NewPages Book Reviews
September 2, 2008
Novel by Michael Kimball
Alma Books, September 2008
Hardcover: 288pp; $19.95
Reviewed by Josh Maday
Michael Kimball’s third novel, Dear Everybody, is wonderfully subtitled “A Novel Written in the Form of Letters, Diary Entries, Encyclopedia Entries, Conversations with Various People, Notes Sent Home from Teachers, Newspaper Articles, Psychological Evaluations, Weather Reports, a Missing Person Flyer, a Eulogy, a Last Will and Testament, and Other Fragments, Which Taken Together Tell the Story of the Short Life of Jonathon Bender, Weatherman.” Kimball juxtaposes these fragments to cultivate a swirl of humor and sadness, giving the reader a palpable sense of Jonathon’s intense alienation and loneliness at the center of the increasingly unhappy Bender family.
The story of Jonathon’s life begins with his obituary, followed by his brother Robert’s editorial statement, where he admits that he never liked his brother, but that he never really knew him either, which is why he has gathered these scraps and fragments and asked people about Jonathon’s life. After “A Chronology of Jonathon Bender,” the main text begins with Jonathon’s first letter:
Here I am sitting in my kitchen with everybody who I can remember and it is crowded in here. Everything that I can remember is falling out of my head, going down my arms, and out my fingers. I can feel it happening inside me and sometimes it hurts.
Even though the pieces are ordered chronologically, the telling of this story is anything but orderly and neat for Jonathon. Time is one overwhelming moment, as it is in the letter quoted above, where he sees nearly everyone who has passed through his life gathered all at once in his kitchen as he writes, and yet Jonathon’s experience is fractured and scattered and difficult to put together in a way that will fully explain things. And so Jonathon writes letters: “I’m going to write everybody letters about everything that happened. I always thought that my life had been continuous, but now I can’t remember anything except for isolated instances. I hope that these were my defining moments.”
Filling in the spaces around Jonathon’s letters are his mother’s diary entries and selections of Robert’s interview with their dad, which come together with the suicide letters to form a sort of cubist representation of Jonathon’s tragic existence. Although the story is often sad and ultimately tragic, Jonathon’s childlike way of looking at the world provides natural deposits of comic relief. The worst relationship for him was with his father, prompting Jonathon to ask him a few questions:
Why did you always walk around the house in the morning with just your underwear on? Why were you always scratching yourself and making that horrible noise that made all of us turn away from you? And why did you always leave the bathroom door open when you sat on the toilet? . . . Also, why did you tuck your shirts into your underwear when you got dressed to go to work? And why did you put so much cologne on that we could smell it even after you left the house to go to work? Was it so that we would smell it and think about you even when you weren’t there? I tucked my shirt in like that once and it made me feel as if I were dressed up as somebody else and that’s when I realized that I wasn’t ever going to take after you. . . I still remember those few times that we played catch together. I used to think that throwing the baseball back and forth somehow connected us. But now I realize that neither one of us held on to the baseball for very long. It was mostly just something that was in the air between us.
Kimball writes with such deep emotion and crafts his sentences with such mastery that he sweeps away his own footprints and allows the reader unhindered access to the story. The fragmented nature of the book makes it an addictive read, giving the reader regular breaks while at the same time drawing them along. I often found myself thinking, “Just one more letter. One more diary entry. One more interview," until it was time to go back to the beginning and start over. With Dear Everybody, Michael Kimball achieves the perfect balance of form and content, comedy and tragedy – all without sliding into melodrama or sentimentality, instead evoking genuine emotion that will remain with readers far beyond the last page.
Novel by Deb Olin Unferth
McSweeney's, September 2008
Hardcover: 216pp; $22.00
Review by Matt Bell
In Deb Olin Unferth's Vacation, people are always following each other from one place to another, starting with Myers, a middling office worker whose main distinguishing characteristic is a dent in his skull from jumping out a window when he was young. When he discovers that his wife is spending her evenings following a man named Gray through the streets of New York City, he begins to follow her himself, a process that stretches wordlessly through the first two years of their marriage. Later, after Myers and his wife decide to separate, Myers goes looking for Gray directly, leading to yet another chase that takes him across the Americas in search of a man who, if not exactly a rival, is still the closest thing Myers has to a cause for the dissolution of his marriage. There are other characters throughout the book who have their own loved ones or enemies to follow, each of their stories intersecting the love triangle of Myers, his wife, and Gray, until the book is just one more place for its characters to get lost in, to lose sight of their goals, to find, if not what they were looking, then maybe something they needed instead.
