Heritage of Smoke

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By: Josip Novakovich
Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Dzanc Books (January 10, 2017)

Reviewed by: Vickie Fang

This is a collection of gloriously transgressive extremes. People kill each other in this book — and sometimes eat the corpse. They rise from their death bed to celebrate life by assaulting their loved ones. They turn sexual energy into a weapon that can destroy cities. They use a dead sea scroll to roll a cigarette. They smile when the twin towers come down, adoring “The sight of all that smoke as though witnessing the epiphany of an angry God.” What is glorious in these transgressions? The dizzying transformations. Life becomes death, which sometimes becomes life again. We watch as the past and the future, the murderer and his victim become one. Ordinary reality is transformed by inventive and lyrical prose. “He beat the coffee beans into Turkish dust in an iron cup with a round-headed piece of iron, which looked like a bone, the head of a child’s femur. The metal rang dull under the crunch of the beans. Branko sprinkled the coffee powder into boiling water as though scattering ashes and the intoxicating smell of black dust wafted through the room.” The specter of death and the longing for resurrection lurk beneath a startling range of stories that include ghosts, thieves and transients, a great scientist, slaughtered Muslims, and many ordinary people struggling to make their way in a painful world.

Dutch Treat is the story of Martin, an idealistic U.N. peacekeeper whose initial actions and subsequent failure to act help to cause the death of 8,000 innocent people. Told in a straight forward, and, unfortunately, historically accurate manner, the story describes Martin’s childhood fascination with the United Nations building where “All that glass reflecting the gold of the setting sun struck him as splendid, even more so than the World Trade Tower’s apparent silverworks.” Volunteering for Bosnia, Martin soon realizes two things, that both the people and the buildings are more damaged than they seem, and that his mission was “a show.” Feeling like an actor, he parades his healthy, muscular body through town while grinding his teeth. He and his fellow soldiers do nothing when the Muslims they’ve disarmed are murdered in a soccer stadium, despite the fact that, “Soccer is equal to tulips and windmills as a symbol of Dutch life, and that the Serbs would chose a soccer stadium for this seemed like an additional insult. But what was an insult in the face of mass murder?” The unreality of Martin’s thinking and life become even worse when he meets a survivor of the massacre in New York and attempts to make amends. The shame Martin has tried to leave behind comes back to destroy him in a chilling and unexpected conclusion. Martin, the idealistic and accidental murderer, has become his own victim, bent on revenge.

In When the Saints Come, Davor “Had been wheezing for days and he gasped in his sleep and talked about Armageddon, global warming, and the vanished Boeing 777. Even awake, he talked about the 777 as the ascension airplane — all the people onboard went straight to heaven and the rest remained on the ground, awaiting the wraith of God.” Davor, who has not been religious since his childhood, soon discovers that he has lung cancer, and as with his initial rantings about God and the 777, his reawakening faith is curiously mixed with literal, earthly concerns as well as a surging sense of beauty and loss. “Now he saw the world differently and loved the forest flowers whose names he didn’t know, some white like little bells, others blue, yellow, purple. After a dreary, colorless winter, the ground had burst in the full spectrum of a rainbow, as though it had become the heavens, and who’s to say it hadn’t, as our earth is part of the celestial harmony?”

He goes to Jerusalem, experiencing the sun, the oranges, the olives, the soldiers with machine guns, the gold-covered chapel, only to lose faith in Christianity, and, preemptively, Judaism and Islam as well. After calculating the value of the gold on the Dome on the Rock, Davor imagines that “The soil contained the blood of more than a million pilgrims, Muslims, and Jews fighting for that square kilometer of arid land.”  He rejects religion, largely on logical, humanistic grounds, but also loses his sense  of joy and much of what was left of his health. “As morning doves began to coo on his roof, announcing the thinning of the night, dispersing the darkness (where did it all go, where could it hide in this universe that is mostly darkness?), .  .   . he could not get out of bed, could not lift his head.”

