The Marble Army

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By: Gisele Firmino
Paperback: 184 pages
Publisher: Outpost19 (March 1, 2016)
Reviewed by: Vickie Fang

It’s a cliche of historical fiction writing that if major historical events are portrayed, then the main characters must be the people who drove those events. Gisele Firmino’s charming new novel, The Marble Army, turns that cliche on its head, ignoring the dictators who oppressed the people of Brazil in the 1960s and focusing on the family that is left behind when a teenage boy is “disappeared” for his small protests against the military regime.  The regime itself  — its leaders, rivals, rationales — appear not as they would to historians, but as they would to the ordinary victims of the time, as a series of catastrophes, dimly resented, not even remotely understood.

The novel begins in a mining town where the narrator’s father works in the mines as a supervisor. The new regime sends “the General,” along with an armed guard, to oversee the change in ownership. The men, who have known nothing except mining, are lined up and given the  opportunity leave or to work for the new boss. It is far from an easy decision.

Some of the miners posed as if they were about to have their portraits taken, hoping their faces, their already nostalgic eyes, would tell each of their stories for generations to come. Some held on to their tools as if they were mementos they should never part with, while others hooked their thumbs through their belt loops, on a desperate attempt to look tough. After a day’s work in side the mine, the men were covered in black dust, creating the illusion of a uniformed army, or that of slaves, depending on who was watching.

This sense, of uncertainty, of the hope of strength and the uneasy realization that they may already be defeated, permeates the book. After their son disappears, the mother lives in hope, which looks very much like denial, while her husband takes the opposite approach. She would leave snacks outside his bedroom window, in hopes he would pass by some day and not resist. I’m pretty sure my father was convinced that he was dead, although he wouldn’t dare say it. It was an objectivity he always said ran in the Fonte family, but I saw it as hopelessness. There is a scene of near desperation in the Andes. Guerrilla training in the Andes. Except no one really knew what they were doing. Most days they just fought among themselves. Even something as innocuous as seeing a young soldier wearing a fairly commonplace Sao Jorge pendant sparks fear that the man has killed the missing son and taken his necklace. (I)t seemed pretty clear that he didn’t seek protection, but instead he carried it like a trophy, a proof of his dominance, a reminder of his power. 

In this world of dread and confusion, the family attempts to carry out what is left of their life. They move away from the mining town when the father leaves his job, then move again when their child disappears. The younger brother grows up, goes to college, and, like his parents, tries to hold on to his sanity by sacrificing  for the rest of his family. He also tries to emulate his brother by spray painting his brother’s message, They Can’t Shut Us Up, although what it is he or anyone else actually wants to say is not particularly clear. This is a book of great, inchoate yearning.

It is also a marvelously realistic and effective book of details. We know what the dirt near the mine smells like, where to get fresh parsley for dinner, the importance of wiping down the moist walls every day during the hot and humid period that begins in December. Most delightfully, we learn how a small, overlooked thing can lead to a marble army. Read about how Firmino incorporated scenes of daily life with her research into her nation’s past in this interview with Ellen Birkett Morris.

 

 

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The Book of Harlan

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By: Bernice L. McFadden
Print Length: 354 pages
Publisher: Akashic Books; (April, 2016)

Reviewed by: Vickie Fang

The Book of Harlan, which begins in Georgia with the innocent longings of a preacher’s young daughter and ends in New York with an explosive outburst from an aging holocaust survivor, could serve as a how-to manual on making a wide swath of history both accessible and fascinating for a lot of people. Like almost all good works of historical fiction, it unites the great sweep of history with the struggles of very individualized characters who are far more interested in their own needs than the those of the larger world. The preacher’s young daughter dreams of stardom as a pianist, hardly imagining, or for that matter, caring, about the significance of the dawning jazz era. The holocaust survivor knows only his own pain, not the convulsions of a world at war. The reader, however, is able to enjoy both the large and small scale stories, told in short, vivid, explosive chapters  made all the more interesting by the fact that, as a Black man, Harlan manages to inhabit both the wider worlds available to him as a musician and the narrow confines of Jim Crow.

