Reviews

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.

Lost in Space – Review by Joshua Isard

imageI’ve come across a lot of dad-writing lately, probably because I’ve been a dad for 20 months now. A friend gave me a copy of Abbot Awaits as soon as he found out my wife was pregnant. When Cobalt Press released Four Fathers, I jumped to review it, half because I knew it’d be good (it was), and half to figure out this whole dad thing.

I’m not sure this genre—the existence of which makes me exceedingly happy—shows any father how to operate, but rather functions as a canon of shared experiences. With these stories out there and available, I think today’s dads are more confident and open than ever. We don’t even joke about not changing diapers—of course we change them. Jay-Z changes his kid’s diapers. We put our kids to bed, even on the difficult nights, and hug them where everyone can see. This is beyond accepted, it is expected.

This is 21st century fatherhood and not only is it awesome but dads all get to talk freely about how much they love it. To their wives, to each other, and in print.

Lost in Space, a collection of essays by Ben Tanzer about his own experiences as a father—and, in a few selections, a son—fits clearly into this canon in its candor and humor. In a way, he shows how sacred fatherhood is by stripping away the facade of anything hallowed and dealing honestly with the funny, wacky, sometimes paradoxical nature of being a dad. He engages the weird, which is engaging the truth of it all.

For example, in an essay about his first son’s bris: “…what they don’t tell you about circumcisions, is that when the hood is gone, much of the size goes with it, and seeing this made me sad.” Later on in the same essay: “I know I am going to do everything to be a good father by modeling confidence even when I’m lacking it, providing positive reinforcement, and looking to build their self-esteem in a healthy manner. I also know that I will fail them as a man in some fashion… but there is no question in my mind that a larger penis would help ameliorate these problems from the start.”

If we’re being honest, the bris is one of the stranger Jewish traditions, but no Jewish father would ever think of not having his son circumcised (if I’d had a son, you bet the mohel would have been at our house eight days after the kid was born). Tanzer, in embracing the nature of the ceremony, looks at all sides. Sure he drops a few dick jokes—they’re funny, which makes it OK, and really, how can he not? But he goes beyond that, takes the opportunity of a penis-centric ceremony to explore what it means to be the father of sons.

These essays, while all good humored, delve further into Tanzer’s connection with his sons than just being guys of different ages. One thing that comes up frequently is insomnia, that he often can’t sleep and neither can his son. Most parents have frustrations from sleep-depravation at some point, but for Tanzer it’s more than a kid who can’t close his eyes and relax, it’s a family heritage:

“Sleep is not the enemy, isolation and the anxieties that surround it are. It is the lack of touch, love, and intimacy, and the voices that keep reminding you just how alone you are in the world and what a failure you have become. I didn’t understand that at ten, but now I recognize this is what we had in common, not the lack of sleep per se, but all the reasons we cannot.”

Through the collection, Tanzer captures the cacophony of emotions that come with being a father: the affection for your kids clawing at the heritage of being an American tough guy tackled by the anxiety of a child that has to go into surgery. He owns it all. I’m glad he does. It’s guys like him that let the rest of us own it too.

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Joshua Isard is the author of Conquistador of the Useless, a novel, and several short stories. He is the director of Arcadia University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing. You can find him on the web at JoshuaIsard.com, and on Twitter @JoshuaIsard.

Four Fathers—Review by Joshua Isard

1398615723When Cobalt Press announced about a year ago that they’d assembled four excellent writers to contribute to the collection Four Fathers, I was probably happier than most people. My baby daughter was only a few months old and I was well aware that there is no guidebook to the whole fatherhood thing. I thought this might be as close as it gets.

Well, guidebook it is not, but this collection of stories, poetry, and a novella evoke a real and often hilarious empathy from me. One of the things about fatherhood is that many times you think you’re doing it wrong, but then you talk to another dad, find out that he did the same thing, and in the end figure out you’re actually pulling off the parenting thing pretty well. Reading this book is like having that conversation.

Four Fathers is composed of five sections. Short stories by Tom Williams bookend the collection. The first story is about a man struggling with his own life as a single guy, thinking often about his father and the relationship he has or wish he had with him. The second story (last in the book) picks up years later, after the character is married and dealing with being a father himself. Those stories sets an excellent tone for the book—by beginning with the man who has no idea and ending with the same man having figured out what only a father can, Four Fathers has a definitive emotional arc as a collection.

Between those stories is a series of flash fiction by Ben Tanzer, poems by BL Pawelek, and a novella (or a novelette, I have no idea where the line is) by Dave Housley.

Tanzer’s flash pieces each hit on a single element of fatherhood, which is an effective way to approach the experience and give the little things, both funny and serious, their due. This series of stories reminded me a little bit of Abbott Awaits by Chris Bachelder, a novel about fatherhood in flash-style vignettes. The stylistic similarities are easy to see, but the mix of wit, humor, and sensitivity to the sometimes paradoxical nature of fatherhood is what makes Tanzer’s work stand up there with Bachelder’s.

The poetry by BL Pawelek consists of a series of shared moments. Not without humor, like the rest of the sections, the verse is more intimate, and particularly focused on the father-daughter relationship, which might be why it struck such a chord for me. My little girl is 18 months old, and I found myself lingering on several lines of Pawelek’s poems, enjoying being in the society of fathers of daughters.

Houseley’s novella rounds out the collection. It deals with the pop-culture differences in the generations, and features a main character hallucinating Ryan Seacrest as a sort of pop-guardian angel. It is funny and absurd, but also examines one of the more important parts of parenting: the fact that your kids won’t like what you liked and that has to be ok as much as it hurts. A juxtaposition of Justin Beber with Bon Jovi plays a central role in this story, and brings the absurdity of it all to a poignant end.

Four Fathers comes out at just the right time for Father’s Day, and any dad who’s also a reader will appreciate it.

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Joshua Isard is the director of Arcadia University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing, and the author of the novel Conquistador of the Useless. You can find him at his home page, or on Twitter.

 

 

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.