Posted December 1, 2011
Fiction by Daniel Sada
Translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver
Graywolf Press, April 2012
Paperback: 344pp; $16.00
Review by Wendy Breuer
In the opening scene of Almost Never, by Mexican writer Daniel Sada, the perturbed protagonist, Demetrio, an "agronomist" in Oaxaca, ponders his humdrum life. What will relieve his tedium? The answer: "Sex, as an apt pretext for breaking the monotony; motor-sex; anxiety-sex; the habit of sex, as any glut that can well become a burden; colossal, headlong, frenzied ambiguous sex … pretense-sex, see-through sex. Pleasure, in the end, as praise that goes against the grain of life."
Reading this novel is like watching an airplane movie without the sound. Sada creates a unique narrative voice. Imagine a rather arch seatmate providing running commentary on the action complete with exclamations of fictitious shock: "Oh my. What goes on here?" And this voice in your ear does not stint on providing explicit detail that cuts close to "too much information."
The plot is straightforward: It is 1945. Our young man on the make finds himself in a triangle playing Mireya, the earthy prostitute he meets at the local upscale brothel, against Renata, the beautiful ingénue kept on the short leash of bourgeois respectability by her overbearing Mama. Though tempted by the possibility of endless varieties of erotic fulfillment with Mireya, he abandons her and overcomes obstacles and setbacks toward the goal of respectable connubial security, all the while surrounded by a passel of widowed mothers, spinster aunts, and grasping madams. The fiancées' encounters take place sporadically one hour at a time over a period of five years. Walls are thin, and boundaries between parents and adult children are thinner.
The just-ended World War and its aftermath seem part of another world. This is also a story of provincial Mexico on the cusp of modernization: not much indoor plumbing, unreliable or nonexistent electricity, potholes and unpaved roads, one radio station, and rain barrel bathtubs. When Demetrio abandons Mireya on a train, he strikes out, hauling a suitcase with his life savings, into that ubiquitous Juan Rulfian desert, empty save for a curious mule driver to carry him to the next town.
He takes a job in northern Coahuila overseeing three livestock ranches, a milieu presented in a collage of brilliant detail: isolation, dust, animal husbandry and butchery, the race against heat to get unrefrigerated meat to small-town markets, masturbatory fantasies vs. the reality of sordid local bordellos, and camposino resignation vs. Demetrio's middle-class striving: "whatever existed outside this rustic scope of their life was and would be difficult: obstacles like too sharp thorns… Why try to join a society so unforgiving? One could confirm that illiteracy was synonymous with fixed deep rootedness, or merely a roughshod philosophy born and bred and dead in the opacity of a small unpopulated world."
Sada sends up the sexual mores of the rural bourgeoisie, tongue very much in cheek, but with compassion for both Demetrio's mama's boy machismo and Renata's ambivalent puritanism. What finally convinces Demetrio to succumb to carrot and stick courtship manipulations is careful cost-benefit analysis: marriage will be more economical and less dangerous than purchased sex. And for women, what are the options? Prostitution, repressed virginity, spinsterhood, or submissive wifehood. Only one character, the determinedly unmarried old maid, Cousin Zulema, briefly casts aside constraints, taking up with Abelardo, the now-widowed beloved of her youth: "holed up for three days during which the amusing—and fascinating—part was to watch Abelardo naked and using his cane to move around…of course she couldn't laugh, for she was ecstatic and he upon seeing her broad hips, her dropping flesh, likewise her breasts, like balls of socks, he had to hold back his urge to let out a giggle." But he dies in her arms.
Two problems: the snail-paced courtship sometimes starts to feel like it is playing out in real time; one wishes for more compression. Also, the narrative voice makes use of exclamations and slang that are difficult to translate, but North Americanisms like "phooey!" or "the big guy" or "the green-eyed gal" feel labored and distracting. The translator leaves some place names in Spanish, which gives the reader a sense of the way language is used in the original text—for example, a pair of brothels named La Presunsión (the guess) and La Entretenida (the aspirant or the entertaining). But it takes motivation to head for the Spanish/English dictionary.
Sada, born in 1953, has been publishing innovative novels since the '90s. Almost Never won the 2008 Herralde literary award and is the first of this writer's work to be translated into English. Despite what is lost in translation, the humanist scope of the novel shines through—just the right antidote to escape our own local solipsism.
Fiction by Stuart Nadler
Reagan Arthur Books, September 2011
Paperback: 236pp; $13.99
Review by Jodi Paloni
The seven stories that make up Stuart Nadler’s spirited debut collection, The Book of Life, are about men: husbands and boyfriends, fathers and brothers, sons and grandsons. They’re about relationships, the mistakes and the misunderstandings. As a whole, the collection strikes a balance between characters who reclaim a portion of what is lost and those who are humbled by their circumstances and left to persevere. Infidelity is the crux of six out of the seven stories, but Nadler’s characters find surprises inside surprises inside surprises, spiraling the life out of any potential clichés.