The preacher’s young daughter is Harlan’s mother who leaves her comfortable, upper middle class home to marry a working man, soon finding herself  in the only job available for a Negro woman, “weeping in shame over all those rich white people’s floors, silverware, and bed linen.” As she puts it, she “was raised in silk, now living in burlap.” When she does manage to come into some money, she moves with her husband and young son, Harlan, to New York where she remains on the periphery of the exploding worlds of Harlem’s jazz and swing scene. Her childhood friend, who has become a successful singer, lives nearby, and the two women resume a friendship that allows McFadden to tell a very urban story in a very down-home way. When the spoiled and thoughtless Harlan leaves high school to play guitar full time, the novel tells a personal story of dissolution while introducing a series of minor characters who are striving to create better lives for themselves.

Harlan gets his big break at the book’s midpoint — his youthful band is invited to perform in Paris. Only one person, a friend named Lizard, worries that February of 1940 is not a good time to go to France, and Lizard is overruled by his excited friends. Even after the Germans invade, Harlan never does understand the danger he’s in. Apparently, he has a great deal of company.

God cried. The dry bones of the devout crackled in the cemeteries, skies split, bled pink, and the devil wailed: Don’t worry tomorrow, live for today. Don’t just dip your toe, wade in. Discard your scarves, welcome the wind against your neck; let it rake its airy fingers through your hair. Leave your umbrellas at home, step out into the rain and get wet. Let the children have cake for breakfast, tell strangers you love them. Fuck, drink. Feed the pigeons fresh bread. These are the last days; there will be no weeping here because Montmartre is not a place of sadness or regrets, it’s a haven of art, freedom, and celebration, so revel, revel!

A long and powerful series of scenes follow, telling the rarely-imagined plight of a black man in a concentration camp. Harlan returns home, but he will never be the same again. He will wander through the rise of the civil rights movement, the loss of his friends, his parents’ old age, and his own inheritance of the family home in Georgia. Driven by memories, powerful outside forces, and un-examined needs, Harlan could be a stand-in for most of humanity. When he lashes out in the end, McFadden unleashes a series of surprises that dazzle Harlan and the reader alike. It is a richly satisfying about a rather small man who perseveres through a great era.

 

 

 

 

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Measure of Darkness

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By: Liam Durcan
Length: 254 pages
Publisher: Bellevue Literary Press (March, 2016)

Reviewed by: Vickie Fang

This is a complex book based on a very simple plot line. An architect, Martin, who has been in a serious traffic accident suffers from long term neurological damage affecting his ability to process visual information. Martin leaves the hospital with his formerly estranged older brother, hoping to regain his prominent career, but at the end of the book he is still struggling to manage even daily self-care. The humble events that make up the plot manage to encompass many great issues — neglect of family relationships, aging, compassion, reconciliation, vision, aesthetics, even the stifled career of a Soviet architect  — but most of all, they are a meditation on the limits of personal power. Slowly, quietly,  inexorably, Durcan makes clear just how profound those limits are and that they are imposed both from within and without.

From the beginning Martin is aware that his own hopes for rehabilitation are much more optimistic than his doctors’.

He was unrealistic; he was in denial. He could walk, though; didn’t that
count for something? How many others could claim to have walked out
of the Dunes? His wing of the Dunes hosted residents whose stories hadn’t
allowed them to come this far, shrieking, tremulous young men who’d lost
their footing on a rooftop or whose motorcycle had found that
infamous dream-ending, dream-beginning patch of wet pavement. Bed to bath, bath to chair, chair to bed. He could hear their lives triangulated in these short
voyages, in the grunts and groans of the orderlies, whose efforts they
needed to move at all. But that wasn’t his life. That wasn’t him.

