Month: July 2010

Obesity: Your Lack of Wisdom Will Take You Places You Might Not Want to Go

William Hartmann’s Obesity is equal parts memoir and investigation into the root causes of obesity. As the author notes fairly early in the book, it’s difficult to say anything new about this subject because, in his words, “it’s all been written before and repackaged a thousand different ways.” Hartmann, however, gives it the old college try and comes away with mixed results. Early chapters of Obesity do a decent job of recapping a lot of recent writing on the issue, and Hartmann gives credit where credit is due. Among others, Hartmann examines Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me as he attempts to figure out where, exactly, the onus for our country’s weight problem lies. The answer, for Hartmann, anyway, is that it’s a matter of individual responsibility, though he does leave room for both divine and satanic intervention. “Satan was the chief rebel in heaven because of pride until God threw him out,” the author explains; “He now runs a lot of this earth and he is busy indoctrinating everybody he can with this spirit and he doesn’t care how he destroys you whether it’s through your poor nutrition decisions or some other way.” Ultimately, though, Hartmann argues that it’s up to us to “get off of our collected behinds” and do something about the problem.

Hartmann’s writing is strongest in Obesity when he writes from personal experience. Indeed, his own battle with obesity saw him balloon up to 452 pounds — at which point, the author explains, he “couldn’t take a poop without laxatives” and “could barely bend down to pick stuff up.” Such confessions, jarring though they may seem, speak volumes for Hartmann’s courage in writing and publishing this book, which serves as both a warning to a nation whose nutrition issues threaten to spiral out of control and an inspiration to anyone struggling with the life-threatening issue of obesity.

10 A Boot Stomping 20 A Human Face 30 Goto 10

10 A Boot Stomping… reads as if someone cloned an amphetamine-addled Philip K. Dick and told him to come up with his own version of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. The novel follows vintage music aficionado and part-time record store clerk Eric Taliaferro as he attempts to save the world from an alien invasion spearheaded by a dead-ringer for Daryl Dragon of The Captain and Tennille fame. Eric, it turns out, has a peculiar penchant for communicating with the dead — most notably rock ‘n’ roll luminaries like Jim Morrison, Elvis Presley, and Joy Division front man Ian Curtis. The dead, however, aren’t especially interested in doing anything for the living, so Eric must ultimately rely on his own wits to stop the villain he can’t help but call “Dragon.”

According the novel’s afterword, author Jess Gulbranson wrote 10 A Boot Stomping… as part of the infamous Three-day Novel Contest (dubbed by its sponsors as “The World’s Most Notorious Literary  Marathon”), and, in some ways, it shows. Most notably, Gulbranson frequently disposes of characters who’ve outlived their usefulness by having them shot — a ploy that’s partially redeemed whenever the protagonist consults the recently-deceased for advice. For the most part, however, the frantic pace at which Gulbranson must have been writing works in the novel’s favor, for the ultimate effect of reading 10 A Boot Stomping… is a lot like riding a roller coaster: it’s a lot of fun as long as you don’t worry too much about what’s holding the whole thing together.

Home Front

In Home Front, Kristen J. Tsetsi presents a searing examination of war and its effects on those who remain stateside while their loved ones are deployed in foreign lands. The novel follows the ups and (mainly) downs of a young woman named Mia whose significant other, Jake, is serving overseas in the Iraq War. Every day is a struggle for Mia: Though the evening news can’t give her anything more than a few sound bites, she can’t take her eyes off the television whenever the subject of the war arises. As if that weren’t enough, her would-be mother-in-law hounds Mia from a distance, always with the implication that nobody, especially Mia, is good enough for her “Jakey.” Meanwhile, Mia’s job as a cab driver has led to a complicated relationship with a traumatized Vietnam veteran, and her fascination with a painting in a local coffee shop offers the only potential solace in her otherwise overwhelming and emotionally fraught life.

In terms of writing, Tsetsi’s talents shine throughout the novel, and she reveals herself to be the rare sort of writer who can satisfy both emotionally and intellectually. Mia’s journey takes her through depths of self-pity, uncertainty, and despair, yet even in her most despairing moments, she is capable of profound flashes of insight. Most notably, she recognizes that there is no single attitude toward the Iraq War, no simple solution to the phenomenon of war in general. In this sense, Mia’s understanding of the war is likely an accurate reflection of the nation’s, and Tsetsi conveys her protagonist’s ambivalence in a way that is as true to life as it is cathartic, for Mia is ultimately a character who is split in two, both aware of the travesty and senselessness of war, but also painfully aware that the forces of politics and history are far too complex to dismiss with the simple bromides of bumper stickers, car magnets, and protest signs.

Its intelligent, honest treatment of war is not the only thing that Home Front has going for it. In many ways, it is an example of the kind of highbrow style that makes small presses so essential to the continued health of our literary landscape. Indeed, the novel’s pedigree goes at least as far back as “Editha,” a short story in which William Dean Howells examined the complexity of the Spanish American War from the perspective of a woman who insists that her fiance go off to fight, only to learn of his death in an early, unremarkable skirmish; the big difference here, of course, is that the scope of the novel allows Tsetsi to go further than Howells in examining many of the same issues. A more contemporary influence on Tsetsi may be Tim O’Brien, whose classic The Things They Carried also offers a complicated, ambivalent vision of war. In terms of style, Home Front is also reminiscent of many works by Don DeLillo — most notably Players, Running Dog, and, for its emotional density, The Body Artist. All told, Home Front is a moving novel whose emotional and intellectual complexity demands much of the reader but offers much more in return.