The title story, “The Book of Life,” begins and ends with the Days of Awe—a ten-day period of introspection in the Jewish faith between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—during which the characters, long-standing family friends, inadvertently trade one act of infidelity for another. Abe, a normally faithful husband, takes an uncharacteristic misstep that reels him headlong towards a swift and unexpected retribution. “He was not the sort of man to do such a thing. This was something he knew, unquestionably, in his heart.” Yet, Abe acts exactly as “the sort of man” he believes himself incapable of becoming, undermining the confidence that previously shored his convictions. When the tables are turned, “Suddenly, he found himself quite unsure what to think,” and irony overshadows his Day of Atonement.
Likewise, Eric, in “Our Portion, Our Rock,” blurs the lines between friendship and romantic love. After falling victim to an interminable string of sad events, he turns to a good friend, who’s married to his best friend, for illicit comfort. In “Beyond Any Blessing,” Daniel and Shari, once childhood sweethearts, struggle to maintain the physical boundaries against their unrelenting affection. Daniel, now married to Denise, tells the reader, “The best love affairs, I’d learned, die with incredible slowness.” When temptation persists, Shari holds her ground by mimicking a Shomer Negiah, an Orthodox Jew who restricts physical contact with a member of the opposite sex:
“It was a choice they made. But they always tried to find ways to circumvent it. They’d put a blanket between themselves and a boy and they’d hug or they’d hold hands with gloves on.”
“That sounds horrible.”
“It’s a way of cheating the forbidden,” she said, and then she sat up in bed, took a piece of her bedsheet, wrapped it around her hands, and softly, as if she were afraid that she might hurt me, she put her hand flat against my heart.
Despite the rituals and themes inherent to Judaism and referenced in many of the stories, the conflicts on the page translate to any reader concerned with issues of identity, loss, and frustrated desire. There is also appeal in the good dose of wit that tempers some rather tragic events. As one of Nadler’s characters puts it, “The line between humor and sadness is especially thin.” As in life, there are laugh-out-loud moments within the direst of situations.
Several of the stories revolve around family tensions and father/son dynamics. In “Winter on the Sawtooth,” Lewis’s newly devout son, Josh, returns home from college to grapple with his parents’ pending divorce. While Josh is shocked by his mother’s sudden impropriety and his father’s relaxed attitude, Lewis tries to field his son’s awkward questions about his wife’s behavior:
What I want to say is that her taking a lover is, in my opinion, a reaction to Josh going away, first the fear of it, and then the actuality of his absence. This is her way of filling an empty nest she wants nothing to do with, a crazy way of complicating her life. I may be wrong, of course. Peggy once told me that being wrong was a skill at which I was particularly gifted. But I can’t say any of this to my son.
In “Visiting,” Jonathon takes his disgruntled teenaged son, Marc, on a road trip to meet a grandfather that Marc never knew existed. Jonathan’s attempt to express confidence in his decision quickly pales as he drives closer to his childhood home, rife with bad memories. When Jonathon tells Marc an appalling secret about his childhood, thereby revealing his overt vulnerability, the barrier begins to break down between father and son.
Finally, in “The Moon Landing” and “Catherine and Henry,” read to explore ways in which some relationships can heal and forgive, and thereby transform, but perhaps never return to the way they once existed.
In fact, there’s not a story in the bunch that doesn’t express multiple levels of transformation as the result of characters doing the hard work of looking at their lives with an unqualified honesty. Whether victims of fate or perpetrators of misdeeds, and with little left to lose, the characters’ ability to persevere leaves readers believing in second chances.
Fiction by Helen Oyeyemi
Riverhead Books, September 2011
Hardcover: 324pp; $25.95
Review by Olive Mullet
For those familiar with the French folktale “Bluebeard,” especially in its various versions such as the British “Mr. Fox” and “Fitcher’s Bird,” Helen Oyeyemi’s novel Mr. Fox will delight. Even if you are not familiar with these other versions, you get them in this novel. You only need to love fairy tale convolutions, especially when blended with real-life situations.
In the original story, Bluebeard kills off his wives, while warning each one not to go into a certain room and yet leaving the key behind while he’s away. In the room, of course, are the other wives, brutally killed and dismembered. In an interview, Oyeyemi talks about the strange attractive repulsion felt for the wife killer in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. That story is about fidelity and committing to someone, and how that can be a horror story in and of itself as sort of a lifelong bond. But “Bluebeard” is different, especially in the British version “Mr. Fox,” where the English heroine, Lady Mary, confronts Mr. Fox with what’s in his house, and they have a battle of words. She strips him of his power with her words.