Unferth's first book was a slim volume of flash fiction titled Minor Robberies published as part of a boxed set called One Hundred and Forty Five Stories in a Small Box, which also included collections of short-shorts by Dave Eggers and Sarah Manguso. In Minor Robberies, Unferth showed off a remarkable talent for odd characters and tightly compressed language, two qualities that are often found in great flash writers but rarely translate directly to their longer works. Not so with Unferth. Her language in Vacation is a triumph of tightly wound sentences, each one compact and powerful and simply waiting for the reader's eye to allow it to spring forth into action. For instance, consider the following paragraph, one of the many imagined speeches Myers considers giving Gray when he finally finds him:
What's that you say? You don't know what this is about? Maybe a little drill in the earhole will jog your memory. Maybe a little claw of the old clawhammer to the knee. Maybe some take-out, as in, let's take this outside. As in, let's take your fingers outside, one by one, toss them out the window. Then let's see what you know and don't.
Small satisfactions, and who knows, maybe big ones too.
Here, Unferth dips in close, the narrator's voice giving way to Myers's internal dialogue, but in other places it zooms in and out, swooping here and there for views of different characters and for different perspectives on now familiar events. Like a long single-shot film sequence, Unferth's prose is capable of following a series of events linearly while simultaneously shifting point of view and distance to great effect. This technique is used from the first page on but becomes more complex as the book progresses, culminating in stunningly intricate chapters such as the one in which Myers's wife "confesses," a chapter which contains at least four perspectives (Myers, his wife, a man named Spoke, and the narrator's), all rendered differently from paragraph to paragraph without losing continuity or cohesion. The amount of technical skill this takes is extraordinary, but Unferth makes it look easy, connecting chapter to chapter with a virtuoso display of writing ability.
As the story progresses, the obstacles begin to pile up against Myers, starting with such pedestrian problems as losing his job or Gray not being at home when Myers goes looking for him, but eventually ranging all the way up to a series of natural disasters (he suffers through both an earthquake and an impending hurricane). Still, his search continues for Gray and for answers to why his marriage soured and then fell apart. Along the way, he meets other travelers – other vacationers – each of them looking for something or someone else. In a book that often use description as a means of definition (such as when Myers's packed luggage is referred to as "just pieces of cloth, cut, dyed, arranged, and sealed together with thread to approximate the shape of his body"), it takes almost the entire book before the prose turns its attention to what a vacation itself really is:
A vacation is simply, you know, to vacate. The vacationer leaves the home (leaves the mind), leaves the home empty (except for what he left behind (her)), that's all.
No, no, that's not a vacation, if you simply move to a different spot. That's just looking at stuff, familiar stuff.
What's so familiar about this? Myers would certainly like to know.
As Myers discovers the nature of his vacation, he also discovers the truth of his marriage, of how he and his wife have perhaps both failed each other by vacating their mutual home in search of answers instead of looking for them in each other. Unferth's great triumph here is how she depicts this marital dissolution using not only her gift for magnificent, sharp prose, but her ability to see how sometimes the tiniest events can set off chain reactions of doubt and deceit, allowing her story to grow like a grain of sand that eventually becomes a pearl. Vacation is a remarkable and ambitious must-read, and Unferth herself an exciting writer to keep watch on. Without a doubt, there are more great things still to come.
Novel by Michael Joyce
McPherson & Company, July 2008
Paperback: 207pp; $15.00
Review by Rav Grewal-Kök
Almost nothing happens in Liam’s Going, a novel by Michael Joyce now out in paperback six years after its hardcover release. Joyce has written a number of hypertext fictions, and there is something of the feel of hypertext to this novel too, both in its swirling temporality – it loops continually from the present to the recent and more distant past – and in its occasional lack of momentum.
