One of the many awful aftershocks of a violent incident like the Boston Marathon bombings is the tendency of public figures to say terrible things while trying to make sense of what happened and why. Among the unproductive statements made recently, unfortunately by quite a few well-meaning people, is an idea that “there’s no explanation for what happened.” Sure, I will grant that there’s no justification. But “there’s no explanation” indicates that we just don’t want to understand. This is an understandable, but regrettable, impulse. It is an impulse closely related to the constitutive element of hatred: the refusal to understand. When we refuse to understand, we turn the object of our misunderstanding into a potential object of hatred. We must recognize that there are explanations. They may be illegitimate, awful and evil but there are explanations.
In “American Honor Killings: Desire and Rage Among Men,” David McConnell presents a thoughtful and well researched, if uneven, alternative to the silence impulse. He writes about violence perpetrated by men against men who are either gay or perceived to be gay—mostly what could be referred to as “hate crimes” (a label McConnell discards: “admitting ‘hate crimes’ looks like criminalizing motive, and that looks like criminalizing thought”). Instead, “I settled on the exotic-sounding words ‘honor killings’ in the book title, because, incredibly, that’s what these crimes resemble.” It’s a good observation. The murders he describes are all revenge killings for perceived violations of normative, heterosexual masculinity. Like other murders we call honor killings, the motivations for these murders clearly fall on the dark end of a spectrum of human values. They are twisted understandings of honor and pride, but their relation to what we, the normal, would call honor and pride, are what make them both repulsive and fascinating. Read the rest of this entry »
Acclaimed science writer Mary Roach fell in love with human anatomy in her fifth-grade science class when Mrs. Claflin introduced her to a “headless, limbless modeled plastic-torso,” and got her hands on model organs that “fit together like puzzle pieces, tidy as wares in a butcher’s glass case.” This introduction, along with the findings from a 1968 study on humans’ intolerance to bacteria-ridden food and an evident personal curiosity for the scientific taboo help lead to “Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal,” Roach’s latest book.
Roach’s witty and conversational voice allows “Gulp” to read like a novel rather than a science book. Instead of being taught about our digestive system we are told about it. And, for anyone who’s ever flunked an exam on the periodic table or failed to locate the pancreas of a dissected frog, there’s a huge difference. Read the rest of this entry »
A picture is worth a thousand words—it’s true, and also makes difficult work of reviewing a book of cartoons. Take, for example, Demetri Martin’s drawing of a mountain view with a sign in front that reads “Scenic View” with braille underneath. It’s certainly less funny when I describe it, but really does contain all the fun of flipping through a book of Gary Larson’s “Far Side” comics from the 1990s. Martin’s comedy is very charming. Like Ellen, or Jerry Seinfeld, he reminds us of the absurdity of everyday life—like the phrase “training bra” or self-flushing toilets. Judging by his too-short-lived television series, he’s got a fondness for paper and pen. Martin displays nothing short of glee as he stands next to a large pad of paper flipping through image and word combinations. One-liners from his comedy routines (“If I owned a copy store, I would only hire identical twins to work at it”) are the sort of thing that translate easily to book format. Venn diagrams, Q&As, graphs and illustrated mechanisms are all fodder for his simple but ingenious drawings. He’s not above the occasional fart joke, so there’s nothing too precious going on, despite a cartoon or two about the perception of fame in New York versus Los Angeles, or how the ubiquitous sight of planes and helicopters around a city resembles flies around a pile of shit. Practically every page is a showcase for his particular wit, a moment to examine, pause, smile. Or, if you’re more cynical, each page says, “Ha, ha, ha! Look how clever I am!” Read the rest of this entry »
“After Hiroshima, after the death of Roosevelt, and after the [House Un-American Activities Committee] investigations, only then did one begin to see the complete unreality of the American dream.”
So (late in life) declared filmmaker Joseph Losey, who directed the creepy and provocative 1951 film noir, “The Prowler,” and was rewarded for his artistry with a HUAC subpoena, membership in the Hollywood blacklist and lifelong exile. His statement, according to “Nightmare Alley” author Mark Osteen, can serve as a description of film noir, the shadowy and critical genre that served as a reality check for America during the period between World War II and the Korean War.
Osteen, who teaches English at Loyola University in Maryland, notes that noir flourished at a crossroads moment for the nation, as New Deal populism and humanism clashed with nascent Cold War paranoia and reaction. In Hollywood, the conflict played out tragically, with consequences that still linger. In the media-inflamed, witch-hunt atmosphere, studio bosses refused to stand up for their top writers, directors and performers (many of whom were associated with noir), while opportunistic former colleagues (such as Ronald Reagan) proved willing to purge their own unions of left-leaning members. The best thus crashed and burned, and those who survived grew cautious. It was the real beginning of our own postmodern, post-political, post-ethical era. Read the rest of this entry »
“Where Tigers Are at Home,” by the French-Algerian writer and philosophy teacher Jean-Marie Blas-de Robles, was published in English this year. In 2008, it won the French literary award Prix Médicis. What reviews I’ve found of this novel have been positive, if not glowing. I’m sorry to report that I am baffled on this front.
The novel is enormous, over 800 pages long. It follows seven different plots, all but one taking place in contemporary Brazil, and the other, flashing back to seventeenth-century Europe, serves as a kind of focal point for the book. It follows a seventeenth-century priest, Athanasius Kircher, and his devoted follower, Caspar Schott; Eléazard, a Frenchman living in Brazil who pursues a failed love-hate study of the seventeenth-century religious figure and maintains himself in Brazil by writing desultory reports to Reuters. We also meet, in separate subplots, his soon-to-be-ex-wife Elaine, a geologist traveling deep into the jungle on a dangerous expedition; his daughter Moéma, a rebellious bisexual college student who swindles her absent father in order to fuel her drug habit; a handicapped favela-dwelling beggar named Nelson; a corrupt governor named Moreira, who makes dirty deals with U.S. corporations and government officials. How are they all connected? The characters start crossing paths—wait for it—no, wait for it some more—and a little more—on page 281. Read the rest of this entry »
Thea Goodman’s debut novel ”The Sunshine When She’s Gone” is about many things. Love’s slow shift from transitory chemical high to enduring state. How giving birth can divide a woman from access to her own needs. And strangely, the importance of sleep.