For the rest of the story, Davor wrestles, expansively, with the unanswerable questions of life. In the end “He lay for three days and three nights and then died with a mysterious half-smile on his thin blue lips, his blue eyes pale like the spring sky, irises only, with tiny and hazed-over pupils, reduced to milky black dots bleeding into the blue.” Heritage of Smoke boldly explores a world in which change is the only constant, and in which great beauty coexists with losses that are transformed but can never be escaped. It’s an exciting and unsettling read.

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The Intersection

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By: Brad Windhauser
Published by: Black Rose Writing

Reviewed by: Abigail Shaffer

What strikes me most about this multi point-of-view novel is the care, balance, and grace of the details. The Intersection follows the lives of several residents of a rapidly-gentrifying South Philly neighborhood, as pressure co                         mpounds between the new and existing residents over the direction and inevitable development the neighborhood will take. The tensions bubble to the surface when an African American cyclist is struck at a central intersection by a white driver, with the only witness a young girl on her way home from school. As the cyclist fights for his life in the hospital, the energy of the community begins to foment in ways that Rose, longtime resident and hopeful optimist more likely to see a brutal wind as “God’s leafblower” than a negative challenge, fears the growing discord will irrevocably damage the neighborhood forever. Inclined towards a desire for harmony, and with bravery that tests her strength and belief in herself, Rose boldly organizes a community meeting at a newly-opened hipster bar situated in the heart of the roiling neighborhood. It is at this meeting where broader community concerns – will the old residents’ ways of life get left behind, will the new residents ever be accepted and feel at home, will the community come together and thrive – blend together, bound by the very private and personal fears, hopes, and aspirations of the individuals making up the community.
This blending of individual concerns into a interwoven tapestry of community desires also exemplifies another strength of the novel. There are no literal black-and-whites here, no harsh dichotomies. Rather, Windhauser illuminates the greys. Nothing is as simple as the surface impressions but is impacted, and is, in fact, driven by what lies underneath. Nathan, a longtime resident, supports the change because he hopes the new direction will bring in money and improvements that will mean better schools and care for his son. Carol, the mother of the cyclist, does not want her son to be made into a symbol and used to further either side’s agenda – she just wants him home, safe, and alive. At the same time, the white driver, Michael, questions his decision to purchase a home in the neighborhood for more personal reasons than even he is aware, until a fateful pre-dawn walk through the sleeping community.
Change, and how people adapt or resist to change, is another theme throughout the novel, as is the subtle strength of Windhauser’s creation of character. Shaping character often involves nuance, and the strength of Windhauser’s fleshing out of characters lies in the deftness of detail. It is in the detail of imagery and language that we come to know his characters, through the feeling of cracked pleather on Nathan’s legs as he grapples with omnipresent fears of how he will care, as a single parent, for his special needs son. We get to know the characters intimately through how they fold clothes at the laundry mat, through how they make their way in the grey morning light, through how the soil from a newly-potted plant feels on the palms of their hands. No heavy-handed stock characters here: dear Rose with her empathy and infinite kindness wrought from tragedy; Michael shadowed by guilt, betrayal, and isolation; Carol with her past finally circling round while she struggles to cope with her son’s critical injury — these individuals’ experiences and deep private pain coalesce in a sense of shared humanity, of commonality. We get to know, we feel, their private pain and how, underneath their public personas, a well of emotions, experiences, and desires simultaneously feeds and drains the characters as they traverse their merging paths.

Editor’s note: Abigail Shaffer’s novel, Children of the Country, was recently reviewed in Best New Fiction.

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The Fall of Lisa Bellow

lisa-bellowThe Fall of Lisa Bellow
by Susan Perabo
Simon & Schuster, March 14, 2017
352 pages

Reviewed by Clifford Garstang

Susan Perabo’s new novel, The Fall of Lisa Bellow, is more than another story about a missing teenager. It’s about vision, what we choose to see, and what we ignore. Ultimately, it’s about facing facts.

