book reviews

Want, Wound

Want, WoundI’ve admired the work of Nicole Monaghan for a long time, so I was very excited when she asked me to provide a blurb for her first collection of fiction, Want, Wound. The blurb I provided reads, “A loving exploration of the tender corners of the human heart and the empty spaces we all long to fill.” While this blurb does a decent job of capturing what Nicole does so well in all of her work, I’m not sure it does her book justice. Throughout the volume, she takes every opportunity she can to inhabit the skin of “the other.” Sometimes this involves imagining what it must be like to be a man. Other times, she explores the inner world of children yearning to impress their parents or insecure teens trying to make sense of the world or adult women struggling with addictions. In every instance, Nicole come across as a true empath, an author with a preternatural ability to feel the pain and love and longing of every character she imagines. As a result, Want, Wound is a moving, touching, tiny wonder of a book.

Vs. Death Noises

vs-death-noises-marcus-pactor-paperback-cover-artIn the final story of Marcus Pactor’s Vs. Death Noises, a man discovers a single hair in his bathroom and obsesses over the shape it has taken. The problem, he realizes, is that geometry can’t solve his conundrum because geometric definitions are “concerned with perfect impossibilities” whereas the world we live in is “a world of approximations.” The human experience, in other words, only translates to “[a]pproximate forms, approximate phrasings, approximate feelings.” To put it another way, we’ll never communicate perfectly with one another. Something is always lost in the translation from the lived experienced to the written or spoken word no matter how hard we try. It’s a theme that Pactor explores throughout this collection in a way that allows him to simultaneously explore the exquisite agony of the human condition.

Early on, this agony settles on a young woman struggling to understand her relationship with the man in her life only to discover that she’s unknowable even to herself in many ways: “I could not have done anything but cling to Bander because what I have been calling mistakes were simply the motions of my love and these motions were always uncertain, no matter what smiling mask I wore.” Elsewhere, it gnaws at a restaurant worker feeling remorse over an ill-fated fling with his manager: “She might try to will indifference, the same as every one of us, but my failure had nicked her heart. We all get nicked. They add up over time, and then some people lose it… and others it pills, and we tell ourselves not to care. Inside, though, we’re this bubbling cauldron of fears. We cover it with a heavy pot top and forget it on the stove.”

Yet if it’s our tendency to bury emotions deep within ourselves that contributes the most to our inability to ourselves and each other, Pactor is doing his best to uncover the hidden emotions that make us human, to lift the heavy pot top off the human heart, as it were, and shed light on the pain and suffering that are frequently so hard to describe that language fails whenever we try to talk about them. Hence, perhaps, Pactor’s fondness for the downtrodden. His characters include a starving runaway, a father and son almost wordlessly mourning the death of their wife and mother while drowning their sorrows in booze and Mel Brooks movies, and a wide range of hapless strangers trying desperately to connect with each other and the world around them.

As the stories in Vs. Death Noises all indicate, we’ll never achieve geometric perfection in our efforts at connecting with each other, but Pactor’s fiction offers hope that we can all find solace in trying.

Safe As Houses

bookcoverI’ve been intrigued by the phrase “safe as houses” since I first heard it in Depeche Mode’s “Never Let Me Down Again” many years ago. What, exactly, I’ve often wondered, is so safe about houses? Doesn’t some high percentage of household injuries occur within the home? And why are so many of my best observations completely solipsistic?

In many ways, Marie-Helene Bertino’s collection of short stories Safe As Houses obsesses over all of these issues with a wry blend of wit, humor, irony, magic realism, and ultimately hope. Throughout the collection, Bertino offers her readers inventive scenarios in which her characters long for the various and frequently elusive forms that the comforts of home might take. There’s the young woman who loses her home in a fire and attempts to win the affections of her wayward father by buying him a dachshund with the insurance money — all while trying to avoid picking up a free ham she’s won at the local grocery store. There’s (How do I explain this in as few words as possible?) the estranged couple whose component members bump into each other while dating idealized versions of each other. (The story is called “The Idea of Marcel.” I assigned it in my American Lit. class. Trust me… It’s great!) There’s the former record-keeper for a group of rebellious college superheroes who combs through memories of the best years of her life in an effort to figure out how she ended up married to a millionaire and living a beautiful but boring suburban home.

