Author: Marc Schuster

Marc Schuster is the author of The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl (The Permanent Press 2011) and The Grievers (The Permanent Press 2012). He is also the editor of Small Press Reviews.

Yoga for Freedom

Yoga for FreedomIn Yoga for Freedom, John Vourlis relates the experiences of twenty volunteers who travel to Nepal with an organization called the Imagine Foundation to raise awareness of child slavery and human trafficking in the area. Early on, Vourlis provides background information on the issue, noting that widespread poverty in Nepal “leaves children vulnerable to a form of indentured servitude known as the Kamlari system.” As the narrative progresses, Vourlis and his fellow travelers go from appreciating their mission in the abstract to fully embracing the work they’re doing. In addition to offering his own thoughts on this journey, Vourlis also brings in the voices of the other volunteers who took part. Indeed, what’s particularly interesting about the book is that it does offer multiple perspectives on the experience, thus underscoring one of the underlying themes of the book — that while everyone comes at life from a different angle, we’re all in it together and need to work with each other to make the best of it. Given the title, it’s not surprising that an interest in yoga unites all of the volunteers, but Yoga for Freedom is by no means an attempt to proselytize. Rather, it’s a heartfelt and realistic depiction of one group’s efforts to bring hope to a poverty-stricken corner of the world.

Home with Henry – Review by Curtis Smith

At the age of 52, I adopted my first dog. I’d never been keen on being a pet owner. I enjoyed taking my walks when I wanted, enjoyed taking an overnight excursion without worrying about who would feed and pick up after my pet. But my son won me over, and we brought home a ten-pound mutt that carried his history as a stray in his limp and in the scars beneath his fur. It didn’t take long for me to fall in love, and now I wish I had known this part of my heart sooner.

In Home with Henry Anne Kaier explores the unique relationships we form with our pets. Her journey starts with a rescue made in the street, a stopping of traffic and a picking up of a cat she fears is dead. She takes the cat home and names him Henry. Their relationship isn’t easy—the cat is wild and frightened, and Kaier embarks on a quest to win its trust. Of course this takes time, and along the way Kaier learns one of life’s truest lessons—that often times, the things we reach out to save end up turning around and saving us.

Why would Kaier rescue such a creature? She knew what waited—the vet bills, the disturbance of routine, the looming territorial struggle between this interloper and the cat that was waiting for her at home. Such concerns pale in the mind of a compassionate soul, and what motivates one are the less tangible and nobler aspects of our kind. And perhaps Kaier was also urged on by other currents, ones she explores as we witness the developing relationship between her and Henry. Henry joins her at a meaningful juncture in her life. She’s a woman in her fifties, and she’s come to peace with the fact that her reality is different than the imagined notions of her childhood. Marriage, children, the dream house in the country—these will not be hers. Yet her life is rich—she has family and friends and a job, a house that might not be her ideal but which she makes both beautiful and a true home. Through her interactions with Henry, Kaier shows there are other avenues of connection waiting for us if we’re willing to open our eyes and seek. She shows us that love and caring can take many forms, and the nourishment they provide can make any life both sweeter and more meaningful.

An interesting current is also at play—Kaier lives near the Schuylkill, yet in her neighborhood, the river is hidden, hemmed in by the local architecture. Her wondering about the river and her eventual discovery of it form a pleasing tie with her developing relationship with Henry.

Home With Henry features lovely illustrations by Carol Chu, and it can be read in a single day. It’s more than a story about pet and owner. It’s a testament to the powers of love, the rewards of patience, and the triumph of trust.

Available October 15 from PS Books.

Curtis Smith is the author of eight books, including Witness, Truth or Something Like It, and Bad Monkey. Visit him on the web at CurtisJSmith.com.

Five Bullets – Review by Marc Schuster

A tragic, hopeful, finely wrought novel about the possibility of possibility even under impossible circumstances, Larry Duberstein’s Five Bullets offers a heartrending examination of the Holocaust and its aftermath.

The book consists of two intertwined novellas. In one, Karel Bondy is a family man who watches helplessly as everyone he loves is murdered by the Nazi war machine. In the other, Karel reinvents himself as Carl Barry and gradually builds a new life for himself in America. Yet even as his new life comes together, Carl is haunted by the memories of those he lost as well as by everything he did to survive and, perhaps more to the point, to take revenge upon the officer who oversaw the systematic murder of his family. Throughout the narrative, Carl emerges as a curious creature, a man with a clearly delineated past and present that are at once wholly separate yet simultaneously inseparable.

Early on, Carl reflects, “When millions are killed, when an entire race of widows and widowers is created—such a time might call for a brand new category, and a new word to define those few who were not killed.” In essence, Five Bullets sheds light on the struggle to define that category, and Carl’s ceaseless effort to suppress his own memories of the past speaks in large part to everybody’s fraught relationship with history. We are made of memories both joyful and tragic, Carl’s story suggests, and we can only find ourselves when we pay due respect to the full emotional range of our experiences.

Haunting as it is compelling, Five Bullets offers an engaging, intelligent meditation on memory, hope, and survival.