ETA – Estimated Time of Arrest

Delphine Pontvieux’s ETA: Estimated Time of Arrest is a sharp, fast-moving, intelligent novel that is equal parts thriller and romance. When Faustine Laroche falls for Rafael Vargas, she has no way of knowing about the past that he’s running from. Years earlier, he participated in a march against the Spanish government that went horribly wrong. Now, living in exile under an assumed name, Vargas is a wanted criminal — and the terrorist organization that helped him escape from Spanish authorities is calling in the favor. What follows is a (literally) explosive adventure that signals the debut of an impressive new talent in Pontvieux and also an impressive first outing for publisher Miss Nyet Publishing.

The characters in ETA are well-rounded and grounded in history — recent history to be sure — and Pontvieux has certainly done her homework to recreate life in the French Pyrenees Mountains in the mid-1990s. Yet where Pontvieux’s writing comes especially alive is in her description of the mountains themselves, and of the mountaineers who climb them. The author’s love of climbing is apparent throughout the book, particularly given her almost poetic descriptions of the hardware involved: “Rafael opened his backpack and retrieved a long purple climbing rope, two harnesses and a faded blue nylon string holding a wide assortment of carabiners and other strange contraptions. To Faustine, they all looked like twisted torture devices.” Needless to say, Faustine quickly falls in love with these devices (along with the man who wields them), and soon enough discovers the exquisite torture of romance as well.

As good as (if not better than) any thriller on the mainstream market, ETA is, appropriately, full of twists and turns, but it never loses sight of the human element that makes works of fiction so compelling. It is that rare gem of a suspense novel that serves not only as a page-turner, but also as a hopeful reminder that for all of our flaws and crimes, we are all viable candidates for redemption.

Snaketown

The short chapters of Kathleen Wakefield’s Snaketown read like a series of microscope slides. Ostensibly the story of a family’s search for a missing child, the novella also serves as a naturalist study of life in off-the-grid rural America. On every page, the author examines the relationship between setting and character, between the barren landscape of a largely abandoned mining town and its denizens, and, ultimately, between the world and humanity.

Snaketown begins with the disappearance of Caytas Buck, the youngest child of the Sibel clan, an allegedly inbred family scraping by on government handouts and odd jobs in their own little closed-in corner of the universe. “They seem confined within boundaries,” Wakefield writes of the Sibels in the precise diction of a sociologist or anthropologist, “as if on an island where only certain things grow, other things three-toed instead of five, winged instead of gilled, the Sibels moving within a range of their own isolation, their own limitations, the roads narrowing, the slant of the sun, their valley, their bend of the river, hogbacks, Mingus Mountain.” Even the disappearance of Caytas does little to bring the family out of their isolation as a mix of destitution, alcoholism, religion, and (curiously) pride keeps them from interacting with the outside world. Indeed, one thing that makes Snaketown so enchanting is Wakefield’s uncanny ability to move seamlessly from the perspective of the Sibels to that of outsiders, thus giving her readers a complex, layered vision of the family and its tragic relationship with the world at large.

To describe the novella solely as a naturalist study, however, is to do it somewhat of an injustice. While the first two-thirds of the book linger largely (and poetically) on the Sibels and their history in relation to Snaketown, the last third of the book sees the narrative morph into something of a page-turner, with the Sibels and the local sheriff racing against the clock and each other to discover what really happened to the missing Caytas. Blending hints of John Steinbeck and Deliverance, Snaketown is that rare gem of a book that is both poetic and gripping — not necessarily a “fun” read, but certainly thought-provoking, heart-felt, and compelling.

The Last Estate

In The Last Estate, Conor Bowman presents a coming of age tale that, like many other examples from the genre, hinges on forbidden love and the tension between fathers and sons. What separates this tale from others like it, however, is the setting: Provence in the wake of World War I. Though he lives in Ireland, Bowman has, according to his  bio, spent “countless summers” in France — and those summers have had a profound effect upon his imagination, for the South of France comes alive in all of its verdant glory throughout the novel.

In addition to bringing the landscapes of Provence to life, Bowman is also adept at bringing the vast and irregular geography of the human heart to life as well — so it’s no coincidence that one of the lovers in this tale is herself a geography teacher. The novel recounts the story of a teenage student named Christian Aragon as he falls in love with Vivienne Pleyben, the young wife of an abusive husband who has (as the novel commences) fled France to avoid conscription into the Great War. As Christian’s love for his geography teacher grows, so too does his sense of independence. His father, it turns out, is interested only in molding his son into a younger version of himself and wishes solely for Christian to take over the family vineyard. Though his own plans for the future are fuzzy at best, Christian knows at the very least that the last thing he wants is to take over the family business.

What’s especially interesting about The Last Estate is witnessing the maturation of the narrator. Early on, when speaking of his love for Vivienne, a young Christian explains, “If someone crept up on me in the middle of the night and nailed my hands to the bedpost and told me not to see her again, I would gnaw my hands off at the elbow and run to her with my limbs trailing blood through this tiny village.” Needless to say, young Christian has a flare, like most teens, for the melodramatic. Yet as Christian grows older, this flare turns to introspection, to the point where a more mature Christian can reflect on relationships of an entirely different stripe: “Families are the great marketplace, where all members trade on an ongoing basis, sometimes for great loss and little gain.” And as Christian comes of age, the novel takes on depth and significance. We are all, in some ways, beholden to the past, Bowman suggests throughout his novel — even if the only form that relationship takes is the conscious decision to break away from all that has gone before us.