poem, the date of the issue and a link if possible. 

580 Split #12 (Spring 2010): Forty Years Later

Cortland Review #46 (Winter 2010): “Instead of Sex

Ellipsis #46 (Spring 2010): “My Brother Still Runs Like Rain” and “Lament of the HR Director”

Evansville Review #20 (2010): “The World is Always with Us

Jewish Currents (Summer 2010): “The Mad Bomber of New York

Natural Language (Carnegie Library, 2010): “The Book of Littleman

Slant #23 (Spring 2010): “A French Peasant before the Revolution

Wilderness House Review Vol. 5, #1 (Spring 2010): “Remembering Darla

From time to time, people ask how they can support my blog.  My answer is: buy one or more of these issues of these journals; or buy my book Music from Words, which is available from the publisher, Bellday Books, Inc., or at most online or brick-and-mortar book stores.

To find out who rules America and how they do it, go to William Domhoff’s website.

I made a slight factual error in yesterday’s blog.  I said that Sweden has a more equitable distribution of wealth than both the UK and the United States.  I should have checked it out first on Professor G. William Domhoff’s website,

In a recently updated article titled “Wealth, Income, and Power,” that’s on his website, Professor Domhoff presents a table comparing the percentage of wealth held by the wealthiest 10% of the population in various western countries.  It turns out I was half right:  in the United States, the wealthiest 10% own 69.8% of all wealth, whereas in Sweden, it’s 58.6% and in the UK it’s 56%.  So Sweden has a far more equitable distribution of wealth than the U.S., but a slightly less equitable distribution than in the U.K.

BTW, I highly recommend both the website and Professor Domhoff’s two masterpieces, Who Rules America (which has been updated since the original 1967 edition) and The Powers That Be.  For more than 40 years, Domhoff has studied who has power in the United States, why they have it and how they use it.  He combines key social insight with the most advanced techniques for gathering and analyzing data.

Although Professor Domhoff wouldn’t know me from Adam, I have been his disciple since I first ran into his books in the Printer’s Ink bookstore in Palo Alto, California in the early 80s.  Both Who Rules America and The Powers That Be appear on my list of 15 books (actually 14 books and one article) that I give to all young professionals who go to work for me and recommend to students when I lecture at universities.  I have used Domhoff’s “policy formation process” chart to help me advise clients who want to influence public opinion about an issue.  This model of how powerful people effect change in a post-industrial representative democracy has also helped me to understand many of the moves made by influential individuals, religious groups, politicians, business associations, think tanks and the other entities seeking to control or influence our complex society.  For example, I’ve referenced the model and Domhoff in blog entries twice over the last year.

I usually fact-check every assertion of fact I make in my blog entries.  The one time I didn’t, I should have.  But in a way, I’m glad, because it gave me an excuse to speak about William Domhoff and his very important research and ideas.

And mentioning Professor Domhoff gives me the excuse to present my entire list of 14 books and one article that I would recommend to any student of public relations or mass communications, or to anyone who wants to understand the process of communicating for organizations in civil and sometimes not so civil society:

  1. “Politics & the English Language”/George Orwell
  2. Ars Poetica/Horace
  3. Course in General Lingustics/Ferdinand La Saussure
  4. Manufacturing Consent/Noam Chomsky & Edward Hermann
  5. Poetics/Aristotle
  6. Propaganda/Bernard Taithe & Tim Thornton, ed.
  7. Social History of Art/Arnold Hauser
  8. The Elements of Style/William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White
  9. The Lonely Crowd/David Riesman
  10. The Power Elite/C. Wright Mills
  11. The Powers That Be/William Domhoff
  12. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions/Thomas Kuhn
  13. The Theory of the Leisure Class/Thorsten Veblen
  14. Who Rules America Now/William Domhoff
  15. Working/Studs Terkel

It’s a disgrace that the mainstream news media don’t consider John Yoo to be a disgraced figure.