Liam, the title character, is soon to begin his freshman year at a college in the lower Hudson Valley. Although the novel is named for him, he is a minor figure in it. The narrative point of view instead alternates between his parents, in succeeding chapters. Liam’s mother Cathleen, a poet, drives him to the campus from upstate New York, taking back roads and rural highways to stretch their journey to a couple of days. Liam’s father Noah, an attorney, stays behind and awaits Cathleen’s return. No catastrophe strikes Cathleen and Liam on the road. At home, Noah cuts the grass, visits an elderly client, and takes a boat out onto the placid surface of a lake. What conflict there is remains interior, in Cathleen’s and Noah’s memories, and in their visions of what lies ahead for them without their son. Both parents sense that with Liam’s going, they will move into a different, and perhaps diminished, stage of life.
Cathleen assures herself that she is happy, but that happiness is not unalloyed. She is no longer a prolific writer. Though she loves her husband, she dwells more during this journey on an affair she had two decades earlier with an orchard keeper she met downstate. The orchard keeper, Paul, loved the mountains and rivers amongst which he lived, and taught Cathleen their histories. Cathleen retells Paul’s stories to Liam, but we sense this is more for herself as she lingers on what was, than for her son.
In his wife’s absence, Noah also turns to his memories of another, a mysterious French woman he met decades earlier, before he himself went away to college. Noah and the French woman were not lovers, but their encounter opened him to the longings and complexities of adulthood. Both Noah and his wife teeter between regret and gratitude: regret for the passions they could have experienced, and gratitude for the security they have. Both also sense the fragility of their connection, and, recognizing that they are no longer young, of life itself.
A novel this meditative allows plenty of room for lyricism. There are lovely moments throughout. Noah, unable to reassure Liam when his son asks whether the soul survives death, feels that difficult questions slide past him “like ice floes on a dark sea.” Later, he remembers the French woman’s accent “coming and going in the night like the smell of pines.” Cathleen, faced with the noise and disorder of a teenage son in her house, “made silence for herself the way smooth water forms in the wake of a motorboat.”
But Joyce’s prose can turn awkward too. His missteps often occur in the chapters told from Cathleen’s point of view, perhaps because in them Joyce strains to filter his language through a poet’s more rarified consciousness. When Cathleen describes a mountain road as a “two lane strip of asphalt slathered like molasses on an upturned plum pudding,” when “a longing rose in her dimly like the feeling of ovulation, signaling a cyclic turn deep within,” or when she discovers that lust “could wake after sleeping twenty years and crawl up from whatever distant center to make thighs quiver,” I cannot be the only reader to wish for a little less.
But I don’t want to end this review on an ungenerous note. Cathleen tells Paul, after they make love for the first time, that “anthology” originally meant “a garland of flowers.” For that, I can forgive her a great deal. Cathleen and Noah, in turn, will forgive themselves the small failures and modest successes of their lives. In exploring their memories, Joyce has written a quiet testimony to the drama and beauty of ordinary existence.
Flash Fiction by Geoffrey Forsyth
Rose Metal Press, July 2008
Chapbook: 34pp; $12.00
Review by Sean Lovelace
When Flash Fiction was younger, you'd see it only occasionally in the neighborhood, maybe pedaling through the pages of Mid-American Review. But then something happened. Flash grew up, and got itself a diverse group of friends, with funky names like Short-Short and Postcard Fiction. Now, flash fiction is everywhere, in all of the magazines, online and in print, and we have publications devoted to the genre (SmokeLong Quarterly, Quick Fiction, flashquake, to name but a few). The next step of this maturation was natural, necessary, and finally realized: entire collections of flash fiction put out by publishers like Elixer, Calamari, Ravenna, and Rose Metal Press, who recently published Geoffrey Forsyth's In the Land of the Free, the winner of their Second Annual Short Short Chapbook Contest. Clearly, this innovative press respects the flash fiction genre, and the idea of book as artifact. The text is an aesthetic marvel. Carefully crafted from a textured French paper, with an emerald green endpaper of Indian silk with straw, this objet d’art is something to behold. In a word: impressive.
Inside the covers are ten flash fictions, arranged roughly in arcing themes of birth, coming-of-age, and eventually death. All ten have appeared in literary magazines elsewhere, including such excellent periodicals as RHINO and New Orleans Review. Several have placed highly in writing competitions. For me, the works ranged in quality, from good, to very good, but all of the fictions displayed Forsyth’s varied strengths as a storyteller.
