NewPages Book Reviews
April 1, 2009
Vienna Triangle :: First Execution :: The Bathroom :: Camera :: Last Night in Montreal :: The Adventures of Cancer Bitch :: First We Read, Then We Write :: Bending the Notes :: The Suburban Swindle :: Morning in a Different Place :: At or Near the Surface :: Light Boxes :: Comfort :: Shuck :: Me as Her Again
A Novel by Brenda Webster
Wings Press, January 2009
Paperback: 228pp; $16.95
Review by Jason Hinkley
Brenda Webster's new novel, Vienna Triangle, employs the historical context of the early psychoanalysis movement to create a mystery that explores the dark side of intellectual enlightenment. Using Freud and his inner circle as case studies, she investigates the rise of egoism and the tension of professional ambition within the group. Like most historical fiction that focuses on intellectual movements and figures, Vienna Triangle plays largely on the relationship between ideology and character that exists whenever you have someone trying to change our cultural perspective.
The plot is driven by the young graduate student, Kate, who conducts her research like an archaeological detective. Motivated by both professional ambition and personal longing, she digs into the circumstances surrounding the death of Viktor Tausk, Freud's loyal but disgruntled disciple. As Kate sifts through Tausk's professional papers and private journals, she finds herself becoming entangled in the movement's infighting – quickly developing her own set of personal loyalties.
When she meets Helen, a pioneer as an analyst and as a female professional in the nineteen thirties, she is finally able to shine light in the darker corners of the movement's beginnings. However, the practicality of Helen's careerism and marital relationship counters and questions the idealistic feminism that Kate had hoped to apply to her own life. As the pieces to her historical puzzle fall into place, Kate's own life becomes a juggling act between career, self and family – an act very similar to the ones she had uncovered in the young analysts.
As the underlying relationships and rivalries of the group are exposed, questions of intellectual integrity and personal loyalty grow into a truly scandalous set of entanglements – entanglements that threaten to change the very way we view both man and movement. Webster takes a close look at how the image of genius is formed and how it is never a true reflection of reality. As the father of psychoanalysis, Freud needed not only ideas but followers, “to corroborate his findings, and of course [with them] he shone, he stood out like a giant among pygmies.” Webster plays on this struggle within the group dynamic, pitting the individual personalities that also had a need to shine against the confines of the group and the teachings of the guru.
Soon the movement's need for followers conflicts with its need for intellectual objectivity, leaving Kate and the reader to question its scientific roots: “For a supposedly rational science there was a lot of passionate feeling going around. Sometimes it seems more like a religious sect than a rational science.” Webster brings the destruction caused by an unwavering belief in rationality to the personal lives of her characters, illustrating that the dangers of the true believer can reach deep into science.
As the mystery of the movement is being laid to rest, a state of suspense builds over whether Kate can learn the lessons of history and avoid the same pitfalls of intellectual ambition that befell her predecessors. Kate's emerging struggle, eerily similar to those facing the analysts of her grandfather's generation, encapsulates the inherent weakness of human ambition exposed in Vienna Triangle.
Novel by Domenico Starnone
Translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar
Europa Editions, March 2009
Paperback: 176pp; $15.00
Review by Laura Di Giovine
On the surface, First Execution by Domenico Starnone is a novel about terrorism, filled with the requisite twists and turns that are the driving force of a crime thriller. Yet, it’s also a metafictional narrative reminiscent of Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, becoming a text on the act of writing and editing, switching from protagonist to author, and back again.
The story begins when Domenico Stasi, a sixty-seven year old retired professor from Naples, receives a phone call from a former student, Nina. She’s been arrested for conspiracy and needs his help in finishing the job. Professor Stasi taught during the height of the Red Brigades’ terrorization of Italy during the 1970s, lecturing heavily about Communism, and urging his students to partake in the Revolution. Helping Nina could be his chance to literally practice what he preached. She asks him to locate The Death of Virgil in a friend’s empty apartment, transcribe a phrase on page 46 and await further instructions.
After the professor finds the book, the author intervenes. He ponders using a different quotation from the book, he cuts out passages and then adds them back in, he imagines that the professor never found the book, but instead headed home empty handed. The author also reflects on himself, wondering whether he is a good person. He says:
I had always had within me, ever since I was quite small, a violence that was constantly on the verge of exploding, a lust for mayhem that I had learned quite young to repress, keeping tamped down my feelings of rage, my aggressive instincts, my treachery, my evil. In other words, if I was good, I was good only in the sense that I had succeeded in imprisoning my inborn ferocity.
This attitude parlays into the complexities of Professor Stasi’s character, the repressed anger, the hidden aggression; he’s an educator on acts of violence who is unable (or unwilling?) to carry them out himself. Many writers use aspects of themselves in their work and the author admits to “constructing the story . . . [and] reinventing my experience.”
Throughout First Execution, Starnone deftly explores the dangerous violence that lurks within the author and the professor, exposing the terrors that lay within the human mind, always threatening to rise toward the surface. Will professor Stasi become submerged in a misguided act of bloodshed? Will the author? Be prepared to unpack the layers in this gem of European noir. For those desiring a bit more depth to their standard crime fiction, this intelligent thriller is worth checking out.
Novel by Jean-Philippe Toussaint
Translated from the French by Nancy Amphoux
and Paul De Angelis
Dalkey Archive, November 2008
Paperback: 102pp; $12.95
Review by Josh Maday
The nameless narrator of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s debut novel, The Bathroom, takes up residence in his bathroom and refuses to leave, while others attend to him and try in vain to coax him from the bathtub, where he cultivates the “quietude of [his] abstract life.” The premise brings to mind Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov, the 19th-Century Russian nobleman who does not get out of bed for the first 150 pages of the novel. However, while The Bathroom is no satire, neither does Toussaint weigh it down with seriousness.