John Yoo is torturing the public with a campaign to deny Elena Kagan confirmation to the Supreme Court.  First he came out with a piece that appeared on Op/Ed pages all over the country last weekend castigating Kagan for actions regarding military recruiters while dean of the Harvard Law School.   I saw the article in both the Pittsburgh/Greensburg Tribune Review and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Then earlier this week, Yoo put Kagan through the verbal equivalent of a waterboarding session for what he said was her propensity to weaken the power of the executive branch, an absurd claim considering her past experience and statements.

With these articles, not only does Yoo want to make a case against Kagan, he also wants to set the terms of the debate over her confirmation. 

I’m not going to waste anyone’s time analyzing the specious rhetoric Yoo employs in both these articles.  Instead I want to put his campaign to discredit Kagan into a historical perspective.

Yoo is an old hand at using the pen to promulgate lies.  Remember, he is the author of the Justice Department memo that said, among other things, that:

  • Waterboarding is not torture
  • Torture does not begin until injury to a vital organ
  • If the President of the United States orders it, it isn’t torture
  • The President is not bound by any international agreements regarding torture.

Now Yoo and the right-wing foundations and associations that pay him are entitled to their opinion, and the news media are certainly free to publish whoever’s views on whatever issues they like.

But I ask, with so many possible opponents to Kagan’s nomination out there, why publish Yoo?  Shouldn’t he be a disgraced figure who hangs his head in shame somewhere?  As one of the prime facilitators of the torture operation that has embarrassed our country around the world, shouldn’t he be hiding in a corner someplace for about a decade?  Don’t editors realize that by giving him a major say on another issue that they are in a profound sense giving credence to his views on torture, because they have not acted as if these views do not invalidate him in other areas?

Wouldn’t we be outraged if we learned that after World War II, Albert Speer, Hitler’s Minister of Armaments and War Production, was routinely chiming in his opinion on who Prime Minister Adenauer should be appointing to key ministerial posts?  Closer to home, didn’t President Nixon go through a long period after resigning from the presidency before his opinions about politics and world events showed up in the media again?

While I despise Yoo for his lack of humanity and legal ethics, I do not begrudge him his attempt to redeem himself by being useful once more to the autocratic part of the right wing, that is, those like Dick Cheney who conceive of the role of president as more of a King with unfettered rights.

But as far as the news media goes, for shame for allowing Mr. Yoo’s opinion into your newspaper for any other purpose than to defend himself and his torture lawyer buddies. 

I’d like to close this entry with an anti-torture poem I wrote a few years back that’s in my book, Music from Words.  The poem takes the form of a dream within a dream, but I assure you, everything that happens in the poem has been well-documented to have occurred to prisoners in Bush’s worldwide torture gulag.


Dreaming, soldiers lug me from the plane
despite my claims, American citizen,
blinded, neck between my knees,
ankles cuffed to wrists
motors whining, grumbling,
cars and planes and cars again.
Where am I? What did I do?
Why can’t I call my wife?

I wake to driving my taxi.
Rocks explode the windshield.
I’m probing for damage
when soldiers engulf me,
sic leashed dogs, at my buttocks nipping,
cell me, strip me, chain me to a bed.
Booming trumpets ram my eardrums,
scorching flood lights detonate
dissolving eyelids, aching pupils.

I wake, moved to another cell,
wake again and moved again,
wake again and moved again,
wake and moved, wake and moved.

I wake to sear of burning cigarette
milled in ear, pushed to ground,
log-rolled over steaming excrement,
try to focus, pleasant memories,
wife and children, figs and coffee.

I wake hooded, naked
above another naked man
whose penis touches my rectum
below another naked man
whose rectum touches my penis
whose body’s warmness teases me
to shameful reluctant erection.
Pulled from the pile, hood punched off,
I see a dozen hooded naked men
heaped to squalid pyramid of flesh
and a large gun pointed
by a soldier yelling, Jerk off, hajji
while a woman in soldier’s garb
tapes my performance,
other soldiers laughing.