Great opening lines are a necessity of the finest short fiction, and must be able to provide what the critic Jerome Stern called, “an intrigant.” And how do you accomplish this? By absurdity: “I was born onto a cutting board in my mother’s kitchen” (“In My Mother’s Kitchen”); by conflict: “First day back at public school and Maureen Groff pulls a knife on me” (“Excalibur”); by In medias res, with a hint of sex: “Molly McGovern and I were making out in the student parking lot of our high school, getting all hot and heavy in the back of her mother’s Volvo, when . . .” (“Coins”).
You’d like to know what happens between this narrator and ol’ Molly McGovern, wouldn’t you? Trust me, you really would.
Another of Forsyth’s strengths is his ability to create immediacy in a scene, as in "Reservoir":
My girlfriend’s mother continues to watch the news, pretending not to hear. From the kitchen come the sounds of the dogs licking their bowls clean. I am standing with Vanessa, getting ready to leave. We are looking down at her mother. “I’ll be back later,” Vanessa says to her mother, but her mother is watching the anchorman. The anchorman is watching my girlfriend’s mother. It’s a fact that allows us to leave.
Gesture, imagery, sensory description, and dialogue: the necessary ingredients of vivid fiction. Again and again, Forsyth creates these intricate moments within the larger work, these poems within the prose.
In the forward to this collection, Robert Shapard (the judge of the flash fiction contest and a fine writer in his own right) emphasizes the surreal nature of Forsyth’s stories. While I did appreciate the stories that explored several archetypes of magical realism, I actually found the strongest works to be grounded in reality. Forsyth’s attention to detail and mood enhances this realism, creating mystery – the author’s power is his ability to show our everyday lives as mystical and strange. In “Hunchbacks,” two teenagers dress for Halloween by stuffing pillows into the backs of their shirts, then get drunk on single-malt scotch and hang out in a graveyard, where “the pillows inside of the tunics made leaning on anything, even a tombstone, comfortable.” Eventually, their thoughts lead to their twin girlfriends, allowing Forsyth’s prose to elevate the odd situation into something human and strange:
He didn’t want to think of the twins with wings growing out of their backs. It reminded him of the time a bird accidentally flew into his house and bashed itself against the walls of his bedroom. He had been sleeping, so when it flew in and struck the wall the first time, he pulled the covers over his head. He lay there listening while it thumped itself to death, and when the bird dropped on his chest, even through the blanket he felt the small warm weight of it over the place where his heart was, and for a moment he thought that the dead bird was actually his heart lying there, loosened somehow and flown free of his chest.
Wow. Read that last sentence again, and understand the beauty of flash fiction: the elegiac compression of an image well wrought. This is a press and a chapbook that celebrates the genre, and a writer worthy of the form.
Stories by Derek Green
Autumn House Press, June 2008
Paperback: 180pp; $17.95
Review by Dan Wickett
Baghdad, Dubai, Brazil, Mexico, Asia, South Africa, Perth, Australia, Central America: In the eleven stories that make up Derek Green’s New World Order, only one takes place in the United States and in that one, “Cultural Awareness,” the characters are taking a seminar to get ready to spend time working in different lands. Green has taken his decade of experience working as both a journalist and consultant in foreign lands, and created an excellent collection of stories.
Green uses either the military, corporate world, or in a few cases, such as the opening story “The Terms of the Deal,” the place where the two combine, to offer settings for his stories, giving reasons for his protagonists to be where they’re at in the world. At least in this go-around, Green isn’t attempting to write from the standpoint of the cultures he’s lived in, instead taking on the viewpoint he would appear to be more familiar with, viewing these other cultures through the eyes of an American. It gives the collection a sense of continuity while allowing him to explore many cultures at the same time.