Toussaint’s man is sincerely content to lie in the tub, the “warm human voices” coming from the radio enough of a connection to a world which has little to offer that his bathtub and attendants cannot. Only an invitation from the Austrian embassy seems to make him consider leaving his ceramic paradise.
10. Seated on the edge of the bathtub, I was explaining to Edmondsson that perhaps it was not very healthy, at age twenty-seven going on twenty-nine, to live more or less shut up in a bathtub. I ought to take some risk, I said, looking down and stroking the enamel of the bathtub, the risk of compromising the quietude of my abstract life for . . . I did not finish my sentence.
11. The next day I left the bathroom.
Toussaint’s novel moves in new and interesting ways, countering the narrator’s quest for immobility. Readers who require a traditional story arc with predictable plot lines and a sweet spoon-fed ending may find this book a bit quiet and contemplative. However, read on its own terms, The Bathroom opens up. The elements accumulate and begin to interact.
In Part II, entitled “Hypotenuse,” the narrator leaves for Venice without telling anyone. Here he does little besides loaf in his hotel room, throwing darts, and wandering to the bar while housekeeping refreshes his room. His program toward total “immobility” is cemented: “My hands froze on the table and I tried with all my strength to hold this immobility, to keep it, but I realized that upon my body, too, movement was streaming.”
Developing a nasty case of “incipient sinusitis,” he is confined to his hotel room for most of Part III (titled “Paris” like Part I), until, near the end, he finally returns to his apartment, to his bathtub. The final pages repeat the first few pages: his lying in the bathtub, Edmondsson bursting in with the envelope from the Austrian embassy, and the two final sections are repetitions from earlier in the book, almost verbatim, but of course they now mean something different. Was it all “just a dream”? Was everything beginning again in a recursive loop? If so, does he (can he?) make a choice to go into the world once again, or simply return to his bathtub instead?
The text is broken up into numbered fragments in the manor of Blaise Pascal’s Pensées. Pascal also contributed to the philosophy of mathematics with what is now called Pascal’s triangle, which also seems to receive a nod from Toussaint, titling Part II “Hypotenuse.” Each paragraph continues from the previous, but breaking and separating the text with numbered paragraphs indicates that each may stand as a disconnected moment in the narrator’s mind, a compartmentalized thought or experience, where each present moment seems to be its own entity, unrelated causally for the narrator to what came before and after. Or, maybe the numbers, even though they maintain sequence, are arbitrary. They are there, breaking the flow of the text, even though the sections continue a linear narrative, making the numbers almost redundant, as though the obsessive narrator cannot help himself from forcing the narrative flow with mathematical certainty despite his quest for total immobility.
Toussaint has certainly given the reader a wealth of elements to contemplate in a slim volume. However, while there is a lot to think about philosophically, The Bathroom is above all an entertaining novel. Fortunately, Dalkey Archive thinks so, too, and took the steps to make this interesting new French novel available in English.
Novel by Jean-Philippe Toussaint
Translated from the French by Matthew B. Smith
Dalkey Archive, November 2008
Paperback: 122pp; $12.95
Review by Josh Maday
In the geology of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s career and development as a writer, his third novel, Camera, is easily placed in the same strata as his debut, The Bathroom. However, Camera is funnier and more romantic (in the nameless narrator’s weird way). The book opens:
It was about the same time in my life, a calm life in which ordinarily nothing happened, that two events coincided, events that, taken separately, were of hardly any interest, and that, considered together, were unfortunately not connected in any way. As it happens I had just decided to learn how to drive, and I had barely begun to get used to the idea when some news reached me by mail: a long-lost friend [. . .] had informed me he was getting married.
And this is true – the events are not connected in any way, except by occurring to the narrator. The phrase “from time to time” is repeated over and over throughout the story, and I am tempted to read some significance into this phrase, but then again they may not necessarily be connected in any way.
What happens is that the quirky, obsessive narrator decides to take driving lessons. He goes to the driver’s ed office to sign up and he meets the young woman, Pascale, with whom he spends most of the book.
The narrator in Camera is, as the back cover of the book states, “obsessed with himself.” Often his self-obsessive relation of details, which could easily have gotten grating and annoying, is actually rather funny:
Besides that, having nothing special to do in Milan – read the paper, of course, lifting my head from time to time to contemplate the shaded pathways of the park – I walked around almost the whole day, going from place to place with my newspapers under my arm, and was soon inconvenienced by numerous little annoying blisters that were perniciously forming between my toes (right there where my baby skin is so delicate, let it be a warning to you). I began walking in an unnatural way, to say the least.
Despite the idea of movement, the driving lessons, the trip to Milan, the driving about the city with Pascale and her father, the narrator draws toward the still darkness where he feels he is able to “think,” much in the same way the narrator of The Bathroom seeks immobility. However, the narrator here seeks a black screen void of words and even images – simply a plane:
Seated in the darkness of the booth, my coat wrapped around me, I didn’t move. I thought. Yes, I was thinking and, when I was thinking, eyes closed and body sheltered, I imagined another life, identical to this life in shape and scope, its breathing and its rhythm, a life in every way comparable to life, but with no wounds imaginable, no aggression, and no possible pain, far away, a detached life that blossomed up through the thinning ruins of exterior reality, and where a different reality, interior and peaceful, accounted for the sweetness of each passing moment, and it was scarcely words that appeared to me then, nor images [. . .] but moving forms that followed their course in my mind like the movement iof time itself.