When he meets with his former partners from the firm he had founded, he realizes that one partner’s smiling reassurances mean that he is now “the asshole client” that she is manipulating while the other partner has become noticeably more relaxed and confident because he had needed “only the leveling effects of brain trauma for it to be a fair fight.” The world that Martin had built for himself before his injury is not a kind or welcoming place. In fact, the only real kindness he receives is from the brother he hasn’t spoken to in decades and who doesn’t much like him. Good luck, in other words, is also possible, as he accepts the unearned grace of a sibling who has a strong nurturing bent and is at a crossroads in his own life.

The Measure of Darkness shifts to this brother Brendan’s point of view, allowing insight that Martin wouldn’t have been capable of and giving the reader a welcome escape from Martin’s limitations. Brendan, however, has his own life to assess, and the effort of caring for his crippled and irritable brother brings him into greater awareness of his own shortcomings. It is Brendan who probes the question of whether character flaws are inborn or chosen over time as he becomes increasingly aware of the hidden similarities that he and Martin share.

Together the two brothers also paint a picture of Martin’s strange visual deficits. We see a small part of the world, for example, a deck on a lake house, through Martin’s eyes as he moves awkwardly across it, and then we see Martin himself as his brother watches his stumbling progress. Like so much of life, these deficits are always present and yet they seem to disappear and re-emerge. One moment Martin is talking with his brother during the drive, the next he is wondering why the grey sky is taking up so much of the horizon, only to puzzle out the fact that he is seeing the aluminum side of a truck that is traveling at the same speed.

For all that is explored in this book, it is Martin’s loss of his ability to control the visual world that is most important. He returns again and again to his old idol, the Soviet architect Melnikov whose career was destroyed by Stalin. The beauty of Melnikov’s thoughts, the tragic frustrations of his life, and the apparent passivity in which he must endure form a triangulation of their own. It’s one that Martin attempts to understand as he takes up the old man’s question of the meaning of despair and the possibility of acceptance.

 

 

 

 

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The Past

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Written by: Tessa Hadley
Number of pages: 325 pages
Publisher: Harper (January 5, 2016
Reviewed by: Ellen Birkett Morris

Tessa Hadley’s novel The Past, uses the English countryside, with its wide open fields, dark forests and dilapidated houses, as a backdrop for a story that explores desire and fulfillment across two generations of a family.
The novel takes place in the family home in Somerset. The first and third sections of the book are set in present day and titled The Present. Four siblings, Alice, Harriet, Roland and Fran, with Fran’s children Arthur and Ivy, Roland’s daughter Molly and his wife Pilar, and Alice’s ex-boyfriend’s son Kasim, gather for three weeks to decide the fate of their grandparent’s house. In the middle section, titled The Past and set in 1968, the siblings’ mother Jill and three of the children come to her parent’s house when Jill leaves the children’s father.
The stories echo across time as they explore questions of desire and fulfillment, connection and separateness. This mood of the novel is set early on as Alice stands in the house and experiences this:
. . . light moving on pink wallpaper, the dark bulk of the wardrobe in the corner
of her vision, the children’s voices from outside, the room’s musty air and its secrets, a
creak of the floorboards—these aroused a memory so piercing and yet so indefinite
that it might only have been a memory of a dream. There was summer in the dream,
and a man, and some wordless, weightless signal of affinity passing between him and
her, with everything to play for.
The novel echoes this dream in scenes between the Molly and Kasim, as they strike up a youthful romance, Harriet and Pilar, as Harriet experiences a surprising attraction, and Jill and an old school mate Mikey, as Jill struggles to figure out what do about her marriage.
The natural world is both itself and a rich metaphor for desire and the cost of giving in to your impulses. As Harriet writes in her diary:
In the field above Bardon Huish I found what I’d never seen before: a waterfall
hidden in a cleft in the ground, grown thickly over with brambles. The berries
still very green and hard. The little fall of water jetting off its miniature cliff
curved purely and perfectly as glass, yet not still but in perpetual motion, I
interrupted it with my hand, feeling its force, indifferent to me. Touched myself
with the water, although of course I knew it might be poisonous.

