Month: December 2009

the road to god knows…

Von Allan‘s graphic novel the road to god knows… opens with a series of images depicting the stark yet curiously hopeful Ottawa in which the action takes place. It’s a city where boys play street hockey in short sleeves, where homeless men sleep fitfully on sidewalks, where one-eyed jack-o-lanterns grin mischievously on front steps, and where teens lead lives of quiet desperation behind the closed doors of their rundown apartment buildings. In this case, the teen’s name is Marie, and her desperation stems from the fact that her mother is struggling with schizophrenia. Despite her mother’s illness, however, Marie’s life is not without hope. Indeed, she’s a complex character, and her efforts at balancing the stress of living with a sick parent and leading the “normal life” of a teen outside of her home make the road to god knows… a compelling read.

Nowhere in the graphic novel is the tension in Marie’s life more palpable than a passage in which a math teacher berates her for repeatedly missing class. For what can the protagonist say? That her mother stumbled, naked, out of her bedroom several nights earlier, rambling incoherently? That shortly thereafter her mother hurled a pot of spaghetti at Marie’s head, barely missing its mark? That, as a result of all this, she’s had to live with her father for a few days, that he lives across town and has a tendency to sit around the house in his underwear? As the teacher heartlessly explains the mathematics of Marie’s absences, we can’t help but feel compassion for her, can barely resist the urge to yell at the page: Can’t you see that this poor girl is barely hanging on?

But hang on she does, for Marie is, at heart, an optimist.

In terms of story, Allan gives us two arcs at once: while Marie’s nearly overwhelming struggle on the home front undergirds the road to god knows…, a second arc involving her quest to attend a pro-wrestling match (an all-but impossible dream for a poor girl growing up in Ottawa) buoys the proceedings. As these two arcs intertwine, Marie comes to realize that she is not alone in the world and, more importantly, that she doesn’t have to be ashamed of her mother. Life, on the whole, can be difficult, this graphic novel seems to tell us, but we need to be open to helping each other find joy, if only in small increments.

With the road to god knows… Von Allan demonstrates that he’s talented as both an artist and a storyteller. The Ottawa he conjures is beautifully and lovingly detailed — on par, perhaps, with the London of Dickens or the Cleveland of Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor. Stylistically, I’m also reminded of Black Hole by Charles Burns and Sloth (among other things) by Gilbert Hernandez. Regardless of his artistic influences, however, what’s clear throughout this graphic novel is that Allan is an optimist who strives to explore the human heart in all of its intricate complexity.

When Love Was Clean Underwear

In The Life of Reason, George Santayana famously notes that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it–or, as the popular interpretation of this dictum would have it, that we need to learn from our mistakes. The problem that Lucy Pescitelli, the protagonist of Susan Barr-Toman’s debut novel, When Love Was Clean Underwear, faces, however, is that she doesn’t have much of a past to speak of and, as a result, hasn’t made the mistakes that the rest of us made in our teens with respect to dating, friendship, and relating to other people in general. As a result, she spends much of the novel attempting to navigate the choppy waters of adult relationships–something she’s never done, despite the fact that she’s nearing thirty.

The novel begins with Lucy agonizing over her dying mother’s request to be euthanized. That she carries out her mother’s wishes by smothering her with a pillow is entirely fitting, as the mother has been smothering Lucy with her own brand of “love” for over a decade. Indeed, despite her death, the mother’s presence is palpable throughout the novel. She haunts Lucy night and day, causing the protagonist to vacillate between doubting her every instinct and feeling guilty for everything she does.

Compounding the problems that Lucy must overcome is the South Philly neighborhood where she resides. In effect, the South Philadelphia that Barr-Toman has created is the ghost of Lucy’s mother writ large. Its will is unbending, its assumptions uncompromising, its outlook provincial. It is, in short, a closed universe with its own rules and regulations, both spoken and unspoken, that hem Lucy in, almost to the point of claustrophobia. Lucy, to put it bluntly, is in an inescapable (though well-meaning) circle of hell consisting of row homes, nosy neighbors, and not enough parking.