I wake submerged,
head held firmly underwater
by muscular ropes to boards,
ever louder squall of heart,
gasping, heaving, frenzied gurgles,
ever hotter burning crush of chest,
maiming claws at guts and lungs,
tingles creeping, penetrating every limb,
growing weary, fading, watery, confused …

I wake to tranquil breathing: my wife,
gentle whir: the dryer downstairs,
muffled roar: an SUV rumbles past our window.
The heavy pounding in my chest
gradually calms to regular beat
as I tell myself it was only a dream.

If world history reflected the view of the PR profession, it might start with Napolean’s invasion of Russia.

Even since I became a marketing communications professional about 25 years ago, one of my pet peeves is the accepted view that the history of public relations begins with the late 19th century impresario P. T. Barnum (you know the one who said that there’s a sucker born every minute) and Edward Bernays, owner of a PR agency in the 1920’s.  The idea that PR starts with these two is taught in PR text books and is the “right answer” on the test to become accredited, which is the Public Relations Society of America’s unenforceable certification process.

This view is just wrong, wrong, wrong!

Public relations is the use of third parties to endorse the message that an individual or organization wants to make.  That message usually involves selling a product or an idea, or raising the esteem in which an organization or individual is held by society or a segment of society.  For example, instead of placing an ad in magazines about a new technology, a public relations professional would try to attract coverage by news organizations (the third party endorser). 

Let me share with you some examples of public relations that predate the “B Boys,” Barnum and Bernays:

  • After using foreign troops to conquer the armies of his own people and then sending his best general on what amounted to a suicide mission, the ancient Israeli King David cavorted lasciviously in the streets with the general’s wife, Bathsheba.  To address his image problem, he hired some writers to compose the Psalms (unless you are naïve enough to believe that an uneducated shepherd who had been a soldier from his teens was also one of the greatest writers of ancient Hebrew).
  • When the Roman Emperor Octavius (Augustus) was trying to consolidate his power after defeating Mark Anthony and Cleopatra for control of the Roman world, his factotum Maecenas established an informal ancient PR agency that spewed out written material that praised and glorified both Octavius and the Roman state, kind of like a political candidate who symbolically wraps himself in a flag with jingoistic cant.  The best known work to come out of Maecenas’ efforts was The Aeniad by Virgil, still considered by many (not me) to be one of the greatest works of literature.
  • The earliest English lords in Ireland would pay Irish poets to write verses in praise of themselves and their rule.  The idea was to legitimize the political and economic domination of the emerald island of these interlopers.

One of the techniques of contemporary PR is to stage a special event like a marathon, the world’s largest pizza, a march on Washington, a national “Turn off the lights” or “Stop smoking” day, or even an elephant using its trunk to paint a canvas with on a bridge overlooking Niagara Falls.  The special event both draws the attention of the public and serves as a platform for making a message or enhancing a reputation. 

Now what could be a more dazzling special event than the spectacular coronation of Charlemagne as Emperor by the Pope in 800 of the Common Era.  The message was that Charles was in charge, but that his authority derived from and was dependent upon the Catholic Church.  Charlemagne’s coronation has all the elements of a special event: a spectacle that attracted attention, a clear message and a third-party endorsement.

My own personal view is that the most important principle of effective PR writing was laid out by the Roman poet Horace in his The Poetic Arts (Ars Poetica), when he says. “begin in the middle (“in media res” in the Latin).

By cutting out all history before the late 19th century, the PR profession and university PR departments sacrifice a serious source of ideas and give PR professional a distorted view of how PR fits into society.  It’s as if a study of military tactics started with General Pershing or a study of religion started with Aimee Semple McPherson.  Or how about a history of the world that starts with the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo.  I think the PR profession starts its history so late because it wants to distinguish itself from propaganda, but in fact, PR is a form of propaganda.

If I were running a university PR program, I would make the students study nothing but the great world literature and literary criticism that began as PR ventures for the first three years. 

Are we really fated to die away like the dinosaurs?

