Posted February 4, 2013
Walking the Clouds :: May We Shed These Human Bodies :: Madness, Rack, and Honey :: Upper Level Disturbances :: The Lemon Grove :: The Book of Mischief :: The Arcadia Project :: Lividity :: Seven Houses in France :: The Masked Demon :: The People of Forever are Not Afraid :: Redstart :: The Rose Hotel
An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction
Anthology edited by Grace L. Dillon
University of Arizona Press, March 2012
Paperback: 272pp; $24.95
Review by Lydia Pyne
Science fiction is nothing if not an enigmatic and eclectic genre. It’s a category of literature that would seem to take a number of subgenres—from imagined alternate histories, fantasy, magical realism, cyber punk, and everything in between—and deliver it as a multiplicity of reading experiences for its fans. As Ray Bradbury argued, “Science fiction is the most important literature in the history of the world, because it’s the history of ideas, the history of our civilization birthing itself. . . . Science fiction is central to everything we’ve ever done.”
In Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction, Editor Grace Dillon organizes the short stories and excerpts from novels around specifically enigmatic, and what she terms indigenous, themes—namely, the concept of native slipstream; contact; indigenous science and sustainability; native apocalypse; and biskaabiiyang (“returning to ourselves”). Each of these thematic categories has parallel motifs in more traditionally recognized science fiction (post-apocalyptic, dystopian societies, points of contact, etc.) but these short stories claim a unique narrative voice. “Science fiction deals with improbable possibilities, fantasy with plausible impossibilities,” as science fiction writer and author Miriam Allen de Ford noted. In this anthology of indigenous science fiction, the “improbable possibilities” and “plausible impossibilities” come from what Dillon highlights as equally valid ways to “renew, recover, and extend First Nations peoples’ voices and traditions.”
It’s hard to highlight certain stories from any collection, but two stand out in Walking the Clouds—the excerpt from Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson and “Distances” by Sherman Alexie. In Midnight Robber, the reader is introduced to an incredibly fluid narrative voice where the line between reality, fantasy, magic, and fiction is fantastically blurred and the characters’ experiences are complexly simple as seen through the eyes of the child Tan-Tan. The sing-song diction of the characters draws the reader into a post-apocalyptic world full of gentle harshness where the magical happenings show that nothing is ever what it seems.
“Distances” shows a post-industrial world (of “Us” and “Them,” a seemingly common theme within more traditional science fiction), but the use of technology as metaphor is particularly compelling. It would appear that Alexie is deconstructing a Western concept of time by showing all of the ways that technology fails at consistently measuring it:
At the Tribal Council meeting last night, Judas WildShoe gave a watch he found to the tribal chairman.
“A white man artifact, a sin,” the chairman said, put the watch in his pouch.
I remember watches. They measured time in seconds, minutes, hours. The measured time exactly, coldly. I measure time with my breath, the sound of my hands across my own skin.
Dillon’s careful categorization and overall organization of these themes are certainly useful tools for establishing a background and the working context for the contributed authors’ work. However, the rigidity of the anthology’s structure quickly feels as though the structure begins to undercut the literary work itself.
The introduction to the anthology reads as an odd means of negotiating space on a number of levels—rather than mediating ideas, it seems to be negotiating a justification of an intellectual space between an academic audience and popular, literary writing. Rather than celebrate the diversity of the overall genre of science fiction, the introduction reads as an almost bitter recrimination for the short-sightedness of the genre in not inherently including indigenous science fiction. The case for its legitimacy is pitched so hard and so repetitively (from the anthology’s introduction to the introduction of each short story or excerpt) that the editorializing begins to undermine the power of the literature itself. Science fiction is a broad, diverse, enigmatic category—indeed, the compiled literature more than speaks for itself, and speaks for itself well. Its legitimacy, or even its validity, within the genre seems to only come into question as the introduction insists that it has a place. For science fiction aficionados, enthusiasts of magical realism, and readers interested in the play of space and time in fiction, skip the introductions and to dive right into the works themselves—and enjoy the stories Walking the Clouds has to offer.
Overall, Walking the Clouds is a fantastically diverse collection of authors exploring ideas through characters, plots, and symbols in ways that challenge and enlighten the reader and remind us that the experience of science fiction is fluid and adaptable. Charles de Lint perhaps best summarized the anthology with: “Don’t read this because they’re stories by Native American writers. Read them because they’re damn good stories by damn good writers.”
Fiction by Amber Sparks
Curbside Splendor, October 2012
Paperback: 156pp; $12.00
Review by Jodi Paloni
Amber Sparks has sloughed off all constraints on imagination to blend story with science, fabulism with deep truths, narrative prose with language play—lists, boxing-match transcripts, poetics—but who can think about form when reading these shorts? Instead, think: Andrea Barrett meets Karen Russell meets Kurt Vonnegut to sustain bullying in the chemistry lab, preach scantily-dressed on the streets, trip up to heaven, or sink inside the rotting tissue of a body. In Sparks’s fictional world, Death is just a regular guy who “looked kind of like a J. Crew model,” a disenchanted dictator longs for the life of an American cowboy and practices on his people, a bathtub splurges up a new configuration of family, and wives turn into animals leaving “the husbands to worry, most of all, that their wives will finally fly or crawl or swim away, untethered from the promises that only humans make or keep.” This is the kind of thing you’re in for with Sparks in charge of the page.