Okay, so there appears to be a reason for the repetition of “from time to time” after all. In Camera, Toussaint moves from the mundane to the comic to the romantic to the dark and beautiful as fluidly as the narrator’s ecstatic vision of the movement of time. The Bathroom and Camera are similar books in many respects, very obviously from the same period of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s development as a writer, and I am tempted to say that Camera is a richer novel (it is more emotionally moving), but each novel moves brilliantly within itself, existing in and accomplishing its own moment in time.
After the novel is an interview with Jean-Philippe Toussaint by Laurent Demoulin, entitled “Towards an Infinitesimal Novel,” where Toussaint speaks about his process and intentions with his work. Dalkey Archive has given yet another gift to the English speaking/reading world by initiating and offering translations of these early novels by Jean-Philippe Toussaint.
Last Night in Montreal
Novel by Emily St. John Mandel
Unbridled Books, June 2009
Hardcover: 256pp; $24.95
Review by Christina Hall
This novel doesn’t cross lines. It blurs them. What first seems to be a flaw on the part of the author turns out to be the intention. Last Night in Montreal subtly breaks boundaries throughout, whether through aspects of the plot or the ways in which it was written. Because of this, the words get under our skin, making us feel as if something is off, but we are still urged, through Mandel’s words, to keep reading and to push past the discomfort that looms on every page.
Twenty pages into the novel, I was already taking notes on the odd, sporadic telescoping point of view. The chapter would open with what seemed a very broad and omniscient point of view, generally focusing on one character at a time, but then it would suddenly zoom into the head of another character entirely, throwing the entire story off kilter. Sometimes one sentence and sometimes two paragraphs later, the point of view would pull back again quickly, leaving the reader dizzy. Initially, I felt that this was a problem the editor and author had missed, but as I read on, the random blend of omniscient and limited third person point of view mirrored the author’s other unconventional methods of presentation.
The back cover of the book is misleading. “Haunted by an inability to remember her early childhood, [Lilia Albert] moves restlessly from city to city, abandoning lovers along the way, possibly still pursued by a private detective who has trailed her for years.” This novel is not, in fact, about Lilia Albert. It is as much about any of the other characters: Eli, Michaela, Christopher, as it is about Lilia. Lilia often feels to be a very absent character, while Michaela is probably the most solid and prominent character in the novel, Christopher acts as the biggest catalyst to active plot, and Eli opens and closes the novel.
Similarities between Michaela and Lilia are scarce, but the girls somehow manage to be indistinguishable from one another. The narratives of the characters seem to bleed into one another, and it is often difficult to tell which girl is the owner of certain thoughts and characteristics. After all, as with every other character, always chasing or being pursued, Lilia is a runner, while Michaela is the only character in the novel that never runs, never crosses the borders of countries or states; she walks the line, never falling off, as a talented tightrope walker. As with the perceived problems with the point of view, I often felt that Mandel did not know her own characters, resulting in the interchangeability of Michaela and Lilia, when actually the lack of separation was probably intended.
In addition to the structural and stylistic deviations, Mandel uses physical barriers to emphasize the blurring of boundaries. She continuously refers to the language barrier. Lilia speaks multiple languages frequently, and Eli studies dead languages. The novel takes place in Montreal, where language is controversial. English speakers are looked down upon, French is preferred, and yet neither Eli or Michaela, who are in Montreal throughout the novel, speak French. “Try to imagine,” Michaela says to Eli, “what it’s like when you can’t speak the right language in a place like this.” And there is the obvious metaphor of the map. As Lilia runs away across the country with her father, the map eventually fades, the states gradually become unimportant, they’re all one, “entire states were dissolving.”
Last Night in Montreal awkwardly tries to cover a variety of topics. Metaphors of ice skating and the Greek myth of Icarus often creep up, and while the ice skating metaphor is later clarified (“She moved over the surface of life the way figure skaters move, fast and choreographed, but she never broke through the ice, she never pierced the surface and descended into those awful, beautiful waters . . . all the shadows and light and splendorous horrors that make up the riptides of life on earth.”), no real connection is ever made between Icarus and the novel, although the author does make a weak attempt when one character says he does not wish to be the minotaur. The silky thread of boundaries however is as beautiful as it is strong, and Emily St. John Mandel subtly weaves it throughout all aspects of the novel.
The Adventures of Cancer Bitch
Memoir by S.L. Wisenberg
University of Iowa Press, February 2009
Hardcover: 160pp; $25.00
Review by Cyan James
Join me, please, in trotting out an old chestnut to roast over the open fire of winter passing. I'm talking about that oldie-but-goodie, "Can't judge a book by its cover" chestnut. Roast it. Crack it open and spread it on your melba toast. Because that chestnut lies to you sometimes, and certainly is lying to you if you're staring at the cover of S.L. Wisenberg's The Adventures of Cancer Bitch. I know. It's nearly spring. We don't want to think about cancer right now. We'd rather not be bitches. But join me for just a moment, please, and help me contemplate this cover. We've got the title, for one, emblazoned over an oddly appealing, oddly alarming photograph of a papier-mâché figure of Wisenberg (presumably) complete with flaunted hero-cape, peace-sign earrings, cancer-cropped hair, and defiant red circle with a bar through it smack over the place you'd expect her left breast.
Yes! Wisenberg's had a mastectomy, and she'd like you to know all about it.
Her papier-mâché cover photo figure, I'd argue, is symbolic of this slim memoir's text: appealing, esoteric, and, after all that, a bit off-putting. Wisenberg's tackled the sometimes-tacky turf of the cancer memoir, and ends up biting a bit of dust. There are much better books out there written about the social experience of being ill. There are better books written about Jewish ceremonies, the politics of disease, and famous figures who've died of cancer. But here you get all of this packaged together, going down fast like a sleek little pill.