Meredith Oliver is a perfectly ordinary kid, an eighth grader who is good at math, who hangs with her fellow nerds from school, is barely noticed by the cool girls except to be ridiculed for one fault or another. But when Meredith witnesses the kidnapping of popular classmate Lisa Bellow during the robbery of a local sandwich shop, she is pulled into a completely different orbit. Now Lisa’s friends are her friends. Now popular styles are her styles. Now her flaws make her unique instead of outcast.

Meredith’s life at home changes, as well. Her parents, worried that the robbery and Lisa’s disappearance have traumatized her, are at a loss. They hire a therapist. They indulge Meredith’s whims—new shoes, her favorite foods—and insist on keeping constant watch over her.

But Meredith’s trauma isn’t the only tragedy the family is dealing with. Older brother Evan, who at Meredith’s age blossomed from a pudgy kid into a star athlete, has lost sight in one eye when hit by a baseball. After the injury, he mopes and medicates, but at least he can relate to his sister. When Meredith suffers the post-traumatic effects of what she’s seen, Evan re-emerges. Despite his visual impairment, and over his mother’s objections, he begins to work out again—running, taking batting practice, tossing and catching a ball. He plans to rejoin the baseball team, but doesn’t face the reality of what has happened to him. Having vision in only one eye changes his perception, and catching the ball is nearly impossible.

Meanwhile, Claire and Mark, Meredith’s parents, are struggling, too. Mark just wants everyone to be happy. He’s supportive of both kids, despite their limitations. Claire, though, is more of a realist. She knows that Evan will never be able to play baseball again. And she knows how deeply affected Meredith is by what has happened. The problem is that she lacks the tools she needs to comfort either of her children. That creates tension for the entire family and drives a wedge between her and her husband.

Failures of vision draw the family together, even if they don’t realize it. Evan, literally, has only partial vision that obscures what he might be able to accomplish. Mark cannot or won’t see the dangers that threaten his children and his marriage. Claire perceives those dangers all too clearly but can’t see a way to avoid them. And what of Meredith?

The experience Meredith shares with Lisa Bellow gives her a kind of second sight, or so she believes. Lisa’s mother, desperate to find her daughter, insists that Meredith must have seen something at the sandwich shop that can help the police. What Meredith actually saw is of no help, but there’s something else. Now, after the fact, she can see Lisa with her abductor—in an apartment, with a dog named Annie. The scene she sees—or is she imagining it?—is so vivid, it must be real, she thinks. It’s almost as if she’s there, sharing the experience.

Perabo’s novel is gripping, not only because the reader wants to find out what has happened to Lisa Bellow, but also because Meredith’s reaction to the kidnapping raises so many questions about her own stability, and the stability of her family. This isn’t just a suspense thriller, although it’s that, too. It’s an intense psychological study of a girl in the process of discovering how to cope with the real world.

 

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Stony River

stony-riverStony River

by Tricia Dower
Leapfrog Press, 2016
294 Pages

Reviewed by Clifford Garstang

Part coming of age tale, part crime drama, part psychological thriller, Tricia Dower’s Stony River is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Set during the late 1950s in a small New Jersey town, the novel tells the stories of three girls from three very different families whose lives become intertwined in unexpected ways. Linda, from a suffocatingly strict home with a hard-working father and a neurotic mother, is unpopular at school and struggles with her weight. When Tereza moves into an apartment across the street with her abusive mother and stepfather, the girls begin spending time with each other, despite being very different. Whereas Linda is timid and inexperienced with boys, Tereza, small and beautiful and extroverted, uses sex to earn the money and attention she doesn’t get at home. During one of their secret outings together, the girls witness the police entering an old house and exiting with a girl about their age and a toddler in custody. This girl is Miranda, who is in some ways the most stable of the three girls, even though she’s been kept a virtual prisoner in her house by her father, who is also the father of her child.