These shorts are flashes of brilliance, too many—thirty—to give each the words they deserve. But suffice to say, reading this debut story collection is like eating a bag of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Jelly Beans. You can’t stop. And you never know if you’re going to get something sweet or acrid or maybe some flavor you’d rather not even think about, but you must. You must absolutely think about the remnants of a jagged suffering race marching on a benevolent wheezing planet, one foot in the land of fairy tale.
You learn from these stories: how a bullet travels; the physics of winning an argument; how a folktale grows old; how feral children are brought indoors, “taught to speak and shave and compose a sonnet and lead people or a nation or an expedition.” You learn how to throw “a blanket over your lonely life at last,” and how to “shed these human bodies for the punitive grace of greening branches and deep, steady roots once more.”
But the thing that left the most lasting impression on me at the end of this read—which followed me around the house for days and weeks after, “there are no clocks in the land of the dead”—is how life and death cohabitate. Crystal clear truths are embedded in off-the-charts creativity, the skillful dance of turning language into a strange new world that’s not only believable, but grabs your comfortable paradigm by its ear and leads it to the detention room. When I read about characters who fashioned the people they wished for out of nails and boards and twigs and leaves, I wondered, maybe that is what Sparks hopes to do, to teach us to create the kind of world we can imagine. Regardless, in May We Shed These Human Bodies, Sparks will grab your heart tissue and your grey matter, and make you look at the cloying and beautiful truths that underlie humanity in these far-fetched fictions.
Nonfiction by Mary Ruefle
Wave Books, August 2012
Paperback: 332pp; $25.00
Review by Cheryl Wright-Watkins
In 1994, Vermont College of Fine Arts hired Mary Ruefle to teach poetry to graduate students in their low-residency writing program. A reluctant public speaker, she was terrified to learn that the job would require her to give biannual standing lectures, and she responded by writing out her lectures, which she then read aloud to students. It turns out that Ruefle’s discomfort with public speaking is a gift to readers, for this book is the collection of those written lectures. However, to relegate the book to that narrow definition would be a mistake. Ruefle’s lectures are thoughtful, thought-provoking essays about art, literature, the moon, life, love, language, and philosophy viewed from the perspective of a wise poet who prefers asking questions to making proclamations.
Ruefle’s writing is direct, clear, and contemporary, accentuated with frequent exclamation marks and italics. This modern, unconventional style creates a casual, conversational tone and highlights her sense of humor.
Her writing also reveals how her thoughts move from idea and image to contrast and comparison. For example, in the title essay she considers a magazine ad that features Albert Einstein’s great-grandson. The caption that accompanies the photograph claims that the younger Einstein enjoys reading “literature, philosophy, and fine poetry,” a distinction that upsets Ruefle. She writes, “So why am I so upset by this little phrase fine poetry? And why do I want so badly to insert the words madness, rack, and honey in its place?” She defines and describes each element of this phrase, which came to her in a dream, in a chapter that includes snippets of poems, quotes by writers, and stories from history and various religious traditions. A story about a Japanese soldier seriously wounded in the bombing of Hiroshima illustrates how these elements work together. While wandering streets littered with thousands of dead and injured victims, this soldier remembers a poem he learned in middle school thirty years earlier, and there amid the ruin, for the first time, he understands the poem’s meaning. Ruefle writes, “There’s the madness of honey—a poem by Li Po! after thirty years!—and there’s the madness of the rack that was Hiroshima. That they are capable of exchanging energy is what I mean by madness.”
Although these lectures are aimed at poetry students, Ruefle discusses an expansive range of topics. For example, the lecture “Poetry and the Moon” includes several moon metaphors found in poetry, cultural traditions based on the moon, and also quotations by several astronauts who have walked on the moon. Ruefle defines the moon as “the first study in contrasts” and quotes Paul Auster’s novel Moon Palace: “You there—me here.” The astronauts explain that, “it was not being on the moon that profoundly affected them as much as it was looking at the earth from the vantage point of the moon. The earth became the Other. You there—me here.”
Ruefle explores this notion of isolation and the human need for connection throughout the book. She writes, “There is a world that poets cannot seem to enter. It is the world everybody else lives in. And the only thing poets seem to have in common is their yearning to enter this world.” The reader understands Ruefle’s conviction that poetry and writing can bridge this gap when she writes, “We are all one question, and the best answer seems to be love—a connection between things.” By this definition, Ruefle’s book is a portrait of love, in which she finds thoughtful, sometimes touching, and sometimes silly connections between incongruous images, ideas, and themes. I would change only one thing about this book—its description as a collection of poetry lectures, for it expands far beyond that narrow definition. Anyone who enjoys reading poetry, language, philosophy, humor, reading, the writing life, or the creative process will treasure this book, which has earned a permanent place on my night table.