Given Lucy’s lack of prospects, the challenge that Barr-Toman faces as a writer is taking a character who’s never stood up for herself and making her do so. To put it another way, the challenge is taking a figure who isn’t quite a character yet (i.e., she has no sense of self outside of her mother, no real motivation outside of a vague wish to keep her crime a secret) and to allow that figure to blossom into full “characterhood.” That When Love Was Clean Underwear is a character-driven novel makes this challenge all the more daunting, yet it’s a challenge that Barr-Toman meets expertly by filling the early chapters of the novel with a cast of memorable characters who pick up the slack for Lucy and from whom, as the novel progresses, she must wrest control of the narrative that is her life. The end result is a lovingly crafted coming of age story that gradually (and almost without warning)  builds to a hard-fought, spirited declaration of independence.

Triangulation: Dark Glass – Review by Tom Powers

With the holiday season bearing down upon us (not to mention a ton of end-of-semester grading to take care of), I’m glad to have my good friend Tom Powers helping me out with another review. This week, Tom takes a look at PARSEC Inc’s Triangulation: Dark Glass, a self-described “Annual Confluence of Speculative Fiction.”

Short story anthologies usually work for me, in that, like a decent sushi buffet with a cross section of underwater delicacies, they provide a sampling of authorial styles and genre approaches. This appetite for such an eclectic literary feast was thankfully satiated as I read Triangulation: Dark Glass, the 2009 Edition of PARSEC Ink’s Annual Confluence of Speculative Fiction.

Starting off the anthology in a tongue-in-cheek style that channels Harlan Ellison, Mark Onspaugh’s tale “The Milton Feinhoff Problem” cleverly articulates the repercussion of a seemingly endless stream of Miltons, each different in some way, converging in one Milton’s home. From there, one is exposed to ghosts possessing living bodies in order to experience physical ecstasy in D. K. Thompson’s quirky supernatural detective story, “Saint Darwin’s Spirituals.” Then one can read an unnerving virtual-reality thriller set on an alien world in Kenneth B. Chiacchia’s “Imaginal Friend.”

To be honest, I am quite partial to the fourth tale in Triangulation: Dark Glass: “Monstrous Embrace,” Rachel Swirsky’s tale of a mysterious dark spirit that offers a Catch-22 scenario to a prince who is saddled with a duplicitous fiancée. The twist, however, without revealing too much, is that the spirit’s offer, as twisted and morbid as it stands, works in a convincing manner. In short, this story’s winning combination can be found in the story’s plot, which, when coupled with the talented Swirsky’s eloquent writing style, forms a tale that contains a true literary vibe.

In Aaron Polson’s “Dancing Lessons,” a girl poignantly encounters an animated carnival monster who may be her dead father while Lon Prater’s “Deadglass” depicts the courageous efforts of a priest to unravel the truth behind an otherworldly, religious-themed mystery. The subject of religion continues when the recently deceased man encounters quarrelsome representatives of Earthly faiths in the whimsical “Perchance to Dream,” by D. J. Cockburn, while Gerri Leen’s “Windows to the Soul” portrays a bar-owner complicated moralistic struggle with his partner, a supernatural force that want to feed upon the life forces of the bar’s customers.

“More Things in Heaven and Earth,” by Jason K. Chapman, thoughtfully illustrates the efforts of a lieutenant as he tries to convince others in his military organization that the Children of the Dying Sun, a religious group he infiltrated as an agent provocateur, do not need to be obliterated. Additionally, the influence of Chinese mythology is felt in Kelly A. Harmon’s intriguing “On the Path,” as a farmer deals with the awkward truth one of the souls powering his farming reincarnation engine belongs to his long-deceased uncle.

Kathryn Board’s “Broken Things” presents a lonely woman becoming acquainted for the first time with her dead mother’s genie. Another interesting female lead can be found in Amy Treadwell’s humorous “Audition for Evil,” in which a temperamental sorceress prepares for her audition with the snotty Hexagonal Alliance for Glamourie, while her Chancellor, whom she had transformed into a bird, serves as her comic foil.