Another commonality amongst Green’s eleven stories is that fact that they’re packed with plot, which lends itself towards the really good storyteller that Green is. He’s able to get the reader into the story quickly, with solid beginnings that develop the characters instantly, and establishes what is going on in their lives that the reader might be interested in. The pace of the stories is also quick, keeping the reader turning pages, be it to find out how the salesman in “Terms of the Deal” is going to arrange for a handful of soldiers to be able to afford new Harley-Davidsons, or what’s going to happen to Reese, the journalist in “Road Train,” when he takes the wheel of the truck in seemingly deserted Australia, or how Green’s going to make the relationship between Denise Pierce and the very large man in the aisle seat on her flight from China to Los Angeles relevant before the final story, “Almost Home,” ends.
While the reader may only get bits and pieces of what it’s like to live in Baghdad, or Mexico, they get a bigger dose of what it feels like to be an expat: The confusion, and combination of greed and fear, and of both the shame and pride in America. New World Order is a solid collection, with no stories added to bulk up the overall size. Green is a writer whose work I’ll be keeping an eye out for, especially the novel he's rumored to be working on.
Novel by Curtis Smith
Casperian Books, September 2008
Paperback: 164pp; $13.50
Review by Matt Bell
Told in chapters which alternate viewpoints between its dual protagonists, the plot of Curtis Smith's Sound + Noise is quieter than its title suggests – it is less the thrashing of a building cacophony than it is the last gentle notes of a favorite ballad. Tom and Jackie are both people with heavy pasts, the kind that refuse to let them move forward with their lives as fully as they might like until, little by little, they help each other to start again. Tom's past is personified in the comatose person of his wife Karen, while Jackie's is tied up in the past life she led as a backup singer for a famous country band. For each of them, part of what makes their pasts so daunting to overcome is that they love the lives they once led – Tom loves his wife, but from the very beginning it is obvious that she's never going to awaken from her coma. Similarly, Jackie looks backwards from her new life as the owner of a local bar where she sings once a week, often covering the very band she was once a member of.
Smith has a gift for description, a talent which comes in handy in a novel where much of the forward motion is contained in the slight actions and frequent volleys of dialogue that bounce between the small cast of characters. Despite the slim page length of the novel, there's no chance that anyone will mistake Smith for a minimalist. Every room is highly detailed, their specifics carefully chosen for their abilities to function as either tells about a character or as meditative possibilities for Tom or Jackie to ruminate on, as in this early passage describing Jackie's apartment:
Discarded clothes smother the handrails of Jackie's treadmill – the highway of her life is strewn with the wreckage of good intentions. Sifting through the mess, she unearths the jeans that squeeze her hips. The striped pullover that makes her appear as though she has something to hide. The red blouse that accentuates the sag in her breasts. She thinks of all those years without a bra, her young girl's belief that the laws of time and gravity didn't apply to her. Pissed off and naked, she plunks down on the edge of her bed and lights a cigarette.
Smith's characters are all possessed of a philosophical type of mind, given to the kind of thoughts that are as interesting as they are perhaps unlikely to actually occur. Leaving a concert, Jackie thinks, "there are hundreds, thousands of borders people construct around themselves, and maybe . . . the way to make sense of it all is to focus on one border at a time," at the same time formulating the beginning of a philosophy that plays out over the rest of the chapter.
Many of the chapters are organized in a similar manner, each one a small argument fitted into the larger frame of the novel's plot. Some of these are more successful than others, the lesser ones failing to carry off their arguments convincingly as fiction. These are too purposeful, too consciously constructed to pass as the natural movement of the story, and suffer for it. Which isn't to say that they're not interesting, as they often are. My criticism is instead how heavily the writer's hand shows through here, where in other passages it is light and deft and highly skilled at teasing the characters' inner lives from the detail and dialogue that surrounds them. Thankfully, the stronger passages are the more frequent, and generally Smith does a good job of letting his characters speak naturally instead of speaking for him.
In the end, Sound + Noise is a love story, and one that mimics real life in a way novels rarely do. This is not the epic love story of the modern movie, one full of stunning reversals and reveals, but instead a tale of quiet romanticism born out of the efforts of two people to be good and kind to each other, and to learn, after their own long periods of loss or disappointment, how to fall in love once again. This is a harder thing to depict well, but Smith does it wonderfully. Sound + Noise sets out to depict the series of everyday miracles it takes for two people to fall in love, and at that it succeeds without reservation.