The writing stops short of magical realism as characters feel called to walk the countryside, are enchanted by the ramshackle remains of a cabin (home to several pivotal scenes), and seek to lose themselves in the wilderness.
The book is satisfying, as it confirms that suspicion we all have that we carry the sins of our parents and grandparents that we are in some ways replaying the roles they played as we move forward into the future shadowed by the past.

Ellen Birkett Morris’s author interviews and book reviews have appeared in Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, The Courier-Journal, Best New Fiction and Authorlink.

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The Soul Hunters

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By: Christopher Torockio
Paperback: 292 pages
Publisher: Black Lawrence Press (February 15, 2016)

Reviewed by: Vickie Fang

The Soul Hunters takes place in a single afternoon and night during which three brothers come together to finish cleaning out the family home after their father’s death. Accompanied by their wives, they take in what is left of a yard sale; they get pizza; they bury a dog. They do average things because they are average, contemporary, middle class, middle aged men. Still, as I read this book, I kept thinking of the novels written in another era about high society Bostonians or New Yorkers. Torockio brings the careful, psychological analysis of Wharton or James to lives of his characters, rendering them complex, individual, and deeply worthwhile as they go about their apparently ordinary lives.

Early on, son Nick, recalls his confusion when a military doctor examining him in 1967 determines him unfit for duty because a high school football injury has left him unable to fully raise his left arm. The sergeant who processes his paperwork is equally confused.  “So what’s the problem? That your jerking off arm?” Filled with unnamed, conflicting emotions, Nick goes home to tell his father.

“Well, I . . . I kinda failed.”
And his father’s gaze left him for just a moment, a brief scan of the sky above the grape arbor and then returned. “You did, huh?”
“Yeah.”
“Your shoulder.”
Nick nodded. He sensed a pulling in his chest. He was ashamed; he was insanely happy. He had the distinct understanding that he was safe, yet this safety made him sick with fear.
His father rose, nodded almost imperceptibly. “That’s good,” he said, and let out a breath of unmistakable relief. Nick felt a cry rise up in him but he choked it back, expelling a sound like a goose honking.

Nick is spared going to combat, but the fear and shame, doubtlessly magnified by his eventual understanding of the real reason behind the doctor’s decision, alter his view of himself and the world. A compromise has been made that radiates subtly throughout the book and causes deep and wide ranging ramifications.

An apparently offhand remark has an almost equally deep effect on the younger brother, Stewart. Stewart is a nontenured English professor who finds a rare joy in teaching a class based on the writers who inspired him when he was a young man. At a late afternoon faculty meeting, as people are already standing to leave, a new professor denounces the failure of the department to teach works written by women and minorities. He cites the curriculum of  Stewart’s class as an especially egregious example of racism. There is certainly  no happiness mixed with Stewart’s sensations of fear and shame. Nor is there the confidence he needs to either defend himself or to accept criticism and make meaningful change. There is only the sense of having been unmanned, made infinitely worse by his own later attempt to find out if the new professor is personally angry at him. In a few words that capture much of the social turmoil of our era, Torockio shows what it is like to be unequal to larger forces, to feel simultaneously embarrassed by a social gaffe and humiliated by the possibility that he actually has been perpetuating racism. Stewart broods over this single accusation from a new colleague as deeply as he broods over other issues that might ordinarily appear far more important, but we understand why. His sense of self has been shaken.

The third brother, Lawrence, shares with his wife the painful secret of their past bankruptcy. Although the couple has since repaired their credit and “emerged” as the financially secure people they pretended to be all along, they are slow to shake off their sense of unworthiness. A trip to Italy to celebrate their hard won solvency culminates in a night of opera at a magnificent 2,000 year old arena. The beauty of the music and the night are too much for his wife, who finds herself “unable to imagine it, even as she lived it.” She remembers the look on the hotel clerk’s face as they counted out “archaic” traveler’s checks because they didn’t have an acceptable credit card. In lesser hands, anguish like this would be object of petty satire, but in The Soul Hunters it is moving because we see how hard the couple is working to do the right things and how difficult it is for them to hold onto the life they had once been sure they would have.