The Race – Review by Marc Schuster

RaceCoverJacke Wilson’s The Race is an incredibly astute novella about ego and politics that attempts to explain why anyone in their right mind might run for political office. The answer, it turns out, is that they wouldn’t, as the political arena is reserved for the eternally deluded and arguably insane.

The narrative focuses on Tom Olson, a fictional disgraced former Governor of Wisconsin who is attempting to revive his career by running for Congress. In a “ripped from the headlines” kind of way, Olson’s fall from grace is highly reminiscent of former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s. Yet while Olson and Sanford both mysteriously vanished from their offices only to turn up at later dates in foreign love nests, there are hints of other political figures wrapped up in the novella’s central figure as well. Echoing Bill Clinton’s 1992 remark that Hillary would be so central to his presidency that he might as well adopt “buy one, get one free” as his campaign slogan, a common refrain surrounding Olson’s first bid for governor was “Vote for him and get the pair.” Likewise, something about Olson also harkens to Mitt Romney. He’s relatively handsome in the way many career politicians aspire to be, he’s idealistic in his own way, and he’s optimistic to a fault — so much so that his grand vision of the world completely eclipses reality.

There’s certainly plenty of dry humor to be had in the proceedings — particularly as Olson does his best to turn the rancid lemons of his tattered political career into saccharine-sweet lemonade — but the real strength of Wilson’s writing is in its Marxian critique of American politics. Early on, Olson’s biographer notes a key difference between himself and the politician: “He was bourgeois and I was proletariat.” He then goes on to muse, “Why don’t we use those words anymore? Too loaded with history?” Yes and no. The real problem isn’t history so much as substance in general. As Wilson depicts it, our political system is largely a popularity contest, and political platforms offer little more than trite platitudes and vitriol against the other side. As such, Olson is especially popular “with a certain kind of pundit who has overcome his or her natural ability to say anything interesting or accurate, or to have any personally appealing qualities, by instinctively taking the contrarian’s view of any issue.” Most of all, however, Olson demonstrates that what truly drives politicians is a desire to control the narratives of their own lives, as his tragically optimistic efforts at running for office are forever haunted by the specter of the good man he was before throwing his hat into the political arena.

Smart, well-written, and frequently funny, The Race offers some interesting speculation into the mind of the American politician.

Shoplandia – Review by Marc Schuster

shoplandiabookcover5_5x8_5_cream_290-copyWith a tone and style reminiscent of George Saunders and situations that would feel right at home in a Don DeLillo novel, the stories collected in Jim Breslin’s Shoplandia offer an engaging and informed behind-the-scenes look at the home shopping industry. Drawing on seventeen years of experience as a producer at QVC, Breslin gives readers an intimate view of everything that goes into producing a live television broadcast day in and day out, and he excels at bringing the lives behind the endeavor to life. Indeed, while the stories in Shoplandia are all ostensibly about home shopping, they’re also about humanity’s search for meaning in a consumer-driven world that’s more interested in appearances than substance.

Many of Breslin’s characters are jaded with respect to their jobs, but they still go about them with workmanlike dignity. The sense is that if they believe in the work they do, the viewers at home will buy into the illusion that what Shoplandia has to offer will make a difference in their lives. As one character remarks, “The secret? Run away from the pain and toward the pleasure. Make them feel like if they don’t have the next great thing, their lives will be hell and they will be ostracized, their lives meaningless… But if they attain it, if they purchase it, if they part with their hard earned money for a chunk of metal in some fancy design, then they will become a god. They will be desired, they will be loooooved. If you own this, you will be worthy!” That the rant is delivered by a disgraced show host only adds to its import, for here is a man who’s peeked behind the curtain and has realized the true logic behind the system.

Ultimately, it’s the author’s talent for using intimate portraits of his characters to interrogate contemporary values that makes Shoplandia so engaging. As in life, meaning emerges — often unexpectedly — in the minutia of the little picture even as the chaos of the big picture threatens to overwhelm Breslin’s characters with its apparent emptiness. To put it another way, Shoplandia insists that there’s a point to it all, even if it’s a different point than the one we’ve been sold.

The Last Policeman

250px-The_Last_Policeman_book_coverSet in a world painfully aware of its own impending demise, The Last Policeman, a novel by Ben H. Winters, is a philosophically astute page-turner that interrogates the most basic assumptions undergirding civil society. As an asteroid hurtles toward Earth, Detective Hank Palace does his best to maintain law and order in Cocord, New Hampshire, despite the fact that news of the impending apocalypse has triggered unparalleled social upheaval. When an apparent suicide turns up in a public restroom, common sense tells him to chalk it up to end-times hysteria, but—per the genre’s dictates—something about the case doesn’t sit right with Palace. Soon, he’s off on an investigation that pits him against survivalists, unscrupulous opportunists, and a wide range of conspiracy theories. Yet while the murder investigation provides the narrative with something of a MacGuffin, the real mystery at the heart of The Last Policeman is existential: What’s the point solving murders—or being good, or doing anything for that matter—when death is imminent? It’s the kind of question that can’t help leading to a slew of others, and one that Winters explores from multiple angles throughout this intelligent, suspenseful novel as the world he imagines spirals into chaos and all forms of human decency suddenly go up for grabs.