Poetry by Kevin Goodan
Center for Literary Publishing, June 2012
Paperback: 50pp; $16.95
Review by Theresé Samson Wenham
Kevin Goodan’s new collection of poetry, Upper Level Disturbances, takes us deep into the forests and fields of an unpopulated landscape. The solitary wanderer who narrates this collection depicts an outdoor world of animals and weather, rivers and fires, ghosts and slaughter. Rarely are we sheltered from the elements or in the presence of other humans, which creates a lonely shadow of observation. Throughout, the ghost of the speaker’s father haunts the perceptions of his weather-ruled world.
It is unfortunate that Goodan’s book begins with the most abstract poems and unnecessarily confusing titles, as in “What Indices Have Blurred Me,” so that instead of helping to ease us into the wilderness in his poetry, we are confused by the opaque naming of where we are. These poems only begin to make sense after reading the rest of the collection. The titles and poems move towards clarity of description and infusion of meaning as the book moves forward. Fire gives way to harvest, which leads to slaughter and finally to memory.
One of the more surprising elements of the collection is the five poems that give grisly details of a slaughterhouse. These poems offer a stark contrast to the themes of nature and memory, especially as we encounter the first, “Untitled,” nearly halfway through the book. But upon reading the fourth and fifth, also “Untitled,” the consistency and repetition of the images create a familiarity which leaves behind the initial sickening feeling. The violence of butchering correlates finally to the death that happens in fields and forests, in the survival of other species, although the connection is formed through the relationship of the poems surrounding the slaughter poems. From the last “Untitled”:
In the dream I come back to slaughter—
Gelid blood upon me, bone flecks, ingots of tallow
Stacked in the cold-room, sawdust fresh and bloodless
And fragrant in the chill beneath the halves of beasts—
The book does not offer us an abundance of great lines, but there are little gems throughout. Certainly, Goodan expands the normal identifying names of natural things. From “Album”: “We will crack our bones for the marrow if we let it / And we must let it. As a snag stands, smolders still. / As a questing of starlings sprail before me.”
It is fair to say Goodan is a nature poet of a certain type. He’s unsentimental in his descriptions, but not quite as fiercely intense as someone like Robinson Jeffers—neither does he infuse nature with emotion, as Mary Oliver does. There is a detached, observational tone which makes the fields and forests seem less ominous and more a part of his home, even as they are burning. Finally, at the end of the book, we are given some answers to help explain the speaker’s sense of searching by allowing in flashes of memory:
Where mist borne out of stubble
Will turn to frost soon,
Which is the beauty of not going on,
Of not my home. Hear gunshots
And realize the hazards contained
In the ideas of hope, am learning
How far sound can carry
In this geography, this departure.
—“Trying to Remember”
The gentle, consistent descriptions of the natural world are what drive this collection forward. The conclusions and abstractions are sparse, which lends them weight. However, this is not a heavy book, despite the aloneness, the ghosts, and the carcasses. It is reminiscent of how the senses come alive when in an environment devoid of people and how the sense of tragedy in the destruction of things becomes merely a human perspective.
Fiction by Ali Hosseini
Curbstone Books/Northwestern University Press, August 2012
Paperback: 189pp; $18.95
Review by Olive Mullet
Ali Hosseini’s The Lemon Grove, the author’s first novel written in English, is a moving story set in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. The characters are well-defined, the landscape vivid and the culture personal—we care about what happens to the characters, and we learn more than most Americans know about the country.
The main characters, Ruzbeh and Behruz, are twin brothers. The book’s opening takes place at a summer home with a lemon orchard, Naranjestan, where the boys grew up. However, only Behruz is there now, extremely sick and being tended by the kindly sheepherder Musa. Behruz has come back from America, where went to avoid competition with Ruzbeh over their mutual love for Shireen. By leaving Iraq, Behruz had allowed his brother to marry Shireen. But Ruzbeh, injured in the war, has not been seen since he started wandering without his medications. Behruz does find Shireen but then lets her slip away into the hands of the police, whom everyone fears. The tension then comes from the almost impossible goal of bringing these people together again and getting them well.
The original enchantment of the summer home is contrasted by what the drought has made it now. In a memory that reoccurs significantly at the end, Behruz’s thoughts talk to his brother:
The stars seemed so close we would try to touch them. I couldn’t but you said you did. You said if I stood on my toes and stretched up my arms, I could touch a star. I tried many nights but could never reach them, could never touch anything in the darkness above me. You said, ‘Think of your favorite girl and try to catch her star.’ You would stand up and raise your hand, twirling it in the dark and then bringing down your closed fist, saying, ‘See, I caught one.’ When you opened your hand I almost thought I could see a shining spot in your palm.
The wind is blowing continually. It blows with determination, as if trying to summon up the wandering ghosts of this ancient land and scatter them to the far corners of the earth. It sweeps over the orchard and the fields, picking up dust and dead leaves and rolling them into whirlwinds. . . . As soon as one reaches the edge of the desert, another picks up. One after another they circle over the fields . . . the bare, half-dead trees of the orchard are in a fearful battle with the wind. They bow and bend and every so often a branch breaks away, light and empty, giving way to the flow.
While in America, Behruz had an Native American lover who “talked about the way white America romanticizes the Native Americans to give itself a past . . . and the environmental movements draw spiritual guidance from Native Americans—the love of nature and the idea of living in harmony with the natural world.” This love of the land has deeper roots in Iran where the twins’ property in the beginning becomes a point of contention. But we readers also become familiar with the Naranjestan land, especially its heat and desperate need for water; and the effects of war with the soldiers guarding the city of Shiraz, the blackened windows of the curfew during the endless war, the habits of the kind Gypsies who take care of Behruz as they had his brother in his wanderings. Even details of the Afghan culture become crucial in the story in the plans of escape and reunification.
