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Channeling Mark Twain: A Novel [Kindle Edition]

Carol Muske-Dukes
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)

Print List Price: $15.00
Kindle Price: $11.77
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Sold by: Random House LLC

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Book Description

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.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Poet Holly is propelled by a "lifelong near-diabolical desire to make all things right." It's the mid-1970s, when such good intentions are often undermined by naive politics and hubris, but this blonde from the Twin Cities puts her beliefs to the test by teaching a poetry class in the women's prison on Rikers Island. As Holly tries to win the trust of her seen-it-all students, she realizes that they have plenty to teach her. Conversations with a famous Russian poet-in-exile (a thinly veiled Joseph Brodsky) also prove revelatory. While he was imprisoned for the crime of being a poet, her students are locked up, basically, for being female, black, and poor. Ribald and outspoken, funny and resilient, they have endured horrific if all too common abuse. Two possess unusual powers. Akilah Malik is an Angela Davis–like radical, and mystic Polly Lyle Clement claims to be channeling her great-granddaddy Mark Twain. A compassionate poet as well as a mythically inclined novelist, Muske-Dukes is spellbinding in her precision and invention as she pays haunting tribute to women who hold fast to their humanity under the most barbaric of circumstances, while celebrating poetry as a liberating force. Seaman, Donna
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Product Details

  • File Size: 283 KB
  • Print Length: 290 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0375509275
  • Publisher: Random House (July 3, 2007)
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B000SMQG12
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,606,938 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Riverboat Captain Muske-Dukes July 16, 2007
I've just finished bingeing on Carol Muske-Dukes's brave, new fourth novel "Channeling Mark Twain." In terms of sheer hunger-inducing suspense, Muske-Dukes's book rivals Jim Crace's recent delectable fairy tale, "The Pesthouse." For its stick-to-the-ribs cast of characters, Muske-Dukes wins the Alice Waters/Thomas Keller Award, with the wondrously seasoned brisket of Yiddish freak show eccentrics in Michael Chabon's "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" not far behind.

But comparisons are odious, and so is my food analogy! "Channeling Mark Twain" is unique, a thing of beauty -- and, I believe, a joy forever. From its initial pages introducing us to 20-something Minnesotan-cum-Manhattan poet, Holly Mattox, riding a bus to New York City's penitentiary on Rikers Island, this book rocks. Throughout, Muske-Dukes's ear for dialogue is spot-on, including her rendition of the pre-hip-hop 1970s jive of pimps visiting their whores in prison.

Muske-Dukes takes us beyond security gates for a jailbird eye's view of the slammer. Holly Mattox, unlike Capote's Holly Golightly, is a coming-of-age character more interested in poems than breakfast at Tiffany's. Holly's mission is to teach poetry to women behind bars and thereby free their minds, if not their bodies, from jail. With wry humor and plenty of compassion, Muske-Dukes introduces us to such cameo convicts as Baby Ain't, Never Delgado, and Akila Malik.

Ordinarily in novels, classroom scenes are boring. Muske-Dukes's scenes of poetry classes in prison are riveting, not least because of the way she focuses on each con's "story"--how she ended up in the "joint"--and how each story turns into a poem. The anthology of prisoners' poems printed at the end of several chapters is tremendously evocative.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Does poetry make a difference? (3.75 *s) August 20, 2007
For many poetry is obscure, vague, tedious, and trying. But for poets, poetry is the highest form of human expression capable of imparting great feeling, joy, and understanding - transforming. Such is the feeling of Holly Mattox, recent post-graduate and poet, who arrives in NYC in the 1970s with her sometimes husband K.B., a hospital resident doctor, to write poetry, participate in radical politics, and attempt to make a difference in the lives of the oppressed, namely female inmates at Rikers Island, by teaching a poetry workshop.

The book is highly autobiographical as the author did conduct poetry workshops at Rikers for a number of years. The gritty reality could hardly be more palpable: the intimidating presence of the pimps monitoring the exit of the prison for ho's, the no-nonsense female correctional officers, the stark reality of steel, bars, etc. And then there are the women in Holly's class - most all of whom having led precarious lives as prostitutes, drug runners, or victims of domestic abuse with highly detrimental impacts on their psyches. The author captures the contrast of a privileged white girl leading a class of these underprivileged women writing meager, ungrammatical, though intensely personal, poems concerning their train wrecked lives. There is the interesting, but improbable, character of Polly Clement who claims to be the great-granddaughter of Mark Twain and can quote at length from his works, especially Huckleberry Finn.

Holly is a bit of a an uncertain and naïve character. She is a radical who grows disenchanted with a women's group that talks the game of helping the oppressed. She feels compelled to live the life that was cut short for her mother in the dust storms of the Dakotas in the 30s.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a gripping book July 20, 2007
CHANNELING MARK TWAIN is a completely absorbing novel. I especially liked the scenes about
teaching -- which is often treated elsewhere as something trivial or a matter of mere duty, but here it's understood as urgent, necessary work. When the central character of this book teaches imprisoned women to use language to shape their own meanings, she's giving them a tool to help them to live, to help them move towards personal power and toward freedom. These scenes are unsentimental, totally convincing, and make for very compelling reading. You can tell this writer's been there.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars writing what she knows July 26, 2007
Muske-Dukes taught poetry to the women who were incarcerated at Riker's Island circa 1973-83. This fictional rendition of a woman's story who is teaching at the same time in the same place has many autobiographical moments to be sure. Muske-Dukes merges her superb poetic talent with an imagined life that is quite like one she once knew well.

The inmates in her class are the dregs of society. The author makes them appealing, even loveable, almost. They are damaged souls and the poetry that they write is the distilled essence of pain and dead ends. The title of the book alludes to a mystical set of circumstances that is truly the delight of the novel. The character Polly could be the most appealing fictional creation you meet in quite some time.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I read Carol Muske-Dukes' CHANNELING MARK TWAIN straight through, fascinated, although I often forgot that I was reading a novel. Much of it felt like a life history--written by a young teacher-poet so captivated by her life in New York City that she simply could not resist sharing her experience. She is caught up in her work- and poems-in-process, and her efforts to do something good for society, namely, teaching poetry as a volunteer in a women's prison. The first-person narrator, Holly, seems designed to remind us of Carol, the author, whose own name sounds as if she might also have been born in December. And from the book's dedication, we know that Muske-Dukes has been there: "To my unforgettable students, the members of the original Free/Space Art Without Walls Poetry Workshop, Women's House of Detention, Rikers Island, 1973-1983."

Although the young teacher-poet-narrator begins with seeing the pimps as she arrives at Rikers Island--pimps waiting for prostitutes to be released--she manages to bring in flashes of her earlier life in the midwest, featuring wonderful vignettes of her mother, who was always quoting poetry. The narrator juxtaposes her own fragmentary autobiography, including poems, with the fragmentary life accounts and autobiographical poems of the student-poets, inmates at Rikers Island. The juxtaposition and interplay cast light on both realms. So does the poetry.

As other persons make their way into the story--a husband, a lover, associates at Columbia University--the reader realizes that they indeed are invented characters, some of them anyway, not real people, and they are there to make possible the creation of a plot. Yes, this is fiction.
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