The power of words is certainly shown in this novel in the beautiful writing (“The next day’s noon came like a blazing hoop, and the sun spat razor blades through it”), and especially in the book’s very moving end. This story is a love triangle—Mr. Fox is a writer who loves both Mary Foxe, his imagined muse and fellow writer, and his wife Daphne, and the two women love him. The ramification of this love, strong even though one woman is imaginary, is shown in the various stories told throughout the novel, sometimes linked with recurring names and characters being transformed. We start with Mary visiting Mr. Fox and complaining of his killing off all the women in his stories. Later she spells her wishes out: “‘Your wife loves you. Turn to her. Properly. Stop fobbing her off and being a counterfeit companion. It would be good, if, after all this, just once you wrote something where people come together instead of falling apart. Just show me you can do it and I’ll leave you alone.’”
But when Mary visits Mr. Fox first, she challenges him to write less violently or else she will step in. So we have stories, written by one or the other, and even correspondence back and forth where she tries to get him to read her stories—to dire consequences for the manuscripts. This is a playful book in which imagination jumbles up stories and leads them to turn this way and that. The reader trying to find a clear structure in the novel will be stymied. Instead he must get absorbed in the stories, the way first readers of fairy tales do. There is some development in the course of the book in that finally Mary and Daphne meet, but even after the resolution of the triangle, there are two fox stories which are the most moving parts of the book, and illustrate the opposite ways love can go.
And when talking of love, the book is very real, as fairy tales tend to be:
I told him that I loved him. I’ve never ever said that to him before, because I just didn’t know how he’d take it. I love you. I mouthed the words because there didn’t seem any point in interrupting him just then. I don’t believe it’s the sort of thing a woman can tell a man more than say, three times in their life together. It’s only really appropriate in the event of a life-threatening emergency. ‘I love you.’ It means a different thing to us than it means to them. God knows what it means to them. God knows what it means to us.
The only problem with the novel is the possible frustration from its nonlinear progression. Also, though the stories are absorbing, they are not remembered because of how complicated they become. The author does seem to be making the point about the danger of love and that in imaginative fiction, never trust what you read as absolute reality. It may change in the next story. In this she has gone beyond the Bluebeard tale:
Miss Foxe’s other passion was fairy tales. She loved the transformations in them. Everybody was in disguise, or on their way to becoming something else. And all are overcome by order in the end. Love could not prevail if the order of the tale didn’t wish it, and neither could hatred, nor grief, nor cunning.
As Oyeyemi says through Mary Foxe: “Here is the truth about everything.”
Fiction by Ethel Rohan
PANK, September 2011
Paperback: 54pp; $6.50
Review by Michele Finkelstein
Hard to Say, recently published by PANK, contains a collection of short personal stories that will pluck at your heartstrings. Ethel Rohan, author of Cut Through the Bone and Dark Sky Books, executes the tone of youthful awkwardness with the perfect amount of bittersweet. The pangs of childhood tales and oddities resonate throughout the book, keeping the reader drawn until the finish.
Set in Dublin, Ireland, Rohan tells the story of a family’s hardships from the perspective of the eldest daughter. A mother’s depression and dwindling eyesight form the dark cloud within each setting and influence the story and temperament of her children. The trauma of such events causes the narrator to live silenced and mostly misunderstood. Rohan accomplishes a genuine childhood perspective of innocence and pairs it with graceful detailed language to provide a well-rounded snapshot depiction within every scene.
Even through the perspective of a child, Rohan achieves a complex character that leaves the reader intrigued. The story “Robbed” exemplifies this character’s inner struggle of self-expression. After witnessing a robbery the narrator reflects: “I worried they’d spotted me and would come after me to silence me. Not that they needed to come hush me. I wouldn’t identify them. I wasn’t a telltale. No, I’d keep it inside, I was swollen, bursting, with all I knew not to say.”
Similarly, in the story “Fresh from God,” Rohan sets the scene with extraordinary subtleties that allows the scene to breathe on its own. After a neighbor visits an exhausted mother whom recently birthed her sixth child, the narrator reflects, “I walked down the street hauling something huge and invisible behind me. Mrs. Dolan’s words, that our family was finished echoed inside my head. She’d spoken in kindness, but her words came at me again and again, bats in a cave.” Rohan’s ability to create emotive instances with simplistic language of a child’s perspective works wonderfully. Not only does the reader relate to the child, but one also is overwhelmed with empathy for her story.
Continuous themes of abuse, neglect, and mother figures permeate each chapter. Some may view this as an issue of redundancy. The conflicts may seem trite, each chapter holding similar problems, with different settings. However, the skepticism fades when it becomes evident that these stories gather to comprise a whole entity by the end. One that not only chronicles the life of the narrator, but gives the character a voice worth listening to.