These people are kind and struggling, hiding from a ruthless regime—yet, like the orchard’s few remaining lemons, they are amazingly alive. The setting is austere yet haunting, and this beautifully written book is a page-turner right up to its hopeful ending.
Fiction by Steve Stern
Graywolf Press, September 2012
Hardcover: 352pp; $26.00
Review by Wendy Breuer
In Steve Stern’s story collection The Book of Mischief, rabbis and lonely adolescents will themselves into flight. From such heights the stories track the Jewish trajectory from nineteenth century shtetl to post-assimilation present; from Galicia, the Lower East Side, the North Memphis Pinch to the Borscht Belt. We might expect to find familiar characters out of Singer, Shalom Aleichem, Woody Allen, and Phillip Roth. But Stern’s perspective is wholly his own. Taking off into surrealism and fairy tale, he observes the mortals below in the places they’ve come to ground and misses not a crumb of realist detail.
Stern uses surrealism to foreshadow and look back at a history that his characters, unknowingly, both run from and run towards. The border is thin between the power of dreams and superstitions, where demons and spirits hide, and the requirements of the everyday, where practicality is required to fit in and survive. The strongest stories are set in the southern Pinch district, where defamiliarization seems most accentuated.
In “The Tale of a Kite,” an exasperated father despairs at the influence on neighborhood youth of a flying Hasid rabbi. The fragile accommodation of his generation, immigrant tailors and butchers, by the local political machine feels threatened along with the fathers’ hopes that their sons will move up and become “indispensable”—and therefore, safe.
. . . All the blind superstition of our ancestors . . . how it managed to follow us over an ocean to such a far-flung outpost as Tennessee? Let the goyim see a room like [the rabbi’s] with a ram’s horn . . . with the schnorrers wrapped in their paraphernalia mumbling hocus-pocus instead of being gainfully employed and right away the rumors start. The yids are poisoning the water, pishing on communion wafers, murdering Christian children for their blood. . . . A room like this, give or take one flying rebbe, can upset the delicate balance of the entire American enterprise.
In “Moishe the Just,” a group of pre-adolescent cheder boys, goaded by their resident romantic fantasist, Nathan, try to determine whether Moishe, the junkman, is a lamed vovnik, one of thirty-six holy men secreted in the world by God. Their test backfires into farce and tragedy. The old junkman’s reaction: “‘Bed, bed boychiks. Somebody better potch dere tushies.’ When he saw that no one but himself was laughing . . . his amused expression sagged like a sack whose bottom drops out in the rain.” The boys realize that somewhere the other thirty-five holy souls have lost their innocence, too:
That was something that Nathan had neglected to tell us . . . when you exposed one just man, you as good as exposed the lot. We understood this better after the storm finally broke in Europe. At the same time the swollen river overflowed the Pinch. North Main Street was under water, and the high ground was awash with homeless families and bedraggled animals. For those of us who were able to read the signs, we knew that it was the beginning of the end of the world.
This is a history infused with a Borgesian infinity.
The characters speak as if the language has been passed through a translation program with someone’s Dybbuk Zadie inside. The tree-climbing nebbish, Zelik Rifkin enters the dreams of the neighborhood while everyone sleeps outside in the park on hot summer nights. His rumpled Hebrew teacher comments: “Once the Tree of Life I have climbed . . . I, Aharon Notowitz that knew personally what are calling the wise men a holy influx. This by the heart and yea even in the pants I am knowing, when I would wear the garment of light that it was custom-tailored . . . ”
Characters fly against restrictive tradition and hit inexplicable transformations that resonate beyond just Jewish-American experience. A second-generation businessman is driven back to the old Pinch neighborhood to write a book of divine inspiration despite lack of belief and resistance. The story becomes a meditation on the origin of creative inspiration. In an ironic take on romance, a couple in an arranged marriage meet out of the context of their nuptial constraints, fall in love with their fantasy doubles, and never wise up. A man loses his soul when he takes a dare and ends up following the Pinch into drug-infused ghetto violence and decline. At a Concord Hotel wedding, a Borscht circuit stand-up comic dybbuk inhabits a Marjorie Morningstar bride pouring out shtick.
Stern parses the “American enterprise,” the gains and losses to find the creative imagination of old-world superstition embedded even in the arriviste kitsch of the present. The cumulative impact of The Book of Mischief is a sly questioning, laden with elegiac sadness over a lost world that somehow can’t stay lost.
North American Postmodern Pastoral
Edited by Joshua Corey and G.C. Waldrep
Ahsahta Press, September 2012
Paperback: 576pp; $28.00
Review by Alyse Bensel
The Arcadia Project’s massive size reflects the depth and quality of its content—poems that reexamine the relationship between our perception of the natural world and how natural environments are represented in contemporary poetry. Using the term “postmodern pastoral” to define the works included in the anthology, Editors Joshua Corey and G.C. Waldrep have carefully arranged a wide array of poems from both established and emerging North American poets in order to try and define a different facet of this term. In the anthology’s introduction, Corey explains how the “postmodern pastoral retains certain allegiances to the lyric and individual subjectivity while insisting on the reality of a world whose objects are all equally natural and therefore equally unnatural.” The poems in The Arcadia Project, then, remain inclusive rather than exclusive in subject matter, incorporating and adding, not subtracting.