Poetry by Dan Kaplan
The National Poetry Review Press, March 2008
Paperback: 80pp; $17.95
Review by Micah Zevin
In Bill’s Formal Complaint, Dan Kaplan presents us with Bill, a typical American male who must face his life's various stereotypical boredoms with a smile and a wink, all the while struggling to avoid falling prey to anguish or despondency. Told in a haphazard, reflexive memoir style, the problems of Bill’s existence past and present are written in an informal, absurdist jump cut presentation, making it read like the haphazard biography of a C-list celebrity.
Besides being a satirical court jester figure, Bill is in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction. In the collection’s title poem, “Bill’s Formal Complaint,” Bill blames his mother: “If mother hadn’t fed me with that busted / spoon, I’d be hilarious now. And given / proper chance, I could cleanly shuck / the sharkskin pants off a runway model.” Elsewhere, Bill appears to compare the immigrant experience to his own appearance, as in "Today #2":
Today you drape yourself across the fire
escape. You are ageless, thin but iron
immigrant. You have the muscle shirt,
the solitary chest hairs, glistening forearms,
hand-rolled cigarette and you salvage stray
tobacco strings from tongue and teeth
In Bill’s surrealist and maligned world, he translates melancholy and humorous writing from Hungarian, gets strange phone messages and goes with his girlfriend to meet their relatives who all look disturbingly just like his girlfriend. These conversational poems use a rich lyricism for a variety of effects, including raising questions about our most mundane hardships and imperfections, as well as the absurdities that lie behind them.
In the second stanza of “BEEEP,” a friend leaves Bill a long and detailed message with more questions than answers:
I guess those are the last of my supply
of pearls. Question: couldn’t you prophesy
this end? The steps were deafening. I pulled
your files. What exactly did you do all day?
So what I’m trying to say is this: will you
Please get your shit out of my cubicle?
The cumulative effect of these satisfyingly eclectic poems works like linguistic game pieces, providing fragments of a familiar man for us to play with and interpret and seek joy in. Kaplan manages to convey the characteristics and haphazard scenarios of Bill’s life with humor and aplomb, allowing us to laugh at his plight even as we sympathize with him. It is only after we're done feeling pity for Bill that self-recognition sets in, because through all the weirdness and absurdity of Bill's life, there is still always that kernel of truth that is, at the very last, revealed to be part of us.
Stories by Felisberto Hernández
Translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen
New Directions, July 2008
Paperback: 212pp; $14.95
Reviewed by Josh Maday
Even if most English readers don’t know it, the influence of Felisberto Hernández’s writing can still be seen today in the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Julio Cortazar, and Italo Calvino. Despite the recent trend of rediscovered Latin American writers, such as Roberto Bolaño, and their torrents of translated work, it is unsurprising that the foundations of Latin American literature are still being unearthed. Luckily, with this collection of two novellas and four short stories by Felisberto Hernández, one more influential Latin American writer’s work is finally available to English readers.
Esther Allen’s Prologue to Lands of Memory is a fitting and helpful orientation to Felisberto’s work (“no one calls him Hernández,” Allen says). Felisberto was a reflective man who had a strange way of looking at things (often comparing pianos to coffins), and who nurtured obsessions over the opportunity to enter into “unfamiliar houses” and developing his own system of shorthand, which left some of the papers found after his death undecipherable.
Though the pieces in Lands of Memory were never published together, this collection is arranged chronologically. It opens with a novella entitled Around the Time of Clemente Colling, which recounts the narrator’s boyhood initiation into the world of classical music, and eventually his relationship with a blind pianist named Clemente Colling. The narrator, who I presume is based on young Felisberto, begins learning piano from Colling and eventually develops a fondness for the strange man for whom music seemed more important than his own physical existence.
Early in the story, describing his introduction to music, Felisberto examines his distant aunt Petrona, who “was very good-natured” but “concealed a certain tendency to brutal mockery,” especially during the impromptu piano concerts that often occurred in their family. Petrona would mock, and Felisberto says:
As usual, I raged inwardly. But one day I began to think that Petrona, despite not feeling the nocturne, not understanding or being included in it, or even aspiring to any situation or aesthetic state such as the one we were enjoying, did in her own way feel something of what was happening in those who were hearing and enjoying the moment of art . . . Like many people without intellectual cultivation – she barely read the newspaper – she felt a tension in her spirit when she was among ‘educated’ people; you could sense her batteries becoming overcharged at those moments, and whenever there was a chance to laugh she would let out a peel of violent laughter, more convulsive and lasting than anyone else’s.