Topically, Cancer Bitch jitters between blow-by-blow accounts of cancer treatment therapy, political musings, gender politics, the waste of plastic at hospital-sponsored breast cancer rallies, the evils of the Susan G. Komen model of breast-cancer awareness, the diseases of other people (like her husband), and numerous accounts of what her friends are saying and doing and what she is saying and doing, both related to and not related to breast cancer. It's a hodge-podge, stitched together by Wisenberg's chopped-off, deadpan sentences and her habit of cutely labeling everything (calling where she teaches Smart University, or where she's treated Fancy Hospital, for example.) The delivery can be witty, the labeling endearing. Both can seem more like tics than writing that reaches into the gut, however.
Let's get analytical.
Reasons Why You Might Want to Read Cancer Bitch:
1) The delight of passages like "Cancer cells are
uninhibited. They put lampshades on their heads and run through
public fountains. But these same frolicking, out-of-control
cancer cells are trying to kill us. In defense, we try to induce
suicide. Can you blame us?"
2) Exact descriptions of what cancer treatment means to your body, and how your body registers its complaints
3) Historic accounts of breasts (hacked off breasts photographed on dinnerware!), and of those, famous and not-so, who have given up the ghost to cancer
4) The quotidian smashed into the metaphysical, then pureed
5) A nice list of what Wisenberg's learned from cancer, towards the end of the memoir, and some even better end-notes
Reasons to Leave Cancer Bitch on the Shelf:
1) Wisenberg's dubious juxtapositions and cross-musings
involving The Jewish Experience, (even The Holocaust
Experience,) and The Breast Cancer Experience
2) Neurotic self-absorption portrayed as brave trendiness
3) Hair obsession. Merkins.
4) The hyper-importance of every detail. Death by cancer and a friend's dinner conversation seem to carry the same weight for Wisenberg (which is confusing if you prefer your information prioritized, or at least inflected).
5) Lack of resolution
The memoir doesn't really wrap up so much as trail off. To be fair, it's a collected version of her blog postings, so its informal, sometimes spacey tone is appropriate to some extent. But you finish the book a little at odds – does she ever get reconstructive surgery? What happens to the hair she's talked so much about? Does her cancer go into fairly stable remission?
A table of writers asked to workshop Cancer Bitch might raise that other favorite chestnut: "So what?" No one doubts Wisenberg's story – her veracity, her musings, her painfully detailed treatment notes that come across as sincere, breezily intent on convincing you that life continues right alongside cancer, and that sometimes people recover. Sometimes they don't. Things continue to be painfully wry the whole way through. But this book seems to remain more a record of a life saddled for a while with cancer exorcised by the removal of a breast than a deep probing of what it is to be human, with one's cells in absolute revolt, and one's relationships in doubt, and the mundanities of life turned somehow awful and somehow precious all at once.
This book loves its own tone. It's a good tone. It's a brave, questioning tone you'd appreciate in a good friend. The archness, the wryness, and the academic musings sometimes threaten to dampen the underlying narrative though, and muffle the depths that could be plumbed.
This is a sharp book. This book wants to be written by a super-hero. But for all that, it's a little Super-Hero-Bitch lite. You might want to reach for Solzhenitsyn's The Cancer Ward for something meaty (if fiction is acceptable, if not, try someone like Joan Didion). Then again, you might not. You may like the cleverness and piquancy, the blend of chutzpah and matter-of-factness that make this a pleasurable, not-too-toxic read that may, like a good dose of radiation, leave you positively affected, with a few side-effects to puzzle through.
First We Read, Then We Write:
Emerson on the Creative Process
By Robert D. Richardson
University of Iowa Press, February 2009
Hardcover: 112pp; $19.95
Review by John Madera
Ralph Waldo Emerson never wrote an essay on writing. The closest he ever came to it was “The Poet,” a work that inspired Uncle Walt to write Leaves of Grass. However, Emerson was far from silent on the issue. Careful excavation of his works reveals numerous thoughts on the writing craft. But rather than combing through everything Emerson wrote, you might start with First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process. Robert D. Richardson’s new book excavates these gems of wisdom for any writer aspiring to refine their own art. And it wouldn’t hurt to learn from Richardson’s own crisp, erudite, and unfussy prose, a style sure to have met Emerson’s approval.
In “The Poet,” Emerson asserted that writers must be driven by the democratic impulse and therefore must draw from the vox populi. For this reason, we learn from Richardson, Emerson’s “democratic leanings were always inclining him toward plain, or as we might say, accessible, language.” Poets (Emerson called them sayers, namers, representers of beauty) must attune their ears to the rhythms, sounds, and subjects of “common” speech. However, while “language of the street” may have been Emerson’s “quarry,” he was in fact, “from the beginning, aiming at something else.” That aim, we learn from First We Read, Then We Write, may have been to write his own inspired scripture, his own Bible. While Richardson’s slim volume does not in any comprehensive way treat this topic (this is not its project anyway), it does fill a gap in Emerson’s oeuvre by compiling the famed essayist’s reflections, asides, margin jottings on the art and craft of writing.
Further debunking the myth that a successful writer’s ideas come fully-formed and flow easily on the page like so much honey, Richardson reveals that, for Emerson, “writing was often a desperate struggle,” and he considered “every day [as] the Day of Creation as well as the Day of Judgment. At day’s end he never felt he had done his best, never felt he had achieved adequate expression.” This idea is certainly heartening for anyone who’s gone snowblind staring at an empty page. Richardson’s book artfully infuses anecdotal material of Emerson’s struggles. In it, we learn that sentences, not paragraphs, or essays, were Emerson’s primary vehicle for creative expression. And this may be the reason why many of his sentences are taken as epigrams and aphorisms. Take for instance these: “Avoid adjectives. Let the noun do the work”; “The first rule of writing is not to omit the thing you meant to say”; “Good writing and brilliant conversation are perpetual allegories”; “All writing should be selection in order to drop every dead word”; “All that can be thought can be written”; “The maker of the sentence . . . launches into the infinite and builds a road into Chaos and old Night.”