Each of the anthology’s four parts approaches the “postmodern pastoral” by building on the previous section to help shape a coherent trajectory among so many poems. Borrowing a term traditionally associated to 19th century poets and philosophers, the first section, “New Transcendentalisms,” includes a series of prose poems by Sarah Gridley that renders the transcendent moment in concentrated language by peeling back language. In “Edifice,” the speaker reveals moments sentence by sentence, describing how “Outside is a watering hole big as your eye. Tonight it will come back in to your body, a storm with windows never closed.”
Focus on the particular continues in Oni Buchman’s poem “No Blue Morpho,” in which the speaker describes, in short, tight lines, the non-interaction between human and butterfly. Eventually, the speaker realizes:
instead in my
stillness I heard
for the first
time the microtones
of wing scales drifting
softly and invisibly
through the heated air
microscopic motes of
This new experience of heightened awareness pushes away the human desire to be touched by the butterfly, allowing the speaker to let go and watch the “Blue Morpho as he / flew on in unerring / loops” to remain a “nonintersecting beacon.”
Throughout the anthology, various poems attempt to redefine or lay claim to nature by adding in fragments. In the brief “Twenty-First Century Ecology” by Patrick Pritchett, the poem’s lyric qualities provide of sense of interconnectivity, claiming: “We leaf. The sole burning of a line of light along crest of hill and then.” A sense of urgency remains palpable in Marthe Reed’s “Chandeleur Sound,” shifting back and forth from bureaucratic terminology to images of “Barrier islands braceleted in orange. Royal terns, laughing gulls glide above (oiled) surf. Pelicans, given to loafing on shoals.” Many other poems continue this process of adding in the particular, building a sense of repetition in the excess of not only “natural” images but of other man-made objects and places.
The Arcadia Project is hopefully just the beginning of a series of anthologies that explore the ever-evolving construct of “nature” in North American poetry, and, perhaps, in other parts of the world as well. Trying to choose a few representative pieces that embody the collection may prove to be impossible, so readers should revisit the anthology often to discover and rediscover fresh, new poems that ask us to reconfigure our notions of nature’s place in everyday life. As Corey claims, this anthology serves as a “living and motile assemblage of what our best hopes for what poems can be: vessels of attention to the world and to language, attention at its most intense.”
Poetry by Kim Rosenfield
Les Figues Press, November 2012
Paperback: 171pp; $15.00
Review by Patrick James Dunagan
In “the stigma(ta) of autopsy. [an introduction]” Trisha Low writes: “[Kim] Rosenfield’s book is a bricolage of dense and tenuous single-line poems, swelling at mid-section, only to bleed away.” She goes on to refer to this text as “a dynamic dream-state of everyday language, grammatical imperatives and overheard clausal-tidbits” and rather conclusively states: “our only readerly option is to follow these poems.” I would beg to differ. Considering two successive lines on just as many pages which read “How long did you wait? / I waited for you for nearly an hour” as “single-line poems” is a bit of a stretch. We may choose to follow the stilted and fragmentary conversation(s) scattered throughout the book or we might just as well choose not to.
This is “No more, no less than the study of intonation.” We’re told: “We give to you, in large measure, the renovation and extension of our battery of micro-conversations and of our illustrated system of vocalized consonants” and that this is “our laboratory of creation” full of “structure exercises and our micro-conversations.” We also learn that:
The expired air can then sound like a noise of rubbing.
For f and v for example, the recalcitrant letters are formed by the superior incisors pushing on the interior lip.
For s and z—this endpoint of language comes very close to touching the hard palace.
One’s body and language are entwined. Speech is a physical act. How we use language defines bodily elements of our consciousness. A quick on-line search for the meaning of the term lividity turns it up as “a state of discoloration which may often be the result of an onslaught of unbridled fury.” There’s a clear visceral quality to the word that this text yearns after, boxing itself in a bit as performativity outweighs concerns more poetic and/or literary.
Fiction by Bernardo Atxaga
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa
Graywolf Press, September 2012
Paperback: 250pp; $15.00
Review by David Breithaupt
Bernardo Atxaga has written the perfect book for deep winter reading. His latest novel, Seven Houses in France, takes you to the steamy Congo in the year 1903. Here you will join a cast of characters belonging to the Force Publique (a sort of military gendarmes) and ruled by King Leopold II of Belgium. The King apparently thought this spot in the Congo was his for the taking and dispatched his men to develop the area as well as take advantage of its rubber, mahogany, and ivory. Atxaga’s novel chronicles a collection of 17 white officers, 20 black non-commissioned, and a crew of 150 “askaris” (volunteer black soldiers). This conglomeration of characters is as diverse and as exotic as in any Shakespeare play. Their interactions are the meat of this novel.