The narrator seems to border on the snobbish, but then goes on to make a case for her generosity and tenderness. Felisberto oscillates between the concrete and the abstract, observing with an intuitive philosophical eye, attempting to see into the mysterious depths of human nature, attesting to his ability to reexamine events from different vantage points.
In “My First Concert in Montevideo,” young Felisberto is preparing for his first concert amidst great family turmoil. After the concert, he gets a job playing piano for a widow on the piano she had bought for a man who left her for another woman, a job which proves to be both disappointing and exhilarating. Like the rest of the collection, “My First Concert” has the feeling of an unlit room at dusk. Felisberto ends with a simple image whose subtle humor is the perfect ray of light at the close of this dark story. His ability to end stories so perfectly is truly impressive.
“The Crocodile” recalls the narrator’s days as a traveling salesman of women’s stockings who also arranges concerts in the cities he passes through. In the manner of most artists who must earn a living with work other than their particular art, the narrator is not very good at his day job and does not like it. He discovers that crying helps him to close a deal, and in a time and place where a crying man is a newsworthy occurrence, his ability to cry on command makes him famous. The tone of this short story, like that of the other stories “Mistaken Hands” and “The New House,” is more energetic, offering a nice break from the dense reflection of the opening novella. The last piece, another novella entitled Lands of Memory, is a bookend to the collection's opener: Clemente Colling figures into the reflections again, except this time Felisberto is older and a seasoned pianist who has grown into a version of Colling and obsesses over women and recalls more of his bygone youth.
Digression and reflection are the meat of Felisberto Hernandez’s Lands of Memory. The book may be ordered chronologically, but the reflective diversions fracture these tales out of linear shape. Readers who require a story that gets from A to B as the crow flies will probably not enjoy the frequent digressions. But those who savor ideas and sentences rendered in unusual, beautiful, and insightful ways will appreciate Felisberto’s style. In his world, the digressions into the unknown and exploring the mysteries of human nature are among the most compelling reasons for beginning the journey, not necessarily the headlong rush toward the final destination.
Brand-New Superheroes and
their Amazing (Short) Stories
Ed. by Owen King and John McNally
Free Press, July 2008
Paperback: 432pp; $16.00
Review by Matt Bell
Who Can Save Us Now? is a collection of twenty-two short stories that each provide a new take on superhero lore, twisting and turning genre conventions on their head in the hopes of providing a new experience within the framework of the short story. Editors Owen King and John McNally use the book's introduction to reflect on the difference between our world and the one that provided the more black-and-white conflicts of the Golden Age of comic books, setting the stage for tales of new superheroes "whose amazing abilities reflect and address our strange and confusing new conditions," specifically the more modern terrors of "suicide bombers, dwindling oil reserves, global warming, and an international community in complete disrepair."
That's a lofty goal, but not completely out of reach of these stories. The best succeed on both a literary level and a comic book level, creating characters with compelling arcs facilitated by their superpowers but not dependent on them. One of the best, Kelly Braffet's "Bad Karma Girl Wins at Bingo," tells about a girl named Cassandra Mulcahey whose terrible luck at everything is offset by the good luck of those around her. As Cassandra learns the limits of her karmic powers, she doesn't create a costume or take on an alter-ego (the name "Bad Karma Girl" exists only in the title). What she does do – and this is the heroic part – is learn to stop feeling bad for herself and to use her inverse luck to the benefit of others. After she stops a bar from being burglarized, she begins to wonder:
If she hadn't been there, the bartender would be dead and Stanko would be a murderer. Even the detective had said the outcome was amazing. She'd said she had no control over the things that happened around her; but there was something nagging at her now . . . All she'd ended up with was a broken wrist. Which seemed like not much, all things considered. Slipping in a puddle, losing your grip on a baseball bat: Those were small things too.
Had she made them happen? Could she make them happen consciously, when she wanted to? Because if she could – if she could the ramifications of that were potentially huge.