First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process is less a primer but more a meditation on the nuts and bolts of Emerson’s writing, writing that drew inspiration from voracious reading, writing that improved through writing and writing more, writing attentive equally to the common and spoken language, writing attuned to nature as a “vehicle of thought,” and writing, in Emerson’s words, “full of disjointed dreams, audacities, unsystematic irresponsible lampoons and all manner of rambling reveries.” Richardson’s book succeeds not only in demystifying the writing process of an essayist some may consider merely “one of those stuffy transcendentalists,” but also, through practical advice on how to improve one’s writing while keeping an eye on nature and an ear to the hoi polloi.
Bending the Notes
Poetry by Paul Hostovsky
Main Street Rag, December 2008
Paperback: 108pp; $14.00
Review by Jason Tandon
The term "accessible" has had its fair usage in poetry reviews, and I'll use it here to describe Paul Hostovsky's Bending the Notes, a selection for the Main Street Rag's Editor's Poetry Series. Hostovsky's poems require no specialized knowledge of literary tradition or poetics. Set against the working-class suburbs of Boston, a milieu of duplexes and bowling alleys, populated by aggressive drivers and girls named "Cece Santucci," these poems speak of parenting, childhood, love, and writing. Hostovsky's diction is colloquial and his tone, intimate. Often narrative, his lines unfold meditatively and lyrically to empathetic moments that illustrate commonplace, human struggles. One can see why poems from this collection with their abundance of emotional forthrightness were featured on Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac.
Hostovsky quests to find triumph in the quotidian. He invites readers into his poems with realistic scenes, and lets his associative train of thought take over, trusting that we will relish the details as much as he does. For example, "Mr. Putnam Clark Positions the Sprinkler" begins:
I love to watch my neighbor as he works
on his lawn as I work on my poems
on my porch, making these connections I imagine
do not occur to him, but wanting to show him
how his own balding head for example
reminds me of my lawn with its big bare patch
in the middle where nothing much grows
After comparing the sprinkler stream to "strings of a lyre," the poem concludes as a conceit for writing poetry:
my neighbor and I
making these tiny adjustments, covering as much
ground as needs to be covered, looking around and seeing
each other now, waving, acknowledging the other's
labor, me admiring his perfect lawn, and maybe
if I showed him, he would admire how the lizard
tongue of my poem has snatched him up
and swallowed him whole, and spit him out again
transmogrified, digested and converted into something
he may not recognize though it resembles him.
Though this poem conveys contentment and imaginative whimsy, there are others of separation and loss, such as "Best Asleep," a poem that illustrates a communicative gap between two lovers.
When he said he loved her best asleep he meant
the grammar of her face—all its tenses,
the never-ending story—how it trailed off into
an ellipses as she dozed...
The speaker's stuttered explanation sparks his lover's ire:
mean he preferred her silent, thoughtless, blank
as a blank page, so that he could write the story
of who she was, or ought to be? And didn't he think
that loving her best asleep was like wishing her dead?
Narrative poems can be a tricky proposition: language becomes too "prosey"; lines are mired in too many details for the sake of verisimilitude; verbs are diluted with adverbs. Too much tell, not enough show, and the reader's imagination is kept at bay. For the most part, though, Hostovsky's poems succeed, and those that feature fresh associations and surprising or ambiguous endings invite re-readings. A poem that accomplishes this invitation is "Still":
When there's nothing else to say there is still
this to say, still there is this like a
birdbath in someone's yard in your
childhood, not your birdbath or your yard
and no birds now, or rainwater yet, just this
palm, this listening for the rain, this memory
of waiting place made of stone [. . .]
When there's nothing to say there is still
this asking, this open upturned face, this mouth
waiting to collect the first few drops,
this hopeful, trembling tongue
Despite depictions of divorce, single parenting, and lost love, Hostovsky's collection ultimately resounds with notes of endurance and resolve. Though the lyric "I" is present in poem after poem, it is not self-absorbed. His work is generous in the sense that he articulates the intimate, the sentimental, the vulnerable, all tempered by a self-deprecating humor, not as a form of self-expression, rather as a form of communion.
The Suburban Swindle
Short Stories by Jackie Corley
So New Publishing, October 2008
Paperback: 100pp; $10.00
Review by Josh Maday
Jackie Corley’s debut story collection, The Suburban Swindle, features a blurb that says, “Stories like poetry made from the gritty stuff of hard scrabble life.” It’s not often that a book blurb is all that honest or accurate. Hyperbolized and syrupy? Yes, almost always. But capturing the essence of the book in a line or two is indeed rare, and refreshing. This blurb definitely captures the essence. Corley’s characters do live hard, gritty lives. They live in a perpetual moment where things are always about to ignite, or burn out, or both – relationships are going to end, friends and lovers are going to leave – giving each story the sense that it takes place on the edge of a cliff.
If I had to choose a representative sentence that distills this collection into one taut line, it would be from the opening story, “Blood in Jersey”: “What this is is Jersey. This is fear so thick and buried under, you pretend you’re not on fire.” The Suburban Swindle is full of fire: passion, desire, tribulation. These characters’ hard lives are just the everyday for them (not to say easy, by any stretch), and this fire, while maybe not necessarily purifying, is certainly doing the simultaneous work of softening and tempering.