The book opens with the arrival in the Congo of Chrysostome Liege, who provides the momentum for the plot that follows. Chrysostome quickly proves himself to be an excellent marksman and explorer. But sometimes those who are overly skilled in certain areas are sadly lacking in others. Chrysostome fails to be one of the boys as he doesn’t seem to care much about the local pastimes, gambling and womanizing. His aloof nature gives rise to the rumor that he is gay, or as his cohorts put it, a “poofter.”
The Force Publique in 1903 was not a very PC clan. Live mandrills were tied to trees for target practice, native virgin girls were kidnapped from the jungle for the sole use of the white officers, and when a photographer comes to document the dedication of a Virgin Mary statue, the “less attractive” natives are detained in a camp so they won’t get in the way. (And don’t forget the homophobia.)
Enter Captain Lalande Biran, veteran of the Congo, poet, and painter, as well as enabler of his wife’s house-buying habit back in France (she is currently stalking her seventh purchase, thus the book’s title). There is also Donatien, the Captain’s orderly, who has the ability to see the colors of everyone’s aura, and the dubious Van Thiegel, who suffers either from too much time in the sun or the later stages of syphilis. Atxaga weaves the myriad lives together in a masterful way. His writing has hints of the humor of Graham Greene and sometimes Waugh, along with the atmosphere of a Joseph Conrad novel. The compelling storytelling layers a slow-motion train wreck that begins to build as Chrysostome is put to the test by his cohorts to determine his true relationship to the fairer sex. It is discovered in time that he is not impervious to women when an orderly reveals a romantic, though apparently platonic, relationship between Chrysostome and a light-skinned native girl to whom he has given the gift of emerald earrings.
Van Thiegel’s hallucinatory obsessions increase, fueled in part by too much sun, palm wine, and corkscrew bacteria in his brain. He embarks on a mission to investigate the light-skinned beauty, and when she turns up dead but without the earrings, the guano hits the fan.
Atxaga paces his story in such a way that you can’t help but wonder what his characters will do next. There are cinematic moments that I could imagine being filmed by Herzog or Coppola. When the story was all said and done, I was sad to leave this word behind and return to my world of winter. As flawed as some of the characters were, I was drawn to them, perhaps because of their humanity. I suggest you visit Seven Houses in France if you are in need of a gratifying vacation.
Fiction by Mark Spencer
Main Street Rag, October 2012
Paperback: 156pp; $12.95
Review by Patricia Contino
Future Hall of Fame pitchers Tom Glavine and Greg Maddox once lamented in a classic Nike TV spot that “chicks dig the long ball.” According to Mark Spencer, the charms of an overweight, balding pro wrestler with “big bags under his eyes . . . like miniature pot bellies” are considerable—not to mention complicated. The Masked Demon chronicles in entertaining mock-epic fashion the tribulations of Daryl Lee, aka Samson, Bible Bob, and Masked Demon. He is literally at the crossroads of his career and triple-secret life.
Set in Oklahoma and Texas during the watershed pop culture year of 1962 (the first Beatles single and James Bond film are released, Johnny Carson begins hosting The Tonight Show, Kmart opens), Daryl is a former champion dreaming of a movie career, something not improbable then or now for circuit stars or their bodybuilding brethren. Instead, he is offered the chance to go to Mexico where wrestling is becoming as big as it was on American television during the 1950s. Such a move would further upset the precarious, simultaneous house-playing Daryl does with legal wife Rachel Marie in Houston, “second” wife Darlene in Oklahoma City, and steady girlfriend Candy in Dallas. It is not an unwelcome coincidence that Candy is obsessed with Marilyn Monroe (whose suicide takes place during the course of the novella) and lives in the city where Monroe’s lover President Kennedy would be assassinated a year later.
Daryl’s career and the ladies have taken their toll. He lost half an ear in a match that is described in gory, very well-written detail. But that is not all:
It’s not just losing his hair that bothers him; it is also what’s happening to his face. It’s gotten puffy looking. And his skin is slack and splotchy. For twenty-five years, it’s been scarred from teenage acne. When he locks the bathroom door and removes his dentures to clean them, he becomes an old, old man.
His motivation? Love. Theirs? They love him back.
Like all sports today, pro wrestling has its share of performance-enhancing drug scandals and accusations. For The Masked Demon’s less medicinal era Daryl’s stimulants are booze and sex—the great stuff of fiction. (And also nonfiction, like Jim Bouton’s Ball Four. Bouton’s baseball career began in . . . 1962.) “I am the monster,” he tells Candy after another nightmare. He also asks himself during one of his numerous interior monologues if “being a son of a bitch, a bastard, and a monster has anything to do with being a bad guy wrestler most of the time these days.” Daryl is neither good nor bad, making reading about him enjoyable.
There is another literary device Daryl must face. He is haunted by Bobby Shine, the handsome, popular ex-World Wrestling Association Champion who “had the advantage of being dead.” The urban legends surrounding the murdered wrestler are the funniest parts of the book.
Despite the chaos of Daryl’s life, Spencer gives it symmetry: three wrestling personas; three women with three distinct personalities; personal and public histories merging into one; the power of The Three Stooges. The Masked Demon is a lyrical look at a messy life.