Childhood is always an intriguing theme. It deepens the understanding of ourselves through the trials and struggles of the characters. The author’s last few stories provide us with a mature character with a voice and decision to leave her home. Without the support of her parents or siblings the final chapters reveal her own sense of self that is ready to be unleashed. This satisfies a truly great ending to such a painful tale: the narrator can at last separate herself from her past and start anew.
Edited by Ice Gayle Johnson, Jane Ormerod, Brant Lyon, Thomas Fucaloro
Uphook Press, September 2011
Paperback: 144pp; $15.00
Review by Aimee Nicole
Spoken word is powerful not only in language, but also performance. It can be difficult to capture the essence and emotion on the page; however, the writers in –gape–seed– have done just that. The diverse selection of poetry made it difficult to choose the best writers as each distinct piece had punch and power. At first I was wary; making a successful anthology of spoken word seemed like a tall order, but –gape–seed– inspired me to really feel the language as opposed to just reading it.
At the beginning of the book, Kelly Powell captured my attention with her poem “What if Buddha was a Moving Man?” The moving man is described as “The one driving the truck smoking / a cigar and belching, showing up drunk / and breaking the credenza.” She humanizes the god we are familiar with and allows him to make mistakes and grow as an individual. Rather than holding Buddha to the standards of a higher being, Powell presents us with a contemplative piece of poetry that considers many trials regular people face in our world. For example, consider: “What if his wife has just left him?” This is a situation we are familiar with either personally or through friends/family. Sometimes, higher beings can be hard to relate to as they are considered to be perfect entities; however, stripping away that perfection allows us to connect.
Joan Gelfand treats us to a poem about the infamous Sylvia Plath, titled “I Know why Sylvia Plath put her Head in the Oven.” She takes us through the day that Plath killed herself and takes us through the stress that pushed Plath over the edge. Her husband leaves for work and Plath is faced with dishes, leftovers, kids to take care of, laundry, spills: the mess of having a family. This family has completely taken over her freedom to write:
She woke with nuggets of poetry
A raging head but the babies needed breakfast
And poems evaporated like English fog
Lifting off the Devon trees.
Plath feels as if “everything has gone wrong.” This is not the life she wanted and her writing suffers so severely that she sacrifices ideas and “nuggets” to take care of her children. In the end, Plath cannot reconcile her art with her family which becomes her ruin.
This anthology features Regie Cabico, a pioneer in the spoken word industry. Uphook Press includes an interview with Cabico in the book to introduce his poetry. He has won countless awards and competed at the national level, and his work has been included in over 30 collections. When asked about the up—and downsides—of poetry as competition, Cabico admits that “regarding the poetry slam, it’s an imperfect beast. It brings out the Black Swan from the poet and sucks the duende from your soul.” A lot of hate has stemmed from slamming; however, Cabico has actively worked to promote acceptance of all backgrounds and different ways of life.
In his poetry, Cabico speaks of past lovers and reveals many specific details that bring us into his life and relationships. Instead of giving us a broad, bland overview, he allows us to peer into his sexual interactions in his poem “A Midlife Crisis of the Olfactory Kind”:
When I went back to The Neverland Bar,
a hobbit offered to suck my dick.
I turned around and said, “That is the nicest thing
anyone has ever said to me!” His offer smelled
a thousand pokes on Facebook
and an episode of Extreme Home Makeover.
I explained to him, I don’t want a boyfriend.
I just want to have sex with a guy on a regular basis
whose name I know.
Poetry should make you appreciate the art of experience. Spoken word allows a reader to sit back and be transported to another world. It is truly impressive when spoken word translates to paper just as powerfully, as the writers in this anthology have accomplished.
Waiting: Selected Nonfiction
Nonfiction by Elizabeth Swados
Hanging Loose Press, June 2011
Paperback: 200pp; $19.00
Review by Patricia Contino
It wasn’t that long ago when Broadway producers put originality before the box office and tourists. In 1979, the New York Shakespeare Festival moved Runaways, another in a series of sold-out shows (the most successful 1975’s A Chorus Line; the most recent 2010’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson), uptown from Astor Place. The musical, featuring real runaway teenagers, was composed, written, and directed by Elizabeth Swados. Runaways received multiple Tony nominations and established Liz Swados’s reputation. As she makes clear in Waiting: Selected Nonfiction, she has been “trashed, resurrected, trashed, and mentored dozens of young artists. I’ve survived well.” Despite its brief length, Waiting is a thoroughly friendly introduction to Swados’s life and work, a wistful remembrance of a vibrant era in New York theatre, and a perceptive look at how theatre is created.