To put it simply, if you like quirky, heartfelt short stories, you’ll find a lot to love in this collection. Throughout the collection, Bertino exhibits a proclivity not only for making the outlandish seem at least provisionally plausible, but also for effectively reversing that formula and making it clear that so much of what we take for meaningful and real is ultimately ephemeral. Though it would be a cliche to suggest that Safe As Houses reminds us that home is where the heart is, I’m half-tempted to say that this is the over-arching point of this collection. Yet Bertino takes that cliche and makes it new by exploring all of its implications and reminding us that home is as much a state of mind as anything else. We are all longing for home in one way or another. Though no story could ever fully satisfy that longing, Bertino’s collection goes a long way toward reminding us that we’re not alone in our quest.

(For a longish, meandering, and somewhat creepy prologue to this review, visit Abominations: Marc Schuster’s Random Musings.)

 

Conquistador of the Useless

Conquistador of the UselessIn many ways, Joshua Isard’s Conquistador of the Useless offers the perfect counterpoint to Spencer Dew’s Here Is How it Happens (reviewed here two weeks ago). Where Dew’s protagonists are college-aged rebels doing their best to avoid making the leap to post-college mainstream society, Isard’s novel finds a somewhat similar similar pair of lovers adjusting, at times uncomfortably, to a bourgeois suburban lifestyle about a decade after graduation.

The novel begins with narrator Nathan Wavelsky and his wife Lisa moving into a new home and learning upon meeting their new neighbors that the beloved music of their youth has been reduced to the status of a glorified tchotchke in the form of a Fender Jaguar signed by the members of Nirvana and mounted behind a thick pane of glass. That Nathan makes a good living as a corporate hatchet man only adds to his growing sense of ennui, and Lisa’s sudden desire to start a family makes matters worse.

The problem isn’t necessarily that he ever saw himself as a rebel, nor is it that he sees settling down in suburbia as a sign of giving up on his dreams. The problem, as far as he can tell, is that he never really had any big dreams to begin with — so he does what any red-blooded American would do. He goes out and gets one. Or at least he stumbles upon one when his old college buddy shows up with a scheme to climb Mount Everest. What follows is a journey of self-discovery that allows Nathan to recognize that what matters most in his life. (Hint: It has nothing to do with the mountain.)

In terms of style, Isard’s writing reminds me of Shaun Haurin and Curt Smith. Like Haurin, Isard places the musical tastes of his characters front and center through much of the narrative while, like Smith, he demonstrates a firm understanding of the compromises we all make on the long, winding path to adulthood. I’d mention that Nathan’s relative lack of direction and ambition echo the same traits in Charley Schwartz, the beleaguered narrator of my own novel, The Grievers, but that would be self-serving, so I’ll just say that on nearly every page of Conquistador of the Useless I found something that struck a chord. I’d even be willing to bet that anyone who grew up at the tail-end of Generation X will find something to love in this book — the protagonist’s angst over drifting, however late, into adulthood, his taste in music, or even his fraught-if-only-because-it’s-so-damn-pleasant relationship with his parents. All told, a fine novel about settling down without settling.

A Mere Pittance

PittanceCoverConsisting solely of dialogue, Sumanth Prabhaker’s A Mere Pittance is a subtle yet moving meditation on the transient and fragile nature of life and the relationships that make it meaningful. The novella follows a telephone conversation between a woman who’s lying injured–and possibly dying–in a hospital in an undisclosed country and her lover in the United States. As the pair talk to each other, at each other, across each other, and in each other’s general direction, what emerges is a tale of loneliness imbued with self-discovery. Ostensibly, the woman’s misery is a direct result of an accident involving a poison caterpillar, but her true despair stems from being an outsider not only as a member of her brother’s wedding party, but as a member of the human race. Her lover, meanwhile, obsesses somewhat selfishly over the meanings of words while taking occasional breaks to eat, drink, and be witty. His modus-operandi, it seems, is to keep the conversation light in order to avoid getting too deep with his wayward lover. Aesthetically, the result is a narrative that reads very much like a one-act play cast in the prose style of Don DeLillo or William Gaddis. Insightful as it is charming and bordering on the sublime, A Mere Pittance is anything but.