A teenage girl’s first job experience working for a mysterious, slightly dangerous old sculptor who has a dark secret is shown in David Seigler’s “One Touch to Remember.” One can next find a parallel Earth, where people hang their souls in their front windows in Kurt Kirchmeier’s appropriately titled “Souls on Display.” The subject of the soul likewise permeates the following tale, Loretta Sylvestre’s “A More Beautiful Monster,” as it delineates the attempts of a sorcerer to undo his deal with the devil.

Closing out the anthology, and working as an old-school-sci-fi-style bookend to Onspaugh’s “Milton” story, Craig’s Wolf’s “Seeing Is” delightfully, and wickedly, tells the story of an all-knowing eyeball’s attempt to corrupt a nine-year-old boy as he is walking home one day. While reading this enjoyable tale, I easily pictured it tele-dramatized in spooky black and white as a Twilight Zone episode.

If your literary palette has now been sufficiently whetted to sample Triangulation: Dark Glass’s smorgasbord of contemporary fantasy and sci-fi writing, then be sure to pick up this great anthology, which showcases the writing of sixteen talented writers.

Tom Powers is the co-author of The Greatest Show in the Galaxy: The Discerning Fan’s Guide to Doctor Who.

Skin

Despite its overt reference to “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Girl” by April Lindner feels, as do many of the works in Skin, as if it is in dialogue not only with the Keats poem but with all of Western culture on the issue of beauty. Ezra Pound’s “Portrait d’une Femme” leaps immediately to mind, if only for Lindner’s suggestion that our postmodern, media-driven conception of beauty has “shipwrecked” a generation of women, much as the Sargasso Sea of Pound’s poem has claimed metaphorical “Strange spars of knowledge and dim wares of price” from those caught in her doldrums. The difference, of course, is that for Pound, the “femme” addressed in the poem is, in her own way, the Sargasso Sea, whereas for Lindner, the female narrator of the poem is among the shipwrecked. To put it another way, “Girl” gives a voice to the “femme” of Pound’s poem, allows her to be a subject rather than an object, allows her, in essence, to reject Pound’s assessment of her and, in so doing, to assert her own identity. “God dammit, Ezra,” the poem seems to say; “Don’t blame me. You’re the one who made me this way.

And what is “this way”? It’s artificial. It’s scripted. It’s airbrushed and Photoshopped. In other words, it’s shallow and lifeless, much like the object of Pound’s poem. Yet “Girl” doesn’t simply rail against the artificial ideal of beauty that life in the computer age has created for us. In fact, its narrator finds some things about that ideal quite attractive. Contemplating the digitally enhanced image of an online dream girl, she opines, “Hell, I want her, too/or want to be her, sometimes, in the buzz/after I’ve stared too long, my flesh exhausted/by its own weight.” This confession, however, ultimately leads to the realization that Keats, like Pound, got it all wrong. Beauty is not truth, but “the lie we carve and starve for.”

Perhaps it’s this final realization in “Girl” that makes all of the poems in Skin such a joy to read: they recognize the joy of imperfection, that our humanity lies not in the hyper-idealized vision of the world that saturates our digital landscapes but in the gritty, grainy details of our day-to-day lives. Lindner’s, after all, is a world of half-empty spice jars, bloody milk teeth, and fading physical beauty. It is a world where lovers long for the gross physicality of each other even though their minds are connected by cell phones and email. It’s a world where the bare arms of strangers brush against each other on the subway, a world of worry and (occasionally) despair, but also one of hope. We are not fallen from some perfect, ideal state, Lindner challenges us to believe. Our glory is in our imperfection.

Note: Very similar in theme and tone to Nuala Ni Conhuir’s short story collection Nude. If you like either of these titles, I highly recommend the other!

Interview with Gregory Mose, author of Stunt Road

What is Stunt Road about, and what inspired you to write it?

Stunt Road is the story of Pete McFadden, an unemployed computer graphics designer who cynically invents his own system of fortune telling. When “Horokinetics” unexpectedly takes off and becomes the next “big thing,” Pete stumbles into web of corporate greed and personal betrayal that threatens to turn his harmless prank into a dangerous psychological weapon he can no longer control. It’s Frankenstein for the digital age.

