Month: January 2012

Circe

Aficionados of Greek mythology will find much to love in Circe by Nicelle Davis. This collection of poetry deftly and movingly reimagines the mythic figure — best known for turning Odysseus’s crew into pigs in Homer’s Odyssey — as a woman scorned. Throughout, Davis blends elements of classical mythology with contemporary culture to create a vision of Circe that is at once timeless and timely. Additionally, Davis’s playful approach to the vaunted “loveliest of all immortals” allows her to breathe new life into Circe and to explore elements of her character that the Odyssey fails to consider. Case in point: Homer makes no mention of Circe buying scratch-n-win lottery tickets, whereas Davis does to great tragicomic effect. Beautifully complementing Davis’ moving and inventive approach to the Circe myth are a series of evocative and enchanting illustrations by Cheryl Gross. Together, Davis’s poetry and Gross’s illustration offer a magical blend that would feel right at home among the pages of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, yet which more than stand on their own as a contemporary take on an ancient myth. An ingenious and heartfelt collection.

-Review by Marc Schuster

The Final Appearance of America’s Favorite Girl Next Door

A shark attack, a starlet in hiding, a mysterious black box. The opening pages of Stephen Stark’s The Final Appearance of America’s Favorite Girl Next Door have all the makings of a Hollywood page turner, but the novel’s style places the author in a far more literary league.

The novel is a hefty one in terms of content as well as form. Weighing in at well over 600 pages (in 12 pt. Garamond, no less!), The Final Appearance of America’s Favorite Girl Next Door touches on a wide range of topics — show business, fame, predestination, love, reality, lucid dreaming, and standup comedy, to name just a few. To tackle these subjects, Stark offers the reader Ellen Gregory, a thirty-something standup comic turned TV superstar whose recent run-in with a murderous stalker leaves her questioning everything about the world she’s grown used to. That her world consists largely of hype and rumors only complicates matters for the increasingly cagey celebrity.

Ellen’s Hollywood narrative alone would certainly provide enough material for a provocative examination of fame and its trappings, but Stark sweetens the deal by adding virtual reality to the mix. Shortly after escaping from the confines of her successful sitcom, Ellen falls for a computer programmer whose experiments have opened a doorway into a mysterious dimension that isn’t quite real but is, in some ways, more real than real. When Michael falls prey to a vicious attack, Ellen’s world turns upside down, and her entire world — not to mention her sense of self — goes up for grabs.

Stylistically, Stark’s writing evokes a diverse range of contemporary authors. From the more “literary” camp, there’s Jennifer Egan and Don DeLillo, while the elements of science-fiction present in the novel call to mind William Gibson’s interest in virtual reality and Jamil Nasir’s examination of lucid dreaming in The Houses of Time. Complex, ambitious, and genre-bending, The Final Appearance of America’s Favorite Girl Next Door is a philosophical page turner that dares to ask what it means to really know someone.

-Review by Marc Schuster

All Her Father’s Guns

In fewer than 200 pages — 190, to be exact — novelist James Warner manages to explore the full range of the American sociopolitical spectrum with verve and wit. The novel centers on the unlikely relationship between Cal Lyte, a right-leaning, gun-toting venture capitalist, and Reid Seyton, Cal’s left-leaning, bookish not-quite son-in-law. Faced with academia’s version of corporate downsizing, Reid agrees to do some snooping in order to dig up “something fresh” on Cal’s ex-wife, Tabytha. That Tabytha’s political aspirations and inclinations make her a dead-ringer for Sarah Palin while Cal’s ongoing tryst with a Lacanian psychoanalyst wreaks havoc with his own moral compass only adds to the fun.

Throughout the novel, Warner’s gift for creating strong characters is clear. Among the strongest is Cal, who comes across as a slightly eccentric amalgam of Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe’s Charles “Cap’m” Croker of A Man in Full. 