Trachtenberg stares at her shadowed profile with his eyes bulging. On his skinny, acne-riddled face, the wide expression looks fierce, almost violent and repulsive. It’s a trick, a cheap lie. Whatever fast, thin-man’s fury his face seems to betray is a mask for all the clean, quiet kindness he carries with him.
In the titular story, “The Suburban Swindle,” the main character is home visiting from college and hanging out with her younger brother, who is teetering on the edge of young manhood. She is afraid of “losing him” to “all that quiet violence and sadness building up to something solid and bitter inside of him.” But, of course, no matter how much she explains, she is powerless to make him understand things he must learn on his own. He has to go through the fire, learn for himself, and, hopefully, survive.
Corley has a superlative ear for the music of language. Her lines and rhythms are rich, lyrical, and energetic, carrying the reader along and juxtaposing interestingly with the tension in the stories themselves, reflecting the tension within the characters, between the hard façade and the longing lonely vulnerability behind it. For example, this paragraph from “The Suburban Swindle”:
. . . what I can do for me, I can run roughshod through my past and connect the dots with all the broken boys I’ve seen crawl. The bored, drippy-eyed potheads in basements, anesthetizing their gods’ minds. The drunk fighters, cut through and burning, licking livewire wounds and then pretending they’re numb. The walking egos, all assholes for mouths, holding cigarettes for Goth chicks and whores, for users who’ll fuck them. Or minor men like the uncle who walk through life straight, and kill themselves when they turn invisible.
Jackie Corley’s The Suburban Swindle is an impressive debut that calls to mind Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, a collection of gritty, hard-life stories that are also poetry in the form of fiction. Jackie Corley’s writing captures and conveys the impassable conflict of being human at every level.
Morning in a Different Place
YA novel by Mary Ann McGuigan
Front Street Press, February 2009
Hardcover: 200pp; $17.95
Review by Jessica Powers
The year is 1963. Yolanda and Fiona have already been friends for two weeks, and Yolanda is in the hospital because some thugs came looking for Fiona’s brother’s stash of drugs. The two aren’t supposed to be friends. Yolanda is black, Fiona is white. But here they are, and Fiona is helping Yolanda escape from the hospital before they release her. Yolanda wants to run away before her mother arrives, her mother who is traveling up from South Carolina, where she lives now, and who is planning to take Yolanda back to South Carolina to live with her. So the two girls sneak out of the hospital, where a distressed woman asks them to watch her dog so she can take her son to see her dying mother. And this is how their adventure begins.
Fiona soon learns that her friendship with Yolanda is going to cause heartache, both at school and at home. At home, she struggles with her family’s desire that she make friends with other white girls. At school, Fiona encounters all the usual cattiness, jealousy, and uncertainty that characterize relationships among young teen girls – but this time, including more than a tinge of racism. As the circle of popular girls widens to include Fiona, she struggles to maintain a friendship with both Yolanda and the other girls. As Fiona learns what friendship is, she also learns who she is.
In this lovely and thought-provoking novel, Mary Ann McGuigan captures the essence of female friendship across racial barriers during the turbulent teen years. For middle school or junior high history teachers, this book will launch discussions about the civil rights movement, JFK’s assassination, and America in the 1960s. A great read and a great addition to school libraries.
At or Near the Surface
Short stories by Jenny Pritchett
Fourteen Hills Press, November 2008
Paperback: 156pp; $12.00
Review by Josh Maday
Jenny Pritchett’s characters in At or Near the Surface live lives that, on the surface, would seem comfortable, secure, normal – lives that are generally good enough. But Pritchett opens the heads and hearts of these women to find that, in one way or another, they feel unfulfilled and dissatisfied with their lives. They long, they hurt, they are hungry. Whether they find themselves cycling through an unbreakable daily routine, at the crumbling edge of an unhappy marriage, unable to appease the stalking guilt from their past, or dealing with the surreal grief of a miscarriage, each of Pritchett’s characters must decide what they will or will not do with the rest of their lives.
It doesn’t take long to understand why At or Near the Surface was chosen by Tin House managing editor Holly MacArthur as the winner of the 2008 Michael Rubin Chapbook Award. Pritchett’s abilities are many: moving fluidly from the pathos of the everyday to the surrealism of crushing loss, and managing to treat subject matter like miscarriage, infidelity, and coming-of-age in fresh and compelling ways. Pritchett does an excellent job of getting inside the heads of both her female and male characters, avoiding easy, sentimental stereotypes.
I enjoyed reading “Born and Raised” again, which first appeared in Salt Hill (see my NewPages review), a well-crafted story about a woman’s sea-deep grief after a miscarriage, which could have been a disastrous self-parody in less capable hands. Also well-handled was “Adultery,” which explores a young couple’s struggle with past and current infidelities. In “Thieves,” nine-year-old Lucy recounts her recent dysfunctional years with her klepto mother, Pam, who becomes increasingly incapable of taking care of Lucy. In the end, Lucy and Pam both know where things are headed:
Mom and I are in the big grocery store in our neighborhood. She’s putting a jar of peanut butter down her dress. “Mom,” I say, “it looks like you have a jar of peanut butter down your dress.”
[. . .] Five minutes later I run into Mom by the fruit juice. She’s dropped something else down her dress. [. . .] “What do you think?” she asks. She laughs, and the jars clink together. [. . .] This is the least amount we’ve stolen. We don’t need peanut butter; we don’t eat peanut butter. The jars show through Mom’s dress. I know what’s going to happen.
In “Heat,” a series of four vignettes, Pritchett renders the vaporizing pain and sadness of four people in an apartment building in a way that manages to evoke a somber beauty at the same time.