As Dower unfolds her story, we see that all three girls, products of their respective unhealthy environments, are intent on finding refuge. Lonely Linda finds solace in junk food. Tereza runs away from her family with hopes of becoming an actress and ends up married to a moody and unhinged devotee of Charles Atlas. Miranda, after her father’s death, is first comforted by the Catholic Church, but later resorts to her father’s mysterious healing practices, work that restores her connection to the spirits of both her deceased parents and their Irish homeland.

Meanwhile, the town of Stony River suffers from a series of unsolved crimes—a cop killing, a young woman murdered, another kidnapped, several attempted abductions. All three of the girls may have information that will help police find the killers. All three are reluctant to tell what they know.

Ultimately, the novel is about a time and place that wasn’t as innocent as we remember. Perhaps Linda’s mother is not so wrong to confine her daughter and to shield her from the influence of girls like Tereza. Or, at the other extreme, is the freedom Tereza’s mother allows the right approach to raising a child? And what of Miranda’s father, who taught her reverence for both books and the traditional ways of his heritage, but also used that heritage as an excuse to impregnate her.

As the novel races to a climax, it’s hard to know where to place one’s sympathies. The reader wants all these girls to be safe, to find the refuge they crave, but it’s ultimately not clear that this is possible, in the novel or in real life.

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Children of the Country

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By: Abigail Shaffer
Paperback: 262 pages
Publisher: Outpost19 (November 1, 2016)

Reviewed by: Vickie Fang

Abigail Shaffer, the author of this novel, is a former social worker with roots in the Ozarks, and her background transforms what could have been just another Southern Gothic into a unique work of art.  While Children of the Country  has plenty of poverty and bad food, run away daddies, and swampland hoodoo, it is also peopled by very real, three dimensional characters who struggle with the kinds of hopes and difficulties many writers overlook. The fifteen year old heroine, Cindy Rae, fights for her heart’s desire — a spot in an academic class instead of more vocational tech. “Well, that’s awful ambitious, don’t you think?” is her advisor’s response. Therein follow two pages of tense sexual politics and gathering rage before she emerges, triumphant, with permission to take trigonometry.  Cindy is hungover, and poor, and consorting with dangerous people, but she is also becoming aware of what she wants to do with her life and of what she needs to do to get from where she is to where she wants to be. That she has to fight so hard to be placed into what is the most appropriate math class is a powerful illustration of just how hard her journey will be.

Cindy’s older brother Ricky, on the other hand, is wandering from one rash act to another. When he almost fumbles a chance to become a regular drug courier, Ricky and a friend swear “solemnly, their promise sealed with shots of Wild Turkey, to thoroughly get their heads out of their asses in light of the amount of cash.” Both boys manage, for a while, to make money in a world of muddy back roads, drunken parties, and men with automatic weapons. Though they play out against a lush and sweltering backdrop, the mechanisms of white rural drug dealing appear to be remarkably similar to the depictions of black, urban dealing. The hopelessness is the same too. This is Ricky’s boss, who has failed to make amends with a woman from his past.

All at once he needs to get gone, and wishes he’d tucked his Gobbler under the seat for the long ride home. He looks once at the kids, nodding before backing down the sidewalk, then eases his bum leg and his bum self into his Jeep, thinking of the liquor store he passed on Chicot and how time and remembrance fold over and back in on themselves, in cahoots and thoroughly against him.

Life is hard for  middle aged people who end up here; not even righteous violence is pleasurable. Methodically, his fists feel the connection to flesh, the momentary cushion of it, then the hardness of bone. His own knuckles bloodied, raw, he keeps swinging, nice initial heavy pounding. The cheek gives as the bone underneath shatters and the skin sinks in, like the depression of earth over a wooden coffin in oldtime graveyards, the weight of soil finally bearing down. . . He’d always imagined there’d be more of a reckoning at the end.

Although in the course of this novel, they never leave their home, Ricky and Cindy Rae meet their different fates. Their love never waivers, though. They take joy in each other, in the physical beauty of the world around them, and in their own small hopes for the future. This is Ricky after having cleared the air with his sister. In a flash he is eight and Cindy Rae is five, and they are walking to the bus in the high heat of the asshole end of August, her quiet as hell, but beaming up with that pirate smile she had even as a bitty baby, her pudgy fist, sweaty and soft, nestled in his left hand. She was always the morning sun to him, the color of her baby room with the fairy princess crap and that yellow, raggedy stuffed bird she probably still has and sleeps with if he knows a goddamn thing about anything.

