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Channeling Mark Twainby Carol Muske-Dukes
Synopses & Reviews
Fresh out of graduate school, Holly Mattox is a young, newly married, and spirited poet who moves to New York City from Minnesota in the early 1970's. Hoping to share her passion for words and social justice, Holly is also determined to contribute to the politically charged atmosphere around her. Her mission: to successfully teach a poetry workshop at the Women's House of Detention on Rikers Island, only minutes from Manhattan.
Having listened to her mother recite verse by heart all her life, Holly has always been drawn to poetry. Yet until she stands before a class made up of prisoners and detainees — all troubled women charged with a variety of crimes — even Holly does not know the full power that language can possess. Words are the only weapon left to many of these outspoken women: the hooker known as Baby Ain't (as in "Baby Ain't Nobody Better!"); Gene/Jean, who is mid-sex change; drug mule Never Delgado; and Akilah Malik, a leader of the Black Freedom Front.
One woman in particular will change Holly's life forever: Polly Lyle Clement, an inmate awaiting transfer to a mental hospital upstate, one day announces that she is a descendant of Mark Twain and is capable of channeling his voice. And so begins Holly's descent into the dark recesses of the criminal justice system, where in an attempt to understand and help her students she will lose her perspective on the nature of justice — and risk ruining everything stable in her life. As Holly begins an affair with a fellow poet — who claims to know her better than she knows herself — she finds herself adrift between two ends of the social and political spectrum, between two men and two identities.
National Book Award finalist Carol Muske-Dukes has created an explosive, mesmerizing novel exploring the worlds of poetry, sex, and politics in the unforgettable New York City of the seventies. Written with her trademark captivating language and emotional intuition, Channeling Mark Twain is Muske-Dukes's most powerful work to date.
"Occupying a seat on a Riker's Island — bound bus crowded with menacing, diamond-studded pimps is just another day in the life of Holly Mattox, the self-consciously attractive newlywed protagonist of Muske-Dukes's fourth novel. Set in 1970s New York City, the novel follows Holly as she becomes increasingly, and perhaps dangerously, involved with the female inmates who attend her jailhouse poetry workshops. Undeterred by the catty disapproval of her literary contemporaries, Holly forges on, leading a class of bickering inmates, including mentally disturbed Billie Dee, transgendered Gene/Jean, God-fearing Darlene and fragile, heavily sedated Polly Lyle Clement, who claims to be the great-granddaughter of Mark Twain. (Twain also, Polly claims, speaks through her.) An affair with fellow scribe Sam Glass threatens Holly's young marriage as Polly gets thrown into solitary for her possible involvement in another inmate's jailbreak. The jail administration wants Holly to extract information from a delusional Polly, but Polly could be crumbling too fast for Holly to save her. Prisoners' poems appear throughout and afford a sometimes hilarious, sometimes stark look beneath the inmates' grizzled exteriors. Fiction with a political conscience often sacrifices craft in favor of driving home a message, but Muske-Dukes pulls it off. (July)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Most New Yorkers think of Rikers Island, if they think of it at all, as they are going to or from LaGuardia Airport. The small island sits in the East River, between Queens and the Bronx, and it houses New York City's largest jail. There are usually around 15,000 inmates there. A person who isn't incarcerated at Rikers can see it well from the highway overpasses that link the metropolis with the nearby... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) airport. Carol Muske-Dukes' new novel, 'Channeling Mark Twain,' offers a glimpse of the jail itself and what life on the island might have been like in the early 1970s. The novel's narrator, Holly Mattox, is a young poet and social activist from the Midwest. It is clear from Muske-Dukes' dedication and author's note that Holly is a stand-in for the novelist, who from 1973 to '83 taught poetry at Rikers. Holly discovers the jail — and specifically the Women's House of Detention — while working for a 'spectacularly ineffective rehabilitation program called AfterCare.' She is also a member of the more radical Women's Bail Fund, a vintage late-'60s/early-'70s group that raises money to bail out women in jail. The members of the fund are self-righteous, angry and manipulative: They have Holly bail out