Cassandra's thoughts are the purest essence of the superhero origin, that moment where a person with unusual gifts understands that they have the ability to help others, even at great personal cost: Superman trapping his extraordinary self in the poor guise of Clark Kent to save his adopted world, Batman throwing away his fortune and possibly his life to protect a city that will never thank him – and now, Cassandra Mulcahey, who takes on the world's mishaps so that others might have a bit of good luck.
Other highlights include Elizabeth Crane's "Nate Pinckney-Alderson, Superhero," Stephanie Harrell's "Girl Reporter," and Michael Czyzniejewski's "When the Heroes Came to Town," plus stories by excellent literary writers like Scott Snyder, Jim Shepard, George Singleton, and Tom Bissell. Jennifer Weiner is perhaps the biggest "genre" writer in the collection, her chick-lit background giving her superhero story a plot-level success that occasionally eludes some of the more literary writers included here.
The weaknesses of the collection are slight and likely come from the premise of the book itself. Few of these stories have been previously published, and most were presumably written expressly for this collection. This has led to a number of stories where the major draw seems to be how different of a superhero the writer can dream up, such as John McNally's hero The Silverfish in "Remains of the Night" or the titular characters in Sam Weller's origin story "The Quick Stop 5." Luckily, these stories still generally succeed, and certainly their similar natures might be less obvious if they were to be read alone, outside of this collection.
Who Can Save Us Now? is a timely collection, published during what might be the peak of the superhero craze that has swelled over the last few years. In a year where all the biggest summer movies are based on comic books, it's good to see literary fiction getting in on the fun, offering up this compendium of new heroes to the mix. As kids, we all had a favorite superhero, the one who personified the mythic person we wished we could be. In the four hundred plus pages of this anthology, we're once again invited to find new heroes to identify with, the kind who just might make the adult versions of ourselves want to look deep inside and find something more there, some part of ourselves that's finally ready to strap on a cape and help save the world.
Novel by Joyce Hinnefeld
Unbridled Books, September 2008
Hardcover: 288pp; $24.95
Review by: Christina Hall
The quietly reliable narrator of In Hovering Flight, Joyce Hinnefeld's first novel, is an everywoman character named Scarlet Kavanaugh, who, despite being raised unconventionally by her bird-loving parents, is a remarkably subtle and relatable character. Possessed of her own interesting personality, Scarlet isn't excessively pro-nature like her recently deceased mother, Addie, or high society like their family friend, Lou. She is, however, the possessor of one of the three secrets that will eventually draw the primary themes of the entire novel together.
Even without these secrets to string the reader along, Hinnefeld's character development would be enough to drive the story. Even the visual and figurative theme of nature and birds seems almost superfluous to the interactions of Scarlet and her parents and her mother’s friends. The omniscient distance between the reader and Hinnefeld’s characters creates a realistic boundary, as if Scarlet and her family are friends we’re hearing about after an interval of separation. At the same time, all the dramatics in the novel – an affair, an illegal burial, an illegitimate child – never seem too loud or overbearing.
The characters and relationships of In Hovering Flight are the backbone of the novel, but Hinnefeld’s descriptions of nature's effects on the characters are no less impressive. Unlike other novels based on natural elements, such as Marilyn Robinson’s Housekeeping or Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer, the characters aren’t used to flesh out the environment. Instead, it’s the other way around. Hinnefeld uses the birds and woods in her novel to enhance the personalities and relationships of her major characters. For example, take this passage where Scarlet remembers how her parents would make up lullabies to sing to her:
Tom and Addie sang it together, and as Scarlet drifted in and out of sleep the creek outside their door turned into the sea, black and sheltering, and she into not a seal but a cormorant, warm in the nest of her mother’s arms, floating there, flushed with warmth despite the cold surrounding them.
Scarlet’s understanding of her parents, as well as her relationship with them, ebbs and flows like the creek in their backyard. By the end of the novel, the reader feels not only a kinship with Scarlet, but the same understanding of her parents and the world surrounding them that she does.
Two of the characters from In Hovering Flight write books of their own, debut works that will also be their last. Hinnefeld, on the other hand, has written a novel that will hopefully create a devoted following of readers patiently awaiting her next excellent work.