This is a novel of great subtlety, intelligence, and dignity, portraying both unique individual characters and the social angst of their eras with an easy grace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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An Unrestored Woman

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By: Shobha Rao
Hardcover: 256 pages
Publisher: Flatiron Books (March 15, 2016)

Reviewed by: Vickie Fang

I first came across Shobha Rao’s work in this past fall’s Best American Short Stories which included Kavitha and Mustafa, a story about a young Indian woman in a train that was  attacked by bandits. As she does in all of her work, Rao deftly combines the ordinary with the extraordinary. Although the setting is the Indian border at the time of the Partition, the readers are confined to the single train car in which the characters are trapped. We feel the heat of too many people in a motionless box and see the women silently trying to hide their jewels in their shoes. The heroine is in many ways an ordinary person who has led a sadly constrained life. She has never had any kind of power; the only way she can even say  her last goodbye to her husband is by pressing her head wordlessly against his knobby shoulder, and yet she seizes salvation when it comes in the form of two pebbles, a length of twine, and a smart little boy. Grounded in one humble detail after another, Kavitha and Mustafa ends in a kind of triumph that could be read as a love story to all the impoverished Muslims and Hindus who struggled to survive during a violent era. Neither the woman nor the boy is an allegorical figure, however;  Rao has created intensely real people with a dignity that demands that they be seen as individuals.

Almost all of the stories in this collection involve escape in one form or another, escape from a brothel or a bad Manhattan marriage, from a camp for widowed women, from the unbearable sadness of having lost a child, or from prosecution for the crime of murder. In many stories a terrible moment comes when the characters realize that the more or less settled lives they had imagined for themselves are no longer possible. It is worth quoting at length the thoughts of Renu who looks at the Shivalik mountains and remembers how she had once imagined that,

The Shivaliks would stand like they always stood against the morning sky, whipped and creamy like clotted ghee, and that the dandelions would bend like baby’s heads in the northeasterly wind, and that she would be a farmer’s wife, with its days of toil and earth and anguish, measuring the rains as one measure sugar into a teacup, with care and constancy, and by the spoonful. And she assumed something further: that her destiny was like the small stream that ran at the edge of their property. That it would flow — diverted at times by a fallen branch or a pile of rock, true, and thinned in the dryness of summer while abundant in spring, undoubtedly — but that essentially and always, it would flow, and be tied, deeply and incontrovertibly, to the destiny of the man to whom she clung. .  .

In that moment Renu realized one last thing: that nothing she’d imagined of her life, of her destiny, would ever come to pass. Not one thing remained. Not one, except — and these she saw as angry, open mouths gnawing at the tender twilit sky — the Shivaliks still stood.

After her moment of shock, Renu begins to act. The wild new destiny she creates for herself is nothing at all like the life of a farmer’s wife. Unreflecting, unsentimental, entirely amoral in any conventional sense, her life bursts forward, not like a small stream that could be diverted by a mere fallen branch, but like a torrent, finding any weakness and then knocking down all obstacles.

Desperate circumstances and a powerful desire to overcome them do not always make for easy moral decisions. Complex situations call for complex and often distressing responses. We want to cheer for a little girl who finds the courage to face down a gang of threatening boys, but it’s hard when she intimidates the bullies by crushing the leader’s pet bird to death in her hand. The stories take on even more layers of meaning when a friend or enemy in one story reappears in another with his own burden of tragedy or desire. The characters in An Unrestored Woman are good and evil and everything in between. They battle demons within and without, and they don’t always win. Still, a great spirit pervades every story in this collection. The little girl who crushed the bird poses a question to herself when she faces a crisis as an adult.