A Buffalo, NY native, Swados comes from a family of accomplished professionals (father Robert was a lawyer and co-founder of the Buffalo Sabres hockey franchise), writers (second cousin Harvey’s Nights in the Gardens of Brooklyn is available from New York Review Books), and educators (Pulitzer Prize-winning professor and historian Richard Hofstadter married into the family). Thus it is no surprise that she discovered music at an early age. In an excerpt from Listening Out Loud, she recalls her first efforts at composing:
I’d found a language that was secret, controllable, and my own. My senses woke up; I sweated as if I was doing sports; I felt brave and excited as if I were a heroine at the beginning of a long adventure. At the age of five I didn’t care about the other composers whose music sat at the piano. The idea that anyone might know my sounds would have seemed absurd. No one else had been there. No one heard what I heard. I owned the world.
Such an artistic, upwardly mobile circa-1950s family unit was ripe for jealousies, resentments, and longstanding arguments. What further distinguishes the Swados family is tragedy. The author is candid about her bipolarism throughout this collection and in the 2005 memoir My Depression: A Picture Book. Elsewhere, particularly her 1991 memoir The Four of Us, she has discussed her mother, an alcoholic who committed suicide, and her older brother Lincoln, a schizophrenic.
The heart of Waiting—and indeed of Swados’s life—is contained in the essay “The Story of a Street Person.” Written with the alternating voices of a confused teenager and adult’s careful, deliberate reconstruction of her family history for the benefit of a close friend, Liz memorializes the brother that her parents treated like a “monster,” who “went to college and never returned.” Perhaps not so shockingly to those who grew up in post-World War thru late 1970’s America, her parents did not tell her of Lincoln’s diagnosis until she was in her twenties:
My family didn’t intend to create a damaging situation by lying to me. It was just that there was no precedent. They didn’t know what to do. Mental illness at that time constituted the shame of shames. My father could not accept that Lincoln’s sickness was not an act of will on the part of a severely delinquent boy. Schizophrenia is an extremely guilt-provoking disease…The acceptance that it is a disease is the only positive first step, and my parents, disgusted, terrified, and prejudiced about mental illness, couldn’t get that far.
Lincoln attempted suicide and ended up homeless. “Generalizations are worthless” his sister reasons; her brother was “brought low by a specific, personal demon.” He died at the age of 46 barricaded in a Lower East Side shack he refused to vacate.
Readers do not need to be told outright where the author finds her inspiration. Elizabeth Swados’s work speaks for itself. For example, Haggadah, a staged interfaith Passover oratorio, has its origins in early happy family memories of seders marking her “first exposure to real theatre.” In 2005, along with her New York University colleagues, she created the annual Reality Show, a musical, non-preachy presentation designed to help freshmen acclimate to their new school and its environs. Based on the true story of the Dominican Republic’s successful effort in rescuing 800 Jews during the Holocaust, 2010’s Sosua was devised specifically for and performed by children from the Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights. The essay “Job: He’s A Clown” is a detailed analysis of how Ms. Swados combined the Old Testament horror story with one of the earliest and most endearing forms of entertainment. Her description recreates the 1994 production in words:
Of course clowns do scream for relief. By the time thirty pies have been thrown in Job’s face, he would demand an explanation. “Why me? Why not Eilphaz, Bildad, or the clown on the unicycle or the one on the donkey?” The silence that meets Job’s entreaties makes his temper seem more ridiculous. A lonely clown shaking his fist in an empty tent yelling at the empty sky is a perfect image of madness.
Perhaps only a composer—an American composer open to sound, ideas, and ethnic diversity—can describe the city of Jerusalem as “a kind of ecumenical Charles Ives concert.” Even better, Elizabeth Swados also knows what music can mean in someone’s life: “Hearing good music is a little like falling in love. You’re not sure what hit you, but you suddenly feel shaky and excited and intensely alive. Superficial music may touch a listener in a superficial way, but only fresh, genuine sound truly moves the spirit.”
The same can be easily applied to Elizabeth Swados’ own music, theatre, and her engaging collection of essays.
Graphic Novel by Craig Thompson
Pantheon Books, September 2011
Hardcover: 672pp; $35.00
Review by Holly Zemsta
I picked up Habibi and thumbed through it with the intent of gathering its basic information for NewPages. Only a small number of the books we receive here are graphic novels, and my familiarity with the genre extends to buying Batman comics for a family member and having watched the movie version of Sin City. So I was curious to see what a two-inch-thick graphic novel consisted of.
Nearly three hours later, I looked at the corner of the book and realized I was on page 493.
It’s just that easy to be drawn in. The story is ostensibly simple: two escaped Middle Eastern slave children care for one another as best they can in a bleak, poisoned world, trying to survive all manner of degradations. But author Craig Thompson fleshes this out into an epic tale. A number of stories from Islam, Christianity, and Judaism intertwine with the plot, along with a generous dose of Arabian Nights and a dystopian setting.