Additionally, Warner does a wonderful job of sending up ivory tower academia. Reid’s dissertation adviser, for example, is described as “a Kansan who’d spent half his career analyzing the continuity errors in Casablanca.” Narrating this portion of the novel, Reid goes on to explain, “E.g., when Bogart reads a note from Bergman at a train station, his coat is wet, but when he gets on the train, his coat is suddenly dry again. In Troy’s reading, the super-absorptiveness of Bogart’s coat parallels Bogart’s own rapid intake of Bergman’s message, while also reflecting how quickly popular culture soaks up postmodernism.”

In many ways, one is tempted to read the continuity errors of Her Father’s Guns — few though they are — in a similar light. E.g., when Reid has lunch with Cal, he orders fish and chips because at $19.99, he reports, it’s the cheapest entree on the menu, but on the following page Cal’s daughter orders an entree that’s $17.50. Here, Reid’s mistaken belief that his $19.99 meal is “the cheapest” when a cheaper alternative clearly exists parallels the tendency of his own ethics become skewed under Cal’s influence, while also reflecting how quickly popular culture forgets its “values” when money comes into play.

Though this reading may be a slight stretch, it actually lines up with a lot of the novel’s themes. Indeed, the real dynamism behind this novel is Warner’s uncanny ability to allow his characters to evolve over time — to allow their values and perspectives to change as the world around them offers its various motivational incentives, greed and lust being high on the list.

All told, All Her Father’s Guns is a satire par excellence that combines the zaniness of a Terry Southern novel with the critical astuteness of White Noise-era Don DeLillo.

My Life As Laura – Review by Meghan Piercy

This little book is Kelly Kathleen Ferguson’s delightful response to this question: If you could meet ANYone, past or present, who would you meet and why? Ferguson’s answer: Laura Ingalls Wilder. And while My Life As Laura is witty, sharply penned, and thoughtful, taking a road trip through the prairie with Ferguson, who is both strong and vulnerable at once, was the best part of all. The book’s one downfall is that it is too short! (Shamefully) having never met Laura Ingalls Wilder myself, My Life As Laura has made seek the Little House books for myself. I hope that Ferguson continues to write and create her own little boxed set for the rest of us to enjoy. I want more!

-Review by Meghan Piercy

Rust

In Rust, Julie Mars disproves F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum that there are no second acts in American lives. The plot revolves around a long-orphaned painter named Margaret Shaw who, on a whim, abandons her life in New York City to learn to take up welding in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Sparks literally fly when Margaret meets Rico Garcia, the proprietor of an auto body shop whose passionless marriage also makes him a prime candidate for a second act. Yet even as both characters strive to create new lives in the present, they find themselves haunted by ghosts of the past. In Rico’s case, the past is personified by his self-destructive late brother Fernando, while Margaret lives with the gnawing mystery behind the disappearance of her parents decades earlier. That Mars breaks up the main narrative with glimpses of the harrowing tale of Margaret’s father — himself struggling to find a new life in the wake of personal tragedy and grave misfortune — adds texture to an already rich tapestry.

The novel’s title offers a hint regarding the controlling metaphor of the narrative. Margaret is not simply fascinated with welding or with metal work. She’s specifically interested in rust, “old metal that slowly transforms itself into dust after going through a long redheaded phase.” This long redheaded phase is exactly where Margaret finds herself at the beginning of the novel (despite being described as a raven-haired beauty) — not quite as young as she used to be, eyeing the future, and wondering along with Rico what she’ll do with the remainder of the time allotted to her.

More than anything else, Rust is a novel about the slow passage of time, and Mars has an unparallelled gift for drawing out a moment, for filling a moment with meaning and poetry, for making room within a moment for what TS Eliot once called time for a hundred indecisions, a hundred visions and revisions. In the end, it’s humanity’s capacity for revision that makes Rust so moving, so true to life, for the parallel narratives of Margaret, Rico, and Margaret’s father suggest that while time moves forever forward — and while everything eventually turns to dust — the time we have, though certainly limited, is always ripe with potential. An excellent novel.

-Review by Marc Schuster