I wondered if I could be that girl again. Was defiance temporary, like a gust of wind that lifted you once, then set you down? Or was it always there, inside of you, like a small dinghy tied to the harbor of your heart, waiting, at the ready, to launch?

Every story in this book launches. It’s a thrilling collection.

 

 

 

 

 

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Margaret the First

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By: Danielle Dutton
Paperback: 176 pages
Publisher: Catapult (March 15, 2016)

Reviewed by: Vickie Fang

 

Catapult Books, a small press publishing “ecosystem” which combines workshops, a community bulletin board, a literary magazine, and book publishing, was only founded this past September and has already published a striking work of historical fiction. Other reviewers have, justifiably, focused on the uniqueness of the book’s heroine. Margaret, also known as “Mad Madge,” was a real life 17th century feminist and prolific writer. As she explains herself, while other women might write, “(T)he  poems they circulated among themselves were anonymous elegies for dead children or praise for noble husbands. My own quill went marching across the page. I rejected any clocklike vision of the world I chastised men who hunted for sport.” She is a fascinating character, by turns so shy that she cannot speak and so desperate for attention that she makes a  public appearance in a topless gold gown with her nipples painted red. She is the woman who is praised by her king as a celebrity and who remains, all her life, the passionate child who imagines whole civilizations in the “river-foam bubbles.” Yet as compelling as Margaret is, what I think is most exceptional about this book is its portrayal of the spirit of the Restoration. The characters, the writing style, the setting , the plot combine to create the experience of living in a remarkable and tumultuous age.  It is as deft a  work of historical fiction as I’ve ever seen.

Margaret herself was the child of an old fashioned aristocratic family — a necessary privilege for such a headstrong woman. As a young girl, mobs attack their estate while the family is away, stealing the money and jewels, of course, but also slaughtering the deer and breaking into the private cemetery to defile the coffins and corpses. Later, “The King of England was convicted of treason. The the king of England was dead. It was Tuesday. It was 1649. Parliament hacked off Charles I’s head outside the Banqueting House at Whitehall. The mob, previously sick for it, drew quiet after the blow. The people were burdened with heavy taxes. May Day had been replaced by zealous sermons. Was the Civil War over? No one was sure.” There is little certainty about any of the political upheavals in this book or the many moves between France, Antwerp, and England and from great rural estates to grimy, makeshift rentals in the city. The world simply changes over and over again in a mad rush, and rather than withdraw and pray for safety, the elite invent a bold new way of thinking.

More than anything else, Margaret the First is powered by an almost dizzy sense of new intellectual possibilities. Upper class men, including Hobbes and Descartes, debate one another at Margaret’s home and circulate their own pamphlets on the nature of being. Robert Boyle invents a machine that sucks air out of a chamber and experiments on living things. “The bird began ‘manifestly to droop.’ It staggered, collapsing, gasping. It threw itself down, threw itself down, and then the bird was dead.’  ‘All this,’ she objected, ‘to prove a bird needs air?’ ‘Before devising the pump,’ said William, ‘he’d had to strangle them with his hands.’ Now all London was buzzing with the news: air holds a vital quintessence necessary to life.”

The word “science” does not exist yet, nor does any real semblance of scientific process. Instead there is a profusion of excited new ideas about what makes up the world around us. Margaret charges into the fray, rejecting the Aristotelian world view and insisting on the worlds within worlds concepts of her childhood. She writes philosophy, poetry, fantastical stories in a passionate trance. She makes herself over into a celebrity, even speaking at the newly founded Royal Academy. Everything is possible in this new age! Dutton tells her story in past tense, present tense, future tense, in first, third, and even second person. It all works because the book is as charged with energy and an adventurous spirit as the world and the people it describes. Margaret the First is a short work, not much more than a novella. I read it so quickly that it lasted about as long as one of Margaret’s river foam bubbles, and when it ended I was left with the sense of having witnessed an entire civilization, lighter than air and as fantastical as anything even Margaret could have dreamed up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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