All proceeds from sales of A Mere Pittance benefit Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled.

Here Is How It Happens

how-it-happens-front-2d-web-280x458For those ensconced in the relative safety of campus life, there’s arguably nothing more daunting than the prospect of entering the so-called “real world.” Yet for the college students who populate Spencer Dew’s Here Is How It Happens, the real world rears its ugly head in ways large and small as they struggle to come to grips with the relationships in their lives and the future that lies ahead for all of them. At the heart of the novel is the (largely) unrequited love of the narrator, Martin, for his best friend, Courtney. Complicating matters is the fact that both parties are trapped in dead-end relationships that offer nothing but comfortable tedium. Meanwhile, a host of bizarre goings-on further thwart their efforts at getting together — chief among them being Martin’s efforts at delivering a drug-addled lumberjack of a classmate home to his parents’ house for safekeeping.

Set for the most part at a run-down liberal arts college in a run-down college town in Ohio, the novel is nothing if not gritty. The smell of mold, stale smoke, and cat fur clings to everything and will likely stick with readers long after they’ve put the book down. What’s more, Dew perfectly captures the desperation of his characters to stay true to their ideal selves even as they realize that they’re all doomed to become echoes of their parents. In one particularly telling passage, Courtney laments the inevitable passing of all the relationships she holds dear: “Martin, we’re sophomores in college. This is the end of philosophy. From this point on, everyone we know will get old. We’ll all take jobs involving impatient commutes and pink while-you-were-away memos. The skin under our chins will go soft and droop. Money will crush us. There will never be time or humor enough. Our hairstyles will look stupid in old photographs, and we’ll be ashamed of our spinning dances, the lyrics of punk songs, that we ever drank wine with screw tops or did homework high on diet pills or shoplifted at K-Mart.”

Uplifting? Perhaps not. But certainly true, and certainly moving. In the tradition of other coming of age novels focusing on campus life like Richard Farina’s Been Down So Long It Looks Like  Up To Me and James Wronoski’s Knaves In Boyland, Here Is How It Happens perfectly captures the nebulous gray zone between adolescence and adulthood that is college life.

Nothing Serious

imagesIn Nothing Serious, Daniel Klein presents the love song of Digby Maxwell, former pop-culture editor of New York Magazine and one-time darling of the Big Apple’s social scene. Divorced, jobless, and crashing on a friend’s couch, Digby lands an unexpected job as the editor of Cogito, a stodgy philosophy journal whose late publisher has left instructions from beyond the grave for his widow to jazz the publication up a bit. Desperately in need of a second act in his capacity as a self-proclaimed “professional bullshitter,” Digby jumps at the opportunity he’s been offered. Indeed, he sees his editorship of Cogito as one last chance at realizing his lifelong aspiration to do something useful. Upon accepting the job, however, he immediately finds himself embroiled in the petty politics of the small-town college that hosts the philosophy journal, and in love, somewhat unexpectedly, with a Unitarian minister whose personal life is nearly as complicated as Digby’s.

Needless to say, Nothing Serious has all the makings of a zany yet compelling novel of ideas. Throughout the narrative, Klein expertly balances the elements of a good page turner (plot, character development, intrigue) with thoughtful and witty commentary on the collective efforts of our species to make sense of the world. There’s Digby, whose firm belief that “sometimes the best course of action is just to toss a wrench into the works and see what kinds of havoc it wreaks” keeps the novel percolating at a healthy pace, and then there are the philosophers whose names and theories lend the book depth while, ironically, also leavening the proceedings. The “flinty optimism” of Leibnitz’s theory that we live in the best of all possible worlds, for example (and echoing Voltaire’s Candide), boils down to the old truism that things could always be worse, while Jean-Paul Sartre’s thoughts on love reduce the philosopher, in Digby’s eyes, to “a scumbag justifying his pigatude with some existential bafflegab.”

All told, Nothing Serious is an amusing and intelligent novel whose title and beguiling narrative belie the depth of the ideas that Klein is working with. Humanity, the novel ultimately suggests, will never figure it all out, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that we keep trying.

To read an except from Nothing Serious, visit 2Paragraphs.