I’m reading a wonderfully insightful book on the extinction of species by Richard Ellis titled No Turning Back.  He describes in easy-to-understand language the details of all the mass extinctions that have occurred on the earth, relates the story of how many individual creatures may have gone extinct, and makes an objective presentation of current extinction theories. 

Ellis tells us, for example, that by the time the Chicxulub meteor hit the Yucatan 65 million years ago, probably killing all the non-avian dinosaurs, most of the dinosaur species had already died out and that the only ones left that couldn’t fly were in North America.  Ellis calls them non-avian dinosaurs, since most scientists now consider birds to be the last of the dinosaurs, surviving because, this theory goes, they were living on the continents less affected by the meteor crash.  Ellis also presents the theory that microbial disease may have caused some of the extinction of the dinosaurs that took place in the tens of millions of years before the meteor hit.

While I highly recommend No Turning Back I want to take exception to one statement that Ellis keeps repeating: that human beings, like all earths creatures, are doomed to extinction.  He also quotes a number of scientists giving the same view.

There’s no disputing that one of the main story lines of the natural history of the earth is the extinction of species.  Virtually all species that have existed on the earth have perished, either individually or during one of the mass extinctions that Ellis reports come about every 26 million years. 

But while humans are of nature, we also have the ability to rise above nature, that is, to mute or bend parts of our nature in different ways to our benefit.

Although we seem headed for self-destruction currently, we could change that by continuing to grow beyond our natural origins as hunters living in caves.   But to do so, I believe we have to replace natural laws with what I call human laws.  I am not saying that we can ignore the laws of nature, but that the customs and laws of society and economics—our human laws —should reflect our mission to overcome nature and survive (which eventually will mean leaving the planet before the sun explodes in some 90 million years).   By the way, by human laws I do not necessarily mean legal codes and regulations; although it includes legal prescriptions, human laws also comprise customs, mores and ideology.

Natural laws lead to extinction, whereas human laws should lead to our survival, which I believe begins by removing the motives for working solely and selfishly in favor of the individual and instead putting the stress on helping all people achieve a minimum standard of living.  In other words, guaranteeing basic human rights and a decent living standard for all are as important as cleaning up the environment and slowing down global warming.  Currently our human laws do not place enough constraints on the behaviors that lead to the extinction of the species, e.g., war, pollution, destruction of ecologies, land misuse, lifestyles that consume too many resources, overemphasis on the accumulation of material possessions.  Let’s hope that changes.

Ellis himself points out that not all species have gone extinct.  There are some survivors from former epochs, but statistically the number is insignificant.  So what!  Statistically there are very few species with large brains, and of those, only one that has a sophisticated language and thumbs that oppose the rest of the fingers.  While I have no faith in religion, I do have faith in the ability of man to keep transcending nature and learn how to clean up the mess we’ve made.

I know I’m repeating or rebranding the thoughts of some long-gone social philosopher(s), but I can’t remember which one(s).  It’s also likely that some contemporary philosopher has also dipped into these waters.  If any reader can enlighten me on others with the same or similar view, please let me hear from you.

There’s far too much conflating of the fictional with the real in nonfiction prose these days.

I keep running across examples of nonfiction writers using fiction as examples or proofs of trends in the real world.  Now there are some occasions when a discussion of aspects of one or more pieces of fiction or works of art can illuminate a real-world trend.  For example, what people are wearing and eating in paintings can reveal a lot about the worlds in which the painters lived.  And there can be no doubt that the themes of novels (at least those not about writers) often reflect the social and economic trends of the moment in which they are written.

What I’m talking about is quite different, however, and involves passing off the fiction as a piece of fact that vitiates the need for supplying real ones.  I talked about one example a few months back in a blog entry on one writer’s attempt to compare the Polanski arrest to a fictional film to blame the 60s for licentiousness in society.

Here are the two recent examples I have run across of this rhetorical device of saying fictions are facts:

First from the feature story on the fact that women are approaching more than 50% of the U.S. workforce titled “Female Power” in the January 2nd-8th issue of The Economist: “A generation ago working women performed menial jobs and were routinely subjected to casual sexism—as “Mad Men,” a television drama about advertising executives in the early 1960s, demonstrates brilliantly.”