Graphic novel novices needn’t be afraid of the format. Anyone moderately well-read will find many basic tropes of a literary novel here: a storyline that bounces around in time, keeping readers in suspense as to its final resolution; characters that represent ideas, yet are fully realized on their own; and traditional themes such as sin, sexuality, the power of language, and the devastation of the environment. Reading Habibi is like reading any other good book—it just has a lot of pictures to accompany it.
And those pictures… In an interview, Thompson said he worked on this project for about six years, two of those researching and creating a rough storyboard, and four more creating the final artwork. It’s not surprising that it took so long. Lush is perhaps the best word to describe the book’s graphics—the novel, in stark black and white, employs a mix of calligraphy, Arabic script, ornate borders, and geographic motifs, leading the reader through a visual feast. Illustrations of the stories from various religions are especially extravagant. One almost forgets the book doesn’t take place in the distant past. In fact, one of the few faults I found with Habibi was the occasional modern note that yanked me from the dream-like quality of the book. When Thompson recounts the story of Noah, it’s a bit jarring to have Noah suddenly refer to his wife as a “battleaxe” and “ball and chain”—though these bits of Thompson’s humor are, to be sure, the only bits that lighten the heaviness of the story.
And make no mistake, this isn’t a read for the faint of heart. By the second page, Dodola is sold by her parents to a scribe and becomes a wife at the age of nine; this is only the beginning of a long thread of prostitution, sex, and rape that forms the bleak backbone of the book’s plot. The graphic novel format doesn’t make the author gloss over any of these issues (in fact, “graphic novel” has a couple of different meanings for this book), so the prudish or easily offended will want to read elsewhere. But though sexuality is a major portion of Habibi, none of it is gratuitous or simply titillating.
Despite the darkness of the story, there is a great deal of hope as well: the love between the two children as they grow, the thoughtful comparisons between the tales of major religions, the actions of a handful of unselfish characters. And in what other graphic novel might a reader see a side-by-side comparison between Aristotle, the “father of biology,” and Jabir Ibn Hayyan, the “father of chemistry”?
Thompson’s last work, Blankets—a different type of graphic novel, detailing his Midwestern upbringing—won a number of awards in the field; I imagine his latest will be no different. I can’t speak as to how many other graphic novels like this one exist, fully realized in a literary sense (though I’m sure they’re out there), but for readers who have been curious about the medium, Habibi is a fantastic introduction to it.
Nonfiction by Carolyn Weber
Thomas Nelson, August 2011
Paperback: 480pp; $16.99
Review by Cheryl Wright-Watkins
Carolyn Weber's relationship with Oxford University began with a surprise when she received a letter in the mail announcing that she had won a full scholarship to pursue her post-graduate studies there. Without her knowledge, a professor had submitted her name for consideration for the scholarship. The book chronicles many more surprises that accompany Weber's Oxford experience, most significantly her spiritual journey from cynical agnostic to evangelical Christian. Without a note of self-pity, Weber describes growing up in poverty with her mother and siblings after her father abandoned the family. A high-achieving student, she realized that through hard work she could improve her future prospects and become self-sufficient. Weber's admission that she lied about her age on the application in order to qualify for her first job is particularly poignant following recollections of her family's lavish lifestyle during her early childhood, before her father's questionable business deals and resulting arrest doomed the family to financial devastation.
In addition to a large suitcase full of shoes, Weber recalls some of the baggage that she brought along to Oxford, including her feminist insistence on self-reliance, her distrust of men, her refusal to believe in a God whose existence she couldn't scientifically or intellectually prove. Vivid descriptions of her father's violent and erratic behavior during random and infrequent visits explain Weber's cynicism about men, which intensifies her reluctance to adopt a patriarchal religion.
The book's title acknowledges C. S. Lewis's memoir, Surprised by Joy, and includes several quotes from Lewis, his work, and other works of literature, a technique that highlights the writer's knowledge of classical literature and lends an intellectual flair to the book. She includes contemporary popular song lyrics, adding to the book's approachability. Weber was frequently irritated when she was unable to "unhear the good news" of the gospel once she heard it: "It is like a great big elephant in a tiny room." She engages readers through wit and humor, such as the passage in which she describes dragging her heavy luggage through Oxford's cobblestone streets, "I brought many shoes. I had no idea at the time of the significance of all these soles accompanying me."