Fiction by Shani Boianjiu
Hogarth, September 2012
Hardcover: 352pp; $24.00
Review by Olive Mullet
Shani Boianjiu’s The People of Forever are Not Afraid is different from anything I’ve read and informative about a way of life that people outside of Israel are probably unfamiliar with. It is a story of three female friends—Yael, Avishag and Lea—during and after their obligatory military service, and the effects that service has on their lives. It is unlike the usual coming-of-age story, though the girls are young, in their twenties at their oldest. They come from a nondescript town, consisting of nothing but buildings, near the Lebanese border. Not only is the scenery bleak, but the service at remote checkpoints is full of boredom and brutality as well. Consequently, they come out of service brutalized and almost devoid of feelings. This is the effect of nonstop war becoming normal.
This approach is strangely objective; the characters are viewed as though from a distance even when the perspective is the first-person “I.” The reader does not identify with any of them, and though the perspective changes from one to another, for a while the girls seem interchangeable. Only late in the book do we clearly sort out their differences of background and behavior. Similarly, although there is progression of years from beginning to end, there is no linear story but rather events that burst out of boredom. And the last sentence takes us back to the beginning.
Except for a few historical dates and names given, most of the violent events are not identified by date and only in passing by place, making the story more disturbing, less limited by particulars. The only reason for mentioning a particular war is the disbelief that a war would develop, but it does: “He was wrong about the war because then there was one. You can look it up. The second Lebanon war. July 12, 2006.” In this unsentimental story, the end’s brief reunion of these friends nevertheless shows their relationship as the strongest in their lives, if only from their memories of early schooling together.
Boianjiu does not underscore the violence but mostly brushes up to it, as if finding it unnecessary to fill in the scene. She shows opposite situations: a dangerous looking man who doesn’t do anything and an ordinary scene developed cinematically—stopped in a traffic jam, a mother repeats to her daughter to close the car window, as it’s raining, and then suddenly out of nowhere a man approaches and shoots. Hence the overall tone comes close to being dark and horrific but isn’t, instead reflecting the norm.
The author applies the same phrases to different situations, in order to echo the “forever” in the title—the same words repeated forever. Her style is mostly straightforward but sometimes stands out with unique, often fitting imagery, like the sun “exploding” on a person.
The story starts with the girls in school before their military experience. The girls are not that close; Lea is in a different group, and Yael and Avishag break apart when Yael falls for Avishag’s brother Dan. Shortly after going into the military, Dan commits suicide, which sets the tone of the book. After their mothers leave the story, the girls almost blend together in their aloneness. In that age group they care only about themselves and resent that quality in each other:
It seems he is only interested in killing himself, and slowly. He doesn’t care about killing me. It makes me sad that he cares about himself more than about me. Say I am just not being realistic, but it still makes me sad when people are like that. Most people are that. Dan was like that, in the end. Only interested in killing himself. . . . What kills me is that I have no one to talk to.
We learn the young Israeli checkpoint soldier’s attitude towards Palestinians, Lea in this case:
We needed them [Palestinian construction workers], but we were also afraid they’d kill us or, even worse, stay forever. . . . We were there to notice what the government wanted us to, dangers, but I would still only notice what I happened to notice. This is because I couldn’t realize I was a soldier. I thought I was still a person.
Missiles were falling, as they tended to do where we lived, since always. We listened to the exit booms and waited for the explosions. We had heard them so many times before, we were pretty good at guessing where they would fall. We saw the thick gray in the sky and it was likes seeing the same sky we used to see when we were little, like we were still little.
This book is personal without being emotional, making us understand powerfully what the three main characters, and many Israelis, are going through.
An Ecological Poetics
Poetry by Forrest Gander and John Kinsella
University of Iowa Press, October 2012
Paperback: 96pp; $25.00
Review by Patrick James Dunagan
This is both an interesting and useful book, particularly as a text of poetic collaboration that is at once an investigation and interrogation of, as well as elaboration on, ecological poetics. Forrest Gander and John Kinsella have gathered together poems along with various bits of investigative prose which they’ve been trading back and forth in personal correspondence to produce a hybrid text with simple intentions addressing a global issue of escalating crisis.
In Kinsella’s own words:
This writing is a map of my conditions out of which arose a series of poems exchanged with a fellow poet. A fellow poet who is concerned about damage done to ecologies and interested in the “nature” of exchanges about landscape and place, like myself. Maybe we feel a kinship and a compulsion to exchange texts. To connect and diverge.
The environment of any poem is composed from what the poet’s eye witnesses and the imagination alights upon. As a result any situation which impacts things in the world surrounding the poet may enter into the poem. For Kinsella, this takes form in his observation of movements made by local yellow-rumped thornbills in flight together from tree to tree round the landscape where he lives. Kinsella legally owns the land yet refuses accept the understanding common to societal contracts concerning property:
I reject “property” in all its forms. I only ever refer to this place as a “property” with scare quotes and irony in mind. It is land stolen from the Ballardong Nyungar people, whose relationship with land was and is custodial as well as spiritual, religious, communal, totemic, and interactive. It is also, to my mind, land to be shared: between not only people, but plants and animals and people. We see ourselves as custodians under a corrupt system that would damage it more than we do and would offer fewer rights to animals and plants than we do. It’s a relationship of necessity, not of choice.