the women because no one else wants to deal with correctional officers, bureaucrats and pimps — nor do they actually want to meet the newly released inmates, who as often as not are violent and irritated. Because Holly is both an idealist and a poet, she starts a poetry workshop for a group of the female inmates. It is the workshop that serves as the pivot around which most of the events in the novel turn. The inmates share their stories in their poems, slowly learning to trust their teacher and, inevitably, teaching her some important life lessons, too. Not a whole lot occurs in the first three-quarters of the novel. When Holly isn't with her students, she is in meetings with her Bail Fund compatriots or wondering why she is keeping secret her marriage to the young doctor with whom she lives. Is it because she questions the patriarchal foundations of marriage, or does she harbor doubts about the man she has wed? She also argues a lot with an older poet, editor and Greenwich Village icon named Sam Glass at dinner parties and the office of his prestigious literary magazine. And then there is the final quarter of the book, in which all hell — and an inmate in Holly's poetry workshop — breaks loose. Holly also begins her long-foreshadowed affair with Sam. The novel derives its title from one of the students in the poetry workshop. Polly Lyle Clement claims to be a descendant of Mark Twain and certainly has his recognizable white mane. She quotes her ancestor and his work at length and claims that he speaks through her. Whether she is telling the truth or is completely insane is the principal issue in the novel. But it is clear that she understands the channels and currents that surround Rikers, and how one might reach nearby North Brother Island and escape from jail. Muske-Dukes is an accomplished writer, but much of 'Channeling Mark Twain' is nonetheless overwritten. Hands are 'beringed' and bosoms and necks are 'engemmed,' and even cereal boxes are described with extravagance: 'Conversation had wound down. We both stared, flagging, at Tony the Tiger boinging up and down with ghastly energy on the Frosted Flakes box: an orange-and-black-striped hypnotic, flashing his big atavistic tiger grin.' This is the sort of novel that when a woman hangs laundry, she is spied 'clutching one or two (clothes) pins in her teeth like a war hero unpinning hand grenades with her incisors, grimacing like John Wayne.' Moreover, Holly is not so much an unreliable narrator as a disingenuous one. She is young and pretty and blond and smart, and she still wonders what older poet (and lech) Sam Glass might see in her. The result is frustrating: There is an interesting tale here, but it commences too far into the book and is too often slowed with prose that is, alas, more purple than poetic." Reviewed by Patrick Anderson, whose e-mail address is mondaythrillers(at symbol)aol.comRachel Hartigan Shea, who is a senior editor at The Washington Post Book WorldChris Bohjalian, the author of 10 novels, including 'Midwives' and 'The Double Bind', Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"[An] offbeat and stimulating story, marked by painterly images evoked through precise, energetic language." Library Journal
"Muske-Dukes triumph lies in building a discourse on the nature of language....Lovely, original writing on the unlikely romance between prisoners and poetry." Kirkus Reviews
"[A] slim volume grappling with big issues." Los Angeles Times
"Muske-Dukes takes vast chances with both her voice and her subject matter, and ends up with a work strongly based on reality, but unquestionably elevated into the wondrous realm of art." San Francisco Chronicle
"[A] three-dimensional narrative that captures the fear, grit, danger, courage and triumph of Holly's quest with astonishing fullness." Chicago Sun-Times
About the Author
Carol Muske-Dukes is professor and founder of the graduate program in literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California and also teaches at Columbia University. She is the author of three novels, including Life After Death, and seven poetry collections, including Sparrow, a National Book Award finalist, and An Octave Above Thunder, nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Her collection of essays on Hollywood, Married to the Icepick Killer, was named a Best Book of the Year by the San Francisco Chronicle. Muske-Dukes is the recipient of many awards, among them a Guggenheim fellowship. A former poetry columnist for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, she has reviewed and written extensively for The New York Times. Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, Muske-Dukes lives in New York City and Los Angeles.
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