Many of Weber's Oxford classmates and professors were devout Christians, and the writer recalls numerous conversations that fueled her curiosity about God. One of her first encounters at Oxford was with an American theology student who urged her toward Christianity and whose "unwavering tone of patience, respect, and kindness spoke to me more than all the syllogisms or intellectual arguments put together." Throughout the book, Weber calls this man "TDH" (Tall, Dark, Handsome) or the "son of a preacher man." She hints at her romantic interest in him in an early reference that is accompanied by lyrics from Dusty Springfield's song that declares, "The only one who could ever reach me was the son of a preacher man." The writer reveals in the epilogue the vital role that this man, who played a pivotal role in her conversion, has played in her life since she left Oxford.
As a metaphor to illustrate her internal debate over whether or not to accept God, Weber, who admits to having a poor sense of direction, recounts several examples of getting "lost," a word also used by Christians to describe the spiritual condition of non-Christians. She often relays her thoughts as quotations to reflect the confusion and internal conflict that weighed heavily on her while she contemplated Christianity.
Weber reveals in the preface that, like most memoirs, "most names have been changed, some features altered, and a few natures, at times, have been collapsed into one," and in the epilogue she acknowledges the passage of seventeen years between her Oxford graduation and her writing this book. These admissions bring into question the veracity of the many pages of dialogue. The benefit of unfolding her story in scene is that the reader feels as though he/she has personally witnessed the painful path to Weber's eventual conversion.
A teacher once told Weber that "anything not done in submission to God, anything not done to the glory of God, is doomed to failure, frailty, and futility." Her book reads like a prayer of thanksgiving for the infectious joy that she found through Christianity. This is a book for Christians, for those exploring Christianity, and for those wrestling with their faith.
Fiction by John Franc
Tin House Books, September 2011
Paperback: 250pp; $15.95
Review by David Breithaupt
I have to admire a writer who attempts to take on the adult male sexual psyche. As a 52-year-old male myself, it's still a mystery to me. John Franc, however, has attempted such a feat in his new novel, Hooked. Franc's tale involves the bonding of a group of middle-aged men who meet socially two or three times a month for poker or drinks. They are white, successful, and of course, bored as hell. Their wives are the proverbial soccer moms though still "hot" according to the husbands. They have children, are married and have the potential to be pillars of their community.
Their town (which is unnamed) has legalized brothels and here is where the fun begins. The men are drawn to the women, to the obscure addresses that seem to be known only by men on the same mission. They are timid at first, as if having gone full cycle back to the adolescent angst of teenage dating. In time they gain confidence and the brothels become a regular activity. They are now men with something on the side, a little variety to spur them through middle age. Perhaps it is their final nod to the mystery of the new, of sex, of illicit romance. The narrator explains:
It was all an escape, it was all a journey, it was all discrete from the rest of your life, discrete and discreet, until one fine day when you would be found out. And then? And then?
The row house ticked around you, it was its own bomb waiting to explode in your face and blast you into the land of shame and isolation. You were sick, we were sick, we all seemed to be getting this bug, this incessant desire for pleasure without personal cost, for pleasure whenever and however and in whatever color and shape and tone we wanted.
The husbands struggle with their own rationalizations and the arrangement continues until one member succumbs to guilt and confesses all to his wife. The admission causes his spouse to flee with their children to a destination unknown, a disappearance so final that in time the confessor is suspected of foul play. The ensuing investigation splinters the group into individual introspections about family, love and life. Franc's novel, in time, almost becomes a psychological thriller. I won't spoil the ending for you, but you will want to follow this story's path to the end.
In prose that is vivid and precise, John Franc renders his tale in a contemporary, poetic, stop-time portrait. Probing a theme that has endured countless colonoscopies since man first discovered erections, he avoids clichés and offers no final pronouncement on the mysterious relationship between a man and his penis.
Fiction by Vincent Standley
Calamari Press, August 2011
Paperback: 189pp; $18.00
Review by J. A. Tyler
A Mortal Affect, Vincent Standley’s debut novel and the latest release from Calamari Press, is all about creating a world, inventing a vocabulary, and then approaching a proposed conundrum of what it would be like to have a portion of the world immortal, and a portion not. Full of Dante-esque circles of assigned living, painted blue welfare blocs of housing, Rooters (the mortal creatures that populate the novel), and Malkings (the immortals who vie for appropriate living throughout A Mortal Affect), this is a book that attempts to grow a universe, roots and all, in a mere two hundred pages:
Not so long ago I regarded immortality a blessing. Malkings are the immortal mortals; they are bound to Earth but will never die. They will know their author once in the beginning and never again thereafter. The Malkings have no adoptive parents. No one to offer instruction and assurances in times of doubt. No cradle or loving caress. No surnames. And of course in the midst of all else, these orphans will never know an end.