Let’s not argue over if it’s true or not that women performed menial jobs and encountered sexism in the early 60s.  It’s true.  But “Mad Men” does not “demonstrate” the sexism, rather it does what art is supposed to do, reflect it and exaggerate it. 

To use fiction to demonstrate sexism and glass ceilings existed in the early 1960s, you would have to give the example of many fictions, all of that age although not necessarily just about that age.  In the case of the role of women in the workforce, you might start with movies from 1955-1965 starring Jack Lemmon.  Better yet would be to point to surveys and studies or accumulate newspaper articles from that time. 

My second example is on page 64 of James McManus’ Cowboys Full.  I won’t bore you with the entire paragraph.  It’s an assertion that there was a lot of money floating around riverboats in the pre-Civil War South that card sharpies were only too happy to take in card games, typically from ultra-wealthy plantation owners.  McManus is probably right, but his sole proof are two fictional characters from a novel about the “Old South” written decades later in the industrialized society of the 1920s.  The novel is Gone with the Wind and the characters are Rhett Butler and Scarlet O’Hara’s father.

McManus makes exactly the same mistake as The Economist does, for not only are his examples fictional only, but they are fictions created in a later age, and without doubt reflecting that later age’s attitudes more than they reflect the age under discussion.

I don’t think those who use this false rhetorical device are trying to be devious.  Rather, they are merely thinking and writing in a sloppy fashion.

UPDATE: A January 19 National Public Radio story on women in the workforce stated (correctly, I think) that women wanting to join the workforce in the 60s and early 70s faced resistance from many men. But instead of quoting a survey or study, or even providing a number of mass culture manifestations of this attitude, the reporter instead gives a 10-second snippet of dialogue from the situation comedy, “All in the Family.” At least the reporter selected something from the age under discussion, but what she selected was a satire of the very attitudes she said were prevalent, which begs the question: does a satire in mainstream programming demonstrate that the attitudes existed or that the attitudes were dying? Only an accumulation of detail (which occurs in a good study) could answer the question.


The best way to pay me for my blog is to read it.

Several people have recently posted comments that wonder why I’m not getting paid for my posts.  I do appreciate their concern and their desire to put a financial value on my blogging.

In the United States, of course, the natural assumption is that people do most things for money.  In fact, as I’ve noted in previous blogs, money has to a great extent replaced all other means to determine if something or someone is successful, worthwhile or artistic. 

In the case of my blog, though, I do it for the pleasure of organizing and writing down by thoughts plus the joy of sharing with my readers.  I have had a very successful advertising business for more than 20 years now and I’ve made a lot of money.  Instead of trying to make more of the green, I feel happier spending some of my free time on this blogging adventure.  In addition, eventually many of my posts will end up in books I am slowly writing on communications theory and propaganda in a free society.

But for the time being, I am gratified that I have picked up so many followers in these first five months of blogging.  The knowledge that people are reading my material is all the reward I need.   

Having said that, I can suggest something to readers who absolutely feel as if they really do want to “pay” for reading my blog.  You could always pick up a copy of my book of poetry, Music from Words, either from the publisher,, or from many online bookstores, including  You can also buy it in almost any bookstore, but you’ll probably have to have the store order it from the warehouse.  If you don’t read poetry, you could always give it to someone you know who does, or an English student you know.

That’s it for the commercial.

Best wishes to all my readers for a creative and insightful 2010. 

The Glenn Beck Machine Manufactures a Christmas Story for Children

The cover of The Christmas Sweater lists Glenn Beck as the sole author.  It’s only when you get to the second title page that you see that this children’s book is adapted by Chris Schoebinger from an original story by Glenn Beck with Kevin Balfe and Jason Wright.

The story is a dramaless tale of a boy around 10 who wants to get a bike for Christmas until he has a dream in which he gets a sweater that unleashes a wave of family love.  When he wakes up, he wants the sweater more than the bike. Of course he gets both.  Seeming to orchestrate both the dream and Christmas day is a grandfather who resembles a very buff Santa Claus.