Among my favorites are the series of “Honey” stories, pieces about a woman named Honey and her husband, Mike. The stories are often surreal, but well-grounded and juxtaposing nicely with the rest of the stories in the collection. “At or Near the Surface,” which opens the book, features a Honey who sees the world in its elemental states, its physics and its cycles, and Honey herself is part of this eternal return in a Groundhog Day sort of way, where she has learned to live, Zen-like, in each moment, and finishes in a serene release, leaping from the top of a tree, certain that “she will do it again tomorrow.”
In “The Other Honey,” another Honey shows up and begins living in Honey and Mike’s house. The other Honey takes all of the food out of the fridge and leaves it to spoil. The other Honey wears Honey’s clothes. The other Honey moves all of the furniture around, piles it up along the walls, and does headstands in the space she has created. The other Honey is cute and strange and funny, until she really cramps their style and Honey sees that she is being replaced by the other Honey. The other Honey has to get out. Then, in “More,” Honey gets an insatiable hunger, as in Mike cooks day and night for weeks and Honey eats as quickly as Mike can cook it, until neither Mike nor the house can handle any more.
Jenny Pritchett is one of those writers whose voice is so distinct and so her own that any material in her hands gets spun into gold. Even though I’ll never forget its contents, At or Near the Surface is one of those few short story collections that will always be within reach for quick and easy reference/rereading. Pritchett’s debut will appeal to a wide range of readers, from those who prefer grounded realism as well as those who are stimulated by forays into the surreal side of everyday experience. I am eagerly awaiting future books from this talented and imaginative writer.
Fiction by Shane Jones
Publishing Genius, February 2009
Paperback: 168pp; $14.95
Review by Brian Allen Carr
Half way through Light Boxes Shane Jones drops his fiction mask. He pulls us back into reality. He gives us a list:
List of Artists Who Created Fantasy Worlds to Try and Cure Bouts of Sadness
1. Italo Calvino
2. Garcia Marquez
3. Jim Henson and Jorge Borges – Labyrinth(s)
4. The creator of Myspace
5. Richard Brautigan
6. J.K. Rowling
7. The inventor of the children’s toy Lite-Brite
8. Walt Disney 9. David Foster Wallace
10. Gauguin and the Caribbean
11. Charles Schulz
12. Liam Rector
It’s an odd pastiche of talents, but the list fits Jones’ unique style.
Aesthetically, Light Boxes most closely resembles a post-modern bed time story. It takes place in a stark world beset by February. Winter is permanent. Flight has been outlawed. Children are being abducted and buried beneath the snow: “How much can we put up with. How many days will this dreadful season extend itself. Our town is a place of no flight and all snow because of February.”
Then an uprising. Protagonist Thaddeus Lowe leads a revolt. His aim is to undermine February’s tyranny. He organizes his followers, having them build fires to burn away winter’s layers. He has them dress as though the season were summer to spite the dastardly February. February retaliates by abducting more children. The townsfolk take to hot air balloons to shine light boxes from the sky to eradicate the gray of the season. February laments the attacks.
February had suffered through their fake smiling faces, water-trough-attacks, sticks thrown at the sky, prayers and War Hymns. He had seen them covered with moss and endless gray. He had seen them saddened with over nine hundred days of February and he had been blamed for it.
You may be asking: Is February a month or a person? In Light Boxes the answer is both.
The arc of this story is a fantastic one, and Jones uses several stylistic implements for its delivery. By doing so, he is able to pack a large journey into a loose 168 page book.
The chapters are brief. The longest section is a spare six pages, and the text contains several lists. The point of view is continually shifted – think As I Lay Dying. Fonts are played with. Reality and fantasy are woven together. But all of this is done with both subtlety and lucidity so the reader drifts through the tidy pages, grinning as the tale unfolds. The novel can and should be read in a single sitting. And after reading the first couple of paragraphs you’ll know you won’t want a break from it:
We sat on the hill. We watched the flames inside balloons heat the fabric to neon colors. The Children played Prediction.
They pointed to empty holes in the sky and waited. Sometimes all the balloons lit up at once and produced the nightly umbrella effect over the town beneath whose buildings were filling with the sadness of February.
The premise here is strange, but simple. Jones does not attempt to blister the story with literary haymakers. He keeps his language clean and fresh. But he is able to pair techniques to render beautiful images: “Tree branches bowed with snow, their tips tied to the ground with invisible ropes.” Marvelous.
Equally impressive is the design of the book. This is Publishing Genius’ first novel, and they’ve done a spectacular treatment. The cover shows a snow-blanketed prairie dotted with anemic bear-limbed trees. The pages are stark and clean, with plenty of white space for the prose to sprawl across. I wouldn’t normally note the physical aspects of a written work, preferring instead to speak to the craft of the writer, but here the physical text and textual message work together to create a unique reading experience. It’s like holding a patch of February in your hands and dragging winter across your eyes.
That being said, fans of the hyper-realistic will not like Jones. Fans of straight fantasy may grit their teeth when they near the novel’s conclusion.
Jones belongs to a group of writers that dangle between the spectrums. As Jesse Ball put it in a recent Failbetter interview, he belongs “to a much older tradition – a tradition of evoking the world as it is in ambiguity and possibility.” Those who seek strangeness with their truths, however, will welcome this odd and beautiful season.
YA novel by Joyce Moyer Hostetter
Calkins Creek Books, April 2009
Hardcover: 306pp; $17.95
Review by Jessica Powers
In this sequel to Blue, Joyce Moyer Hostetter’s award-winning tale of a young white girl’s battle with polio and her friendship with a black girl in the hospital where she recuperates, we follow Ann Fay’s struggle to accept her polio-induced disability and the knowledge that she’s different from everybody else. At the same time, her father is suffering post-war psychological trauma. He’s not the same father or husband, and Ann Fay isn’t sure how to cope with his personality change, particularly the threat of violence.