A Mortal Affect loosely follows a handful of characters from start to finish, including Lob, who quests for a new kind of cooking method beyond toasters, deluxe toasters, toaster ovens (the required preparation tools of the Rooters), Dorthea, whose hidden patriarchal name creates stress in and around her life in the housing units, and the narrator’s constant and eventually failing search for a way to be free, for a mortal affect:
Initially, I executed a series of exploratory attempts to determine the most promising methods. Decapitation came after numerous failures—gas, asphyxiation, poisoning, produced enormous discomfort and disfigurement but, obviously, not death. Since none of my earliest attempts resulted in the complete separation of the body from itself, decapitation had come to stand out as the last hope. Alas.
As with any novel that attempts to create or envision a world unlike our own, there is the task of defining all necessary items in order to make the imagined feel as tangible as possible. This, unfortunately, is Standley’s greatest pitfall. While A Mortal Affect does have a through-line of plot, it is scattered and often lost by the desire to flesh out the life and times of these Rooters and Malkings, spending nearly half of the novel explaining and outlining where this world came from, how it functions, and the ‘reality’ of living in it. This leaves A Mortal Affect feeling at numerous occasions like a technical manual or clinical guide, like governmental transcripts from filibusters or footnotes to long-lost historical studies, instead of a tightly wound novel:
Four books composed the Archaic Record: the “Book of Creations,” the “Book of Discoveries,” the “Book of Details,” and the “Book of Predictions.” Any inherent power could at any minute be toppled by a breakthrough in AR hermeneutics. If the “Book of Discoveries” contained an analog to the power in questions, the inherent power became an inherited power. Those who believed all knowledge came from the Scriptures replaced inherent with placeholder.
This kind of literary-slash-fantasy writing, the borderline of genres, it takes a gentle hand. David Ohle’s cult classic Motorman and subsequent serial volumes, including Calamari’s own release of Ohle’s The Camp / Boons, is a prime example of how this tender coaxing can work, creating a world we’ve never seen but one we can feel the reality in, and one that remains focused on well-developed characters and a driving plot. Vincent Standley’s A Mortal Affect shows the other side of this attempted cross-genre leap, where so much time is spent establishing norms of a non-existent world that we don’t quite get to feel at home with the characters or moved by their plots—instead, we are balanced in the in-between, trying to glean a story from without, attempting to find the narrative threads.
Poetry by Martha Rhodes
Autumn House Press, January 2012
Paperback: 54pp; $14.95
Review by Aimee Nicole
In 2012, Martha Rhodes will come out with her fourth collection of poetry, titled The Beds.
The book is divided into three parts, with various themes and images threaded through each section. They tell a story full of anger and pain. An unhappy marriage detailed by betrayal and resentment propels the reader forward. It is not until the last section that the narrator experiences honesty of self and some form of personal growth.
The most anger comes through in the first section of the collection. The narrator misses her husband while he is living in the same house; the two are strangers with such a great divide between them that there is no way to bridge the gap. In her poem “It Fell on Me,” the narrator admits that:
It was never my ambition
to be the good daughter.
Was, though, to be
my husband’s good wife.
And now, he’s silent too—
and the western reaches of the bed,
his side, stay light, and a fault line
divides our small plot.
Instead of finding that bridge, the narrator resorts to hating her husband. She details taking care of him through a concussion, shortly followed by the admission that he cannot go to hell soon enough. She resents him for not appreciating her and not paying her close (or any) attention.
The second part of the book considers the end of the relationship; the narrator admits to stealing his field (a theme that runs throughout the section). In one sad poem, “Sex,” the narrator is wishing for slow sex and detailing the anticipation leading up to their encounter; however, the last lines are focused on her wondering whether or not this was their last time. This section is more contemplative than the last:
passing through, to visit
someone, though I am not
quite sure who, actually, and if
I am to say hello, or goodbye—
She struggles to figure out her place in the relationship, but is beginning to move forward. The last poem in the section is titled “True Hope,” which reaffirms the big shift from the previous section.
In the third part of the collection, the poem “New Bed” dives into the narrator’s new life. Rhodes writes that it is “my new launch pad, from which my soul / may eventually, balloon-like, lift, its string / dangling from the ginkgo across the street.” The strong imagery lets the reader feel the emotional impact of the narrator’s choices, as they lead her to a new and improved life (and a healthy one at that). Rather than focusing so much on her relationship with her husband, the narrator brings her family into the mix:
the jade, actually, our mother’s—
what she last bought the eve she lost
all memory of what it is to buy something,
to recognize what it is you want, to point
to it and say, That should be mine now.
And then it is.
Sometimes, we forget to take care of ourselves first and spend too much time trying to improve the lives of others. By the end, the narrator is finally beginning to see what is important and is aspiring to obtain what she wants. Though the collection is raw and negative to start, Rhodes takes us full circle in the grieving process and lifts us up with hope at the close.