A curious thing about the book is that this blissful, happy family Christmas is completely devoid of any religious element.  We never even see the top of the Christmas tree, which would likely have a nativity star on it.  Everything for this possession-rich white rural or suburban family revolves around the material.  The two symbols in the story are the sweater whose warmth becomes a metaphor for the warmth of family life, which in this story is something that is received, not given: the boy receives the emotion by getting a gift not by giving one.  The other symbol is a candy cane which the author (authors, manufacturers??) uses to suggest in an oblique way that grandpa knew he was inside the boy’s dream.

The illustration style and other design elements are fairly standard:  finely drawn but airbrushed realism in bright contrasting colors; a nice selection of points-of-views for the illustrations.  Little paragraphs on each page covering the “white space” of the illustration.  All pretty standard for hard-cover children’s books.

The book looks like a piece of fabricated art, that is a work of art or entertainment that is put together by a committee for the sole purpose of creating a product to sell (as opposed to being the passionate response to life that real art is supposed to be, whether it’s a movie by Fellini or a children’s story by Ezra Jack Keats.)

Most examples of fabricated art nowadays come from the world of movies and popular music. 

Here are some of the traits of fabricated art that we can see in The Christmas Sweater:

  • Multiple authors or a muddied authorship situation in which you don’t really know who did what.  The promotional material may say “Glenn Beck,” but in the book no one is listed as the writer, although we have an adapter.  And we have no idea if the two people who figured out the original story took stenography while Beck spun out details or if Beck sipped tea while they pieced the story together from little snippets of images and plotlines from other books.
  • The work extends a brand and depends on the brand, which certainly is the case with The Christmas Sweater.
  • The work pulls together elements of its art form in a way that is purely imitative as opposed to breathing new life into these old forms.  Fabricated art will not create original content, but instead throws out stock characters.  It will tell you something that seems as if you heard it before.  In The Christmas Sweater, some of stock Christmas story elements used without even the injection of a new twist include wanting a bike, an older guy who could really be Santa Claus and a prance through the snow.
  • There is a sense of great distancing between the audience and the story, as if we’re looking in from the outside as opposed to being in the middle of the action.  In the case of The Christmas Sweater, the distancing is created through the sketchiness of the vignettes which constitute the plot, the lack of any emotional dynamic in the characters and the creation of symbols that do not really refer to anything.

The back cover notes that The Christmas Sweater is a best-selling novel.  That means that children and families everywhere are reading this lifeless artificial book product instead of A Christmas Carol, ’Twas the Night Before Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, My First Christmas and other classics.  I guess that’s similar to eating fruit rolls and drinking corn syrup-rich fruit drinks instead of eating a piece of fruit.

And Now for Something Completely Shameless and Self-Promoting

Here’s another self-serving blog entry, but at least it’s about my poetry and not my business:

You can now view my complete September 20 performance at the main branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.  I read some old favorites from Music from Words, plus some new poems, hot off the grill!

And while I’m at it, some of you might be interested in how to purchase my work.  By all means, buy enough copies of Music from Words for all your friends and neighbors, at or or at most brick-and-mortar or online bookstores. 

And here is a list of individual poems that have been published in the last year.  Please buy multiple copies of these issues of these journals (and tell them Marc sent you!):

  • Acapella Zoo #1 (Fall 2008): “The Walk Away”
  • Bagel Bards IV (Spring 2009): “That Night You Woke Up Laughing”
  • Journey (Spring 2009, Eden Waters Press): “A Modern Passion”
  • Jewish Currents Volume 64, #1  (Autumn 2009): “Uncle Freddy’s Home Movies”
  • Sin Fronteras #13 (Spring 2009): “Occam’s Razor”
  • Slant 22 (May 2009): “A Question Mark About the Mousterians”
  • Wilderness House Literary Review  #3 (2009): At the Cocktail Party

We return you to your regular programming…