Children of the Country is a beautiful book that depicts a hard way of life without ever condescending to the characters or losing sight of their humanity.

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Swing Time

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By: Zadie Smith
Publisher: Penguin Press (November 15, 2016)
No. of pages: 464
Reviewed by: Vickie Fang

Late in this novel, a central character is remembered for her honesty and warmth during deathbed visits.

I remember a friend of hers, a painter who had lost decades to the severe anorexia that eventually killed her, saying to Aimee, on what turned out to be her deathbed: “God, Aim — didn’t I waste so much fucking time!” To which Aimee replied: “More than you know.” I remember that stick figure between the sheets with the gaping mouth, so shocked she burst out laughing. But it was the truth, no one else had dared tell her, and dying people are impatient for the truth.

Swing Time is a novel about many things, racial and cultural identity, reinvention, community, girlish friendships, changing technology, the haves and the have nots. Most of all, however, it is about time itself, which rushes forward when we want it to stay still, doubles back on itself when we think we have escaped the past, slips away from us altogether if we don’t seize hold and make some vivid use of it.

Narrated by an unnamed young woman with a Black Jamaican British mother and a White British father, the book begins with an intriguing prologue that lets us know she is in some sort of disgrace as an adult and then settles into her lower class London childhood in which she is dominated by two of the three powerful female figures who will define her life. One is another brown-skinned girl in her dance class Tracey who is crude, garishly dressed, arrogant and demanding. Both girls love dance, but Tracey is far more talented. The other powerful woman in the narrator’s life is her mother, an aspiring intellectual, feminist, and keeper of a middle class aesthetic in a lower class neighborhood, a woman who considers it bad taste “to dress your daughter like a little whore.” Both mother and friend are hell bent on creating their own futures, while the narrator drifts through life. She stops dancing, goes on to a mediocre undergraduate career, becomes involved with controlling boyfriends, and is exposed to new ideas without really pondering them. “She said that a hundred years ago mankind was confronted  with the question of space, but that the problem of the twentieth century was the simultaneous existence of different notions of time. I looked over at Rakim: he was making notes in the darkness, hopelessly stoned.”

Shortly after graduation, she goes on to become a personal assistant to a globally famous pop star — the third domineering woman in her life.

All the physical exercise, all the deliberate blindness, the innocence cultivated, the spiritual epiphanies she was able somehow to experience spontaneously, the very many ways she fell in and out of love, like a teenager — all of this came to seem to me effectively a form of energy in itself, a force capable of creating a dilation in time, as if she really were moving at the speed of light , away from the rest of us — stranded on earth and aging faster than her — while she looked down on us and wondered why.

The narrator’s story ricochets between the star’s dazzling race from venue to venue around the world, to a small village in West Africa where the star is building a school, to the childhood memories of Tracey and the narrator’s restless mother. It is a testament to Zadie Smith’s genius that every moment is lucid, vividly realized. We are there as Tracey’s defiant life slowly unravels or as the African village reveals its beauty and its poverty. We understand the lies the characters tell themselves and their desperate desire not to be erased. In the end, time is on no one’s side. It can not be stopped or evaded, but there are rare moments of transcendence by the women who remember who they are.

 

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Dog Years

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By: Melissa Yancy
Series: Pitt Drue Heinz Literature Prize
Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: University of Pittsburgh Press; 1 edition (October 5, 2016)

Reviewed by: Vickie Fang

Ellen, a molecular geneticist, labors to find a cure for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy while also maintaining for “the principle of the thing” a normal home life for her children, including the son who suffers from the disease she is researching. Ellen is so tired that she forgets which season it is. She gasps “with primal relief” when her husband gives her a watch that spells the time out in words — thus sparing her the mental effort of translating numbers to language. When Ellen gives a lecture, a student stands up and asks if it is bad that she wants to study Alzheimer’s because her grandfather died of it.