The book is the result of a conversation I had at a new age themed restaurant in Los Angeles – my family and I started speculating on ways to mimic the supposed accuracy of astrology, and gradually I began to imagine what might unfold if I were to actually invent my own system of fortune telling. Using the idea to satirize corporate marketing cynicism and human gullibility just sounded like too much fun to pass up.

What is your writing process like?

For me the greatest challenge in writing is getting momentum. I’ll spend months dithering and outlining before committing a single word to paper. Once I’ve got the ball rolling on whatever particular project I’m working on, the writing seems to happen automatically. But keeping that momentum is a Sisyphean task, so in practice I produce text in bursts, punctuated by periods of gloomy distraction. Hardly an advertisement for the writing life…

Your day job involves running a small holiday cottage complex in the French countryside. How do you balance work and writing?

Precariously. In summer, our tourist season, I am occupied more or less full time with looking after our guests, fixing toilets, mowing grass and pretending to be charming. In winter I get up very early, when I can bear it, but then writing has to compete with cutting firewood and maintaining our seven acres of woodland and fields. It’s a wonderful life out here in the middle of nowhere, and about as far from the LA suburbs of my childhood as one could get. But I get a lot of people asking what I do all day, imagining perhaps that we sit around drinking wine and watching sheep. The fact is, this country living business is hard work.   And of course when you work from home, when you are your own boss, it requires some discipline to write instead of doing other “more important” things like making coffee… or making money.

You make no apologies for self-publishing your book. Why did you decide to go this route?

In my case the decision was a combination of circumstances and character. I have a knack for bad timing, and I contrived to finish my final edits just as the world economy was collapsing and book publishers were announcing their utter lack of interest in publishing fiction by obscure first-time authors. I sent the manuscript to a few agents, but quickly concluded that in the current climate I was wasting my time. But I’m also a contrarian by nature, and the idea of going it alone appealed to me. Having total control of the fate of my novel is both challenging and satisfying. And I get a lot of mileage out of grumbling about those big bad publishing companies and how I didn’t sell out to the Man.

What kind of editorial process was involved? Did anyone else look at the manuscript before it went to press? A writers group, for example, or a professional editor?

My wife and I are both lawyers by training, so we’re both used to editing text to a ridiculously high standard (an inadvertent double space between words can get you twenty lashes in a big corporate firm). I also was lucky enough to have a team of willing volunteers in a variety of professions who went over the manuscript with a fine-toothed comb.

What kind of feedback have you gotten regarding the book?

I’ve had great reader reviews but, as is the case with most “indie” authors, frustratingly few professional reviews. The biggest criticism has been that the main character is somewhat infuriating. He is lost, and only begins to find himself towards the end of the book. Most readers are able to forgive him his faults as he slowly struggles to accept responsibility for his actions, but others judge him more harshly. He is deeply flawed, as are we all. If you have little tolerance for human weakness, it’s not the book for you.

Describe your ideal reader.

Anyone who doesn’t take him or herself too seriously should enjoy Stunt Road. The ideal reader for this book is someone who instinctively questions the world around us, who can laugh at the human condition, who isn’t too quick to judge others, and who isn’t convinced that he or she has all the answers. I write for people who can appreciate just how awful this world can be, but who refuse to let that quell their sense of humor.

What are you working on now?

I worked with refugees for a couple of years in West Africa in the late 1990’s when the civil war in Sierra Leone flared up again. I’ve carried those experiences around with me for a decade now waiting to feel ready to write about them. So I’ve recently begun a novel loosely based on what I saw there. It will be much darker than Stunt Road, but still, if all goes as planned, retain a sense of humor and of hope.

Houri

The nearest pop-culture cousin to Mehrdad Balali‘s Houri I can think of is Persepolis, the graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi, which, like Houri depicts the fallout of Iran’s Islamic revolution in poignant, personal detail. A few things, however, set these two works apart. The first and most obvious is the medium; Satrapi’s somewhat whimsical illustrations make for a mostly palatable examination of the 1979 revolution, whereas Balali’s prose paints a stark but no less engaging portrait of Iran in the wake of the same event. Additionally, there’s the difference in gender between the narrators of each work, yet even here, there are more similarities than differences insofar as both narrators are simultaneously trying to balance their growing awareness of the political changes afoot in their lives with the equally powerful forces of nature that are making them increasingly aware of the opposite sex. The biggest distinction to be made between these two works, however, is that where Satrapi’s focus is largely on the revolution and its aftermath, Balali’s novel shuttles between pre- and post-revolution Iran with an unrelenting eye for detail. What emerges from Balali’s investigation is (for lack of a better phrase) a tale  of two cities, both rife with corruption, each painfully human in its own way.