In Comfort, Hostetter offers the story of a polio survivor who, like all of us, wants others to treat her as a human being rather than as a person to be pitied. The novel is gripping in its stark portrayal of how the horrors of disease and war leave men and women crippled in body and soul, yet it also offers hope for healing. This is a novel teens will enjoy for the story – it’s a great read – but can also be used in classrooms to explore the history of polio and, to a lesser extent, the history of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who suffered from polio; the problems that disabled individuals face navigating through a world made for the able-bodied; and the damage that war inflicts on soldiers. Definitely recommended.
Fiction by Daniel Allen Cox
Arsenal Pulp Press, April 2009
Paperback: 176pp; $14.95
Review by Brian Allen Carr
Daniel Allen Cox is brilliant with a picaresque vignette. He bobs and weaves through Shuck, throwing glimpses at the porn industry, New York City, gay sex and literary magazine submissions with steady grace, floating through the voice of Jaeven Marshall, aka the new Boy New York:
Why New York City is not America:
Because not everyone has a gun or thinks they need one, because the industrial smog that wafts over from New Jersey creates a sunset I want to lick off the sky, because people live in the subway, because some of the homeless live better than housed people in other cities.
Let’s be clear. This book is a raunchy romp. Jaeven Marshall wants to be a writer, but turns tricks to make money. His artist-landlord’s version of rent collection is painting pictures of Jaeven’s wounds when he comes home bloodied by a john. Jaeven’s favorite past time is scoping magazines like Inches and Honcho: The magazine for bears, bear-cubs and the men who love them. His drug of choice is methamphetamines.
What emerges here is an easily recognizable conflict. Jaeven Marshall is consumed by his addictions and his aspirations, and these collective consumptions threaten to undermine the emotional attachment that he may be developing for his artist-landlord Derek. There’s even an emotional baggage packed “you’ll-never-change and I-never-loved-you” scene near the climax.
But while much of this story is old hat – an aspiring writer struggles in the mean streets of New York City – there is a fresher narrative working alongside. The descriptions of New York City, its underbelly dwellers and the oldest of professions are nuanced and engaging. Cox is miraculous at exposition and narrative. Unfortunately, however, the dialogue in Shuck is a bit on the clumsy side as seen here in an exchange between Jaeven and Derek:
“Hi, Booger,” he said. “There’s some eggplant parmigiana in the oven. Pepper’s in the grinder.”
“Booger? Am I another one of your pets?”
“Don’t get testy. It’s just what…what people do.”
It’s not atrocious, but it is a little flat. And aside such rich narration, drenched in semen and covered with nudy magazine pictures, the dialogue has a tendency to get lodged in the throat.
Another downside to Shuck is the lengthy look at Jaeven’s writing attempts.
The kid wasn’t adapting well to reform school. He was an outcast from the moment he got there, but it was all for the better. If he was going to survive a place like that, he needed the resourcefulness of a lone wolf.
In morals class, they taught him about the importance of family. He sat through slideshows of mother father, daughter, son, image after image of the same perfect unit but with different actors every time . . .
And that draws on for several pages. I assume that Cox is drawing this technique from Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, wherein Vonnegut describes the plot line of several of Killgore Trout’s novels. Vonnegut is referenced several times in Shuck, and at one point in the story Jaevin even tries to meet the writer at a reading, only to be thrown out of the bookstore. But where Vonnegut was whimsical with his delivery, Cox comes across as a bit anxious. He does, however, offer a brilliant summation of the endeavor of getting fiction published: “I’m doing my best to stay positive, but I have to tell you that trying to get published (a word I’ve grown to hate) feels like buying raffle tickets for a prize that’s already been given out by a church that’s already burned down.”
At his best, Cox is a brilliant story teller. He’s able to reduce human emotion into hot shots of truth that singe the guts and set heads to shaking. Dirty and glorious, Shuck is definitely a fun read. A book that’s as confident as its simple-stated narrator.
Me As Her Again
Memoir by Nancy Agabian
Aunt Lute Books, October 2008
Paperback: 243pp; $12.95
Review by Ryan Call
Toward the end of her memoir, the richly titled Me As Her Again, Nancy Agabian writes:
We’re all so concerned that someone will take advantage of us, or overlook us, that we overcompensate with self-aggrandizement. Turks to Europeans, Armenians to Turks, me to my parents or anyone I’m in a relationship with: we all want to avoid being swallowed up, we fear not having an identity of our own, we are terrified we may no longer exist.
The above passage underscores the central concern of the memoir, perhaps a concern with which Agabian had to struggle during the eight years she spent writing the book. Agabian’s further remarks in the afterword suggest that the very act of writing this memoir was a continuation of her struggle for an identity, a struggle which began during her childhood as an American-born Armenian whose grandmother barely escaped Turkey’s genocidal regime of the early twentieth century. In addition to bearing the intensity of her ethnic history, Agabian confusedly comes into sexual maturity during the ‘70s, often unhappily finding herself torn between her bi-curious desires and the mandates of her mother and Armenian propriety.
Out of this morass of confliction emerges the life of Agabian’s grandmother; it is on her grandmother’s story of survival that Agabian focuses the latter half of the book, as if the existential troubles that her grandmother faced and how she lived through catastrophe could help Agabian find a solid foundation on which to build her own life. The result is a moving story of self-realization and discovery, a process bound up in the liberating act of relating one’s history and the history of one’s family.