When Veronica Reed refuses her husband John’s romantic overtures yet again, he wakes the next day, his discontent having reached an unconscious tipping point. Thinking to take their six-month-old daughter to breakfast, he winds up on a plane to Barbados instead. What follows is a brief yet significant marital hiatus during which both John and Veronica are reunited with their mislaid yet essential selves. For Goodman, this protracted separation provides a means of exploring the unique emotional adjustments John and Veronica have made to the medical ordeal of their daughter’s birth as well as each other in its aftermath.
An astute observer of relationships, Goodman dips into both Veronica and John’s points of view to provide a complex yet fair depiction of marriage. Also to this end, the book pulls from both past and present, offering snippets of the couple’s respective childhoods and snapshots of each’s family of origin. Yet somehow Goodman’s canniness isn’t brought as effectively to bear on the characters as individuals. John, for example, comes off as a bit of a buffoon, smoking pot, feeding his daughter diarrhea-inducing cow’s milk not once but twice, and carting her around Barbados in a stranger’s carseat-less Toyota. Read the rest of this entry »
To anthologize is a political act. As political acts go, though, it’s a relatively subtle one. Still, to make decisions about inclusion and exclusion in something that will stand as an authority on a field—a handbook for the uninitiated—carries the heavy burden of cultural gatekeeping.
“Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry” joins the ever-increasing Norton family of anthologies this year under the capable direction of editor Charles Henry Rowell. Rowell is a professor of English at Texas A&M University and the founder and longtime editor of Callaloo, a well known literary quarterly of the African Diaspora.
“Angles of Ascent” seems clearly designed to update a mainstream history of black literature, poetry in particular, to include its most recent movements and movers. Rowell’s introduction gives us a clear and accessible mini-history of black poetry in the U.S. and its socio-political contexts. He traces for us the difficulties of the “divided mind” throughout that history—a schism created by pressure from the white publishing establishment to be mainstream and apolitical, and pressure from the black communities to be political. Read the rest of this entry »
Kate Atkinson burst on the scene in 1995 with “Behind the Scenes at the Museum,” an intricate family drama for which she won the Whitbread Prize. More recently she’s been writing mysteries surrounding a Scottish detective named Jackson Brodie. Atkinson certainly made a fine addition to the grand lineage of British women mystery novelists. While these novels retained her sophisticated style and rich language, they had something of the (dare I say it?) commercial about them. Oh, the lowly mystery! How many Gaudy Nights must be written before it’s marked literature with a capital “L”?
In any event, “Life After Life” is a return to the style of her earlier novels—with a twist. Ursula Todd is born again and again, each time with an opportunity to improve on the last. At the beginning, a child is stillborn. A quick restart. A child is born, and takes a breath. As a toddler she falls from a roof. A child is born. Something makes this child hesitate before rushing out to dangerous heights. Fevers kill. Restart. It’s difficult to survive childhood. These early pages slip by quickly, as if the author were casually stretching her fingers while the audience catches up. Catch up. Read it twice, if you’re like me, just to marvel at her technique the second time around. Read the rest of this entry »
With his signature contorted syntax, Carl Phillips ushers us through the woods of pathos and logos—a steady procession through ourselves and those we love. “Silverchest” vividly reminds us that we are reading a book of individual pieces, pieces that have stood and continue to stand on their own curious and wobbly legs. Phillips imbues these examinations of the mind, memory, the heart and human intimacy with a delicate and deliberate pace that defines the world of each poem. The voice is patient, insistent, tells all—every last hesitation, every stutter of thought, seducing a reader to the point of certainty, of conviction, and then pulls back. And this seductive voice, this belief riddled with doubt, ties each poem to our lives, to the knee-jerk nature of life. These poems, their condensed heft, revolve around moments of clarity, of simplicity with subtle, vibrating metaphors and architectures that force us to slow our read, to intentionally move from word to word, increment by increment. Early in the collection we come to the poem “And Other Animals,” suggesting an ellipses before the title and contributing to the tone of “Silverchest”:
So the dead become earth
and then nothing, things that will never matter
now in the way they used to, for— Read the rest of this entry »
“The Silence and the Roar,” written by the Syrian Nihad Sirees, is a modern-day farce (or so it seems) set in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, where the narrator, writer Fathi Sheen, is out of favor with a ludicrous despotic government that demands the preposterous adulation of its populace for “The Leader.” Taking place over the course of a long day, the roar in the novel’s title refers to this unescapable sound of a bizarre routine: the entire populace, in the streets, rallying for the glory of the Leader. Sirees, whose works have been banned in his home country for more than a decade and who has recently fled into exile in Egypt, has fun with the contours of absurdity: “In my country slogans are arranged into lines of rhyming poetry.” Fathi, unsurprisingly, is having no part of this blind-adulation business, which is why he’s out of favor, but he does not seem particularly concerned. Instead, he spends most of his time alternately fascinated by the brainlessness of “the Masses” and searching for solitude in the arms of his equally disengaged lover, Lama. But his mother’s surprising decision to marry a well-connected functionary threatens his low-profile life, as does his inability to turn away from episodes of brutal repression he encounters in the street. Read the rest of this entry »