While Kinsella’s pieces of writing throughout the book generally hold to a more personal and local perspective, Gander’s contributions tend to adopt a broader view and introduce specific, inescapable facts:
By the end of the twenty-first century, a mere three hundred years after coal was first intensively mined, a vast amount of the carbon that accumulated underground for over three hundred million years will have been released into the atmosphere. The relation between those two sets of numbers, three hundred and three hundred million, represents six orders of magnitude.
The full ramifications this colossal realignment of the planet’s resources will have remain unknowable for now. However, the general consensus that policies and behaviors need to change is only growing. Merely increasing awareness of the issue has occasioned a broad international response of concern from the world community, in which the continual development of an “ecological poetics” plays its part. Gander’s claims for this field of inquiry may appear rather cute and somewhat dubious at times. For instance, “A poem, even exchanged from its context and the time of its writing, is a curiously renewable form of energy,” yet there’s no doubt as to his sincerity: “If language does affect the way we think about being in the world, poetry can make something happen. I would suggest that it does.” Ultimately, this creative work joins with accompanying political work in the struggle within the international community to alter our dependence upon the earth’s undeniably limited natural resources. The hope remains, as Gander puts it, that “poems might be seen to take responsibility for certain ways of thinking and writing.”
Fiction by Rahimeh Andalibian
Nightingale Press, July 2012
Paperback: 389pp; $14.99
Review by Olive Mullet
Rahimeh Andalibian calls The Rose Hotel a “true-life novel,” and aside from made-up scenes where she was not present, the book is a factual account of her family’s tragedies and secrets that reads like a novel. In spite of the chapters’ brevity and the book’s fast pace, the fully depicted scenes put us in the story while also proving informative regarding various cultural details.
Andalibian’s family had numerous bad experiences, which start in Iran, continue in London, and end in California. We feel for the well-developed characters, especially her parents and her four brothers. The author’s career in psychology governs her approach in this novel:
My family has shown tremendous courage and trust in sharing their darkest moments. . . . By making ourselves vulnerable and visible we have also become more fulfilled and alive. . . . And you too [may] have come to recognize in them characters from your own lives. It is my hope that you have come to see them and yourself—as I do: flawed, brave, resilient, and beautiful.
Andalibian gives us two settings, both of which dominate the family. In the wonderful opening scene, the author as a child and her younger brother hide in and explore the magic of the Rose Hotel, run by their father. Their neighborhood also includes the dazzling gold dome of the great mosque Haram, second only to Mecca for Shi’a Muslims. On the hotel’s nameplate a nightingale often perches, an auspicious omen. Their father Baba, being devout, forbids music or alcohol in the hotel, and at home everyone keeps to traditions—eating on a sofreh, a soft plastic cover on the floor, and the males buttoning their shirts right up to the top.
Trouble begins with a brutal rape and the rebellion of the older son, fifteen-year-old Abdollah, with horrific consequences for the family. These events affect them for years to come, threatening to destroy the parents’ relationship and the sons’ survival. What makes the consequences worse is the brutality of the Shah and continuation of brutality in the ayatollahs’ takeover. We in the West think of the Shah as a positive influence on his country for his western ways, but here we learn the truth of his police state. Baba hinges all his hopes on Khomeini and the religious ayatollahs, who he assumes will not be corrupted by power. Baba would seem to have a privileged relationship with this new regime, especially with Mrs. Khomeini, for whom Baba’s wife has cooked elaborate meals to be taken to Mrs. Khomeini’s secret suite at the hotel. And Baba has kept certain ayatollahs from danger. Therefore, he has every hope that his very personal and desperate plea will be heard. However, it is a regime in transition with justice not fully formed:
In the West, “Ayatollah” came to mean that one man Khomeini, but in Iran, there are many ayatollahs holding positions similar to bishops. Each ayatollah held his own views. And even at the launch of this new regime, many ayatollahs dissented; this was not the way of Islam. . . . Baba overheard a man ask, ‘This is what our country has become?’ Shepherds with a few religious classes under their belt and no legal experience will decide our fate? This is not what we wanted from our revolution. Now we are all screwed.’
Add to that chaos of the Iran-Iraq War, which Saddam Hussein starts. The personal mirrors the political climate to make the family situation worse. Baba, whose only concerns are to safeguard his family, makes several bad mistakes, adding to the horror of the situation. As a result, the health of the children’s mother, Maman, deteriorates, forcing the parents to leave most of the children with strangers while they seek medical help in London. And when they finally all reunite in California: “Home would have to be where we were, not where we’d been.” During this time, a pattern emerges, that “both my parents had younger siblings that they’d lost, and the way they’d dealt with it was not to tell the children any details, no goodbyes, to ‘protect them from the truth.’”
Our father also battled with some inner rage, guilt that he could not share. His life’s mission was now to save us, and he would do anything, absolutely anything to do that but his culture and code of behavior struck us as dictatorship, and we all fought back in our own way.
Andalibian, training herself as a family therapist, forces the family to break the bonds of secrecy and the past. Her page-turning novel educates us, but mostly makes us care about the family’s pain, her brothers with their death-defying risks, and Baba with all his desperate but flawed efforts. The Rose Hotel is an enthralling story from a country that many know little about.