“Define bad,” Ellen answers.

There are no easy answers in Dog Years and no easy definitions either. The winner of the 2016 Pitt Drue Heinz Literature Prize, this intelligent and deeply felt collection of short stories uses the limitations and changes of the human body to explore the even more profound questions of time, purpose, possibility, and the need for hope, or at least an occasional lie. In Consider This Case, Julian, a gay fetal surgeon, is visited by his proud, judgemental, dying father. Although the issue is never directly stated, the surgeon appears to be the only person who doesn’t guess that his father has spent his life as a closeted gay man. In a complex and beautifully interwoven series of images and subplots, we see both hidden shame and genuine, well-lived outward lives. A patient is forced to spend two months carrying a dead baby inside her while oblivious strangers ask her about her pregnancy. The father can never acknowledge his orientation and can almost never bear to mention another son who was addicted to drugs. This impeccably groomed old man locks himself in the bedroom so that he can hide his physical deterioration. Both father and physician son are stunned by his sad exposure.

His father is wet, prone on the floor between the shower and the toilet; there is a smear of feces across the floor in front of him, and Julian cannot quite piece together the order of events. Without his clothes on, his father looks more than naked — he is a sea creature yanked from its shell. .  .  . It is not until later, after he has dried his father and put him in his proper pajama set and gone to sleep out on the couch so that he can come to him in the night, that he closes his eyes and finally sees his drooping breasts, the last tuft of hair sprouting proudly on his concave chest, his skin so translucent it’s a road map, a surgeon’s dream.

And yet, while his father dies, never able to speak his own truth or his connection with his gay son, life goes on. Julian is a kind man, and though there is much he is unable to see, he presses on with coworkers who love him and a host of patients who thrive. After a night of near unconsciousness, the father rallies so successfully that he is up the next morning smiling and making chocolate-chip pancakes. Julian wonders if there is some deep truth his father needs to pass on. Perhaps. It is not a truth that can be spoken out loud, but it can exist nevertheless in the strange, sweet tableau that ends this story. As Ellen would put it, “Define bad.”

In Firstborn, a woman thinks that she would rather suffer her delusions than her sister’s boring realities, when she leaves for Paris hungover, abandoned, comforted by “the familiar, stale odor” of the plane as she “settles in for the duration.” She has tried and failed at a moment of connection. Even in Paris, she will still be aging and alone, trapped in her own very limited world. Go Forth is a story about a “chain” of kidney donors, a large group of strangers who donate a kidney so that their own loved one can receive a kidney from someone with whom they are compatible. It is a profound and bizarre form of connection, taking someone else’s organ into your own body, and meeting their fellow “chain” members is a disorientating experience for one couple. For the husband, there seems to be a moment of grace and lasting gratitude. The wife, on the other hand, who has had her health restored, “(D)id not know what she would do with this feeling, this imperative to commence, but already she feared that the execution of it would be small.”

The characters in Dog Years meet their limitations as their bodies age, grow cancer, go to war, pass genetic defects down to their children. There are horrible realities which can never be overcome, and yet Yancy is able to show us in many unsentimental ways the great strengths and small weaknesses that allow people to go forward. Ellen will almost certainly outlive her son. He is barely an adolescent, and he is already beginning to have trouble standing and walking. Ellen and her other son join him as he exuberantly practices a drama class exercise of pretending to run in slow motion to the music from Chariots of Fire. She thinks of the song as “the most undeniable kind of lie,” and is not surprised at the difficulty of pretending to run fast. “If she knows nothing, it should be how hard it is to bend time, how pointless it is to muscle against.” Still when her husband comes home, “(T)hey are just reaching the treacly crescendo and mother and sons are standing, fists wild in the air, necks craning forward, and she has the stupid feeling for just a moment that she can feel the wind.”

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