The novel opens with its narrator, Shahed, returning home to Iran after a number of years abroad in America. While he was gone, his father passed away, and Iran underwent a massive cultural and political shift. As Shahed walks the streets of the “new” Iran, he wrestles with the ghosts of his past. Given the rampant corruption of Iran under the Shah (as embodied more personally by Shahed’s father and the motley crew of stooges he calls friends), any change from the status quo of the narrator’s childhood would seem like a godsend. The only problem is that the revolution has placed too much emphasis on its unforgiving conception of “god,” sending the citizens of Iran into a tailspin of repression and joyless piety.

Throughout the novel, Balali depicts the cultural impact of the Islamic revolution vividly. One notable example of this occurs early in the narrative when the narrator visits a once-bustling amusement park, the walls of which bare “paling images of Disney characters, along with the scars of bullets and tiresome political slogans.” In this image, Balali gives us the past and present simultaneously–the death of fun in the name of religious devotion.

The narrative itself is also complex. In effect, we’re given three versions of Shahed–the young child living in pre-revolution Iran, the sullen expatriate living in America, and the mature narrator striving to understand both of his former selves as their tales intertwine and comment upon each other. Ultimately, the lesson the narrator learns is one of forgiveness: though the crimes of his late father are, from Shahed’s perspective, heinous, the narrative force of the story pushes him toward a realization that to hold on to his bitterness–that is, to refuse to forgive–is to repeat the crime of the repressive revolution he so despises. In order to live, he must at once acknowledge his ambivalence toward his father and, in so doing, forgive his own flaws, which is also to say that he must recognize his own humanity.

Houri is a wonderful novel. Even as it provides valuable and much needed information to Western readers about a world that is, ironically, so present in the headlines and absent in any meaningful way from our collective understanding, it reminds us that humans everywhere have so much in common: greed, lust, yearning, heartache, joy, generosity, and love. And, perhaps most of all, the capacity to forgive.

The Brightest Moon of the Century

I first became aware of the writing of Christopher Meeks when I read his wonderful short story collection Months and Seasons. Now Meeks has come out with a stunning debut novel titled The Brightest Moon of the Century, and I have to say that I’ve gone from being an admirer of his work to a full-blown fan–bordering, perhaps, on groupie.

As with Months and Seasons, Meeks’ attention to character and setting in Brightest Moon allows him to capture the angst, uncertainty, and joy of the human condition in all stages of life in vivid detail, but his move to the realm of the novel has allowed him to explore all of these emotions in more detail and greater depth than in his earlier fictional outings. The novel follows the life of Edward Meopian from the death of his mother at an early age through the perils of young adulthood and into the uncertainty of early middle age. What motivates Edward throughout the novel is what I daresay motivates most us: a desire to find a place where we fit in, a desire to find a home in the world, a desire, in short, for love.

Edward’s quest speaks to the hyper-mutability of postmodern life; professionally, he goes from being a college student to working part time in a Los Angeles camera shop to managing a minimart in Alabama to attending film school back in California. Along the way, he falls in and out of love, faces down a hurricane, gets shot at, and watches helplessly as his car explodes in a ball of flame. That this isn’t a thriller, however, underscores Meeks’ talent as a writer: he finds adventure and excitement in the otherwise mundane details of day-to-day life and, in so doing, demonstrates that Edward’s world, like our own, has infinite potential to surprise and delight us. We just need to be open to it.

Overall, The Brightest Moon of the Century is the work of an expert storyteller. The characters come alive, the writing sparkles, and the story of Edward’s journey rings true through every twist and turn. A great and truly humane novel in the tradition of Charles Dickens and John Irving.

For a chance to win a free copy of The Brightest Moon of the Century, check out Christopher Meeks’ recent interview with BackWord Books.