Month: December 2009

the road to god knows…

Von Allan‘s graphic novel the road to god knows… opens with a series of images depicting the stark yet curiously hopeful Ottawa in which the action takes place. It’s a city where boys play street hockey in short sleeves, where homeless men sleep fitfully on sidewalks, where one-eyed jack-o-lanterns grin mischievously on front steps, and where teens lead lives of quiet desperation behind the closed doors of their rundown apartment buildings. In this case, the teen’s name is Marie, and her desperation stems from the fact that her mother is struggling with schizophrenia. Despite her mother’s illness, however, Marie’s life is not without hope. Indeed, she’s a complex character, and her efforts at balancing the stress of living with a sick parent and leading the “normal life” of a teen outside of her home make the road to god knows… a compelling read.

Nowhere in the graphic novel is the tension in Marie’s life more palpable than a passage in which a math teacher berates her for repeatedly missing class. For what can the protagonist say? That her mother stumbled, naked, out of her bedroom several nights earlier, rambling incoherently? That shortly thereafter her mother hurled a pot of spaghetti at Marie’s head, barely missing its mark? That, as a result of all this, she’s had to live with her father for a few days, that he lives across town and has a tendency to sit around the house in his underwear? As the teacher heartlessly explains the mathematics of Marie’s absences, we can’t help but feel compassion for her, can barely resist the urge to yell at the page: Can’t you see that this poor girl is barely hanging on?

But hang on she does, for Marie is, at heart, an optimist.

In terms of story, Allan gives us two arcs at once: while Marie’s nearly overwhelming struggle on the home front undergirds the road to god knows…, a second arc involving her quest to attend a pro-wrestling match (an all-but impossible dream for a poor girl growing up in Ottawa) buoys the proceedings. As these two arcs intertwine, Marie comes to realize that she is not alone in the world and, more importantly, that she doesn’t have to be ashamed of her mother. Life, on the whole, can be difficult, this graphic novel seems to tell us, but we need to be open to helping each other find joy, if only in small increments.

With the road to god knows… Von Allan demonstrates that he’s talented as both an artist and a storyteller. The Ottawa he conjures is beautifully and lovingly detailed — on par, perhaps, with the London of Dickens or the Cleveland of Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor. Stylistically, I’m also reminded of Black Hole by Charles Burns and Sloth (among other things) by Gilbert Hernandez. Regardless of his artistic influences, however, what’s clear throughout this graphic novel is that Allan is an optimist who strives to explore the human heart in all of its intricate complexity.

When Love Was Clean Underwear

In The Life of Reason, George Santayana famously notes that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it–or, as the popular interpretation of this dictum would have it, that we need to learn from our mistakes. The problem that Lucy Pescitelli, the protagonist of Susan Barr-Toman’s debut novel, When Love Was Clean Underwear, faces, however, is that she doesn’t have much of a past to speak of and, as a result, hasn’t made the mistakes that the rest of us made in our teens with respect to dating, friendship, and relating to other people in general. As a result, she spends much of the novel attempting to navigate the choppy waters of adult relationships–something she’s never done, despite the fact that she’s nearing thirty.

The novel begins with Lucy agonizing over her dying mother’s request to be euthanized. That she carries out her mother’s wishes by smothering her with a pillow is entirely fitting, as the mother has been smothering Lucy with her own brand of “love” for over a decade. Indeed, despite her death, the mother’s presence is palpable throughout the novel. She haunts Lucy night and day, causing the protagonist to vacillate between doubting her every instinct and feeling guilty for everything she does.

Compounding the problems that Lucy must overcome is the South Philly neighborhood where she resides. In effect, the South Philadelphia that Barr-Toman has created is the ghost of Lucy’s mother writ large. Its will is unbending, its assumptions uncompromising, its outlook provincial. It is, in short, a closed universe with its own rules and regulations, both spoken and unspoken, that hem Lucy in, almost to the point of claustrophobia. Lucy, to put it bluntly, is in an inescapable (though well-meaning) circle of hell consisting of row homes, nosy neighbors, and not enough parking.

Given Lucy’s lack of prospects, the challenge that Barr-Toman faces as a writer is taking a character who’s never stood up for herself and making her do so. To put it another way, the challenge is taking a figure who isn’t quite a character yet (i.e., she has no sense of self outside of her mother, no real motivation outside of a vague wish to keep her crime a secret) and to allow that figure to blossom into full “characterhood.” That When Love Was Clean Underwear is a character-driven novel makes this challenge all the more daunting, yet it’s a challenge that Barr-Toman meets expertly by filling the early chapters of the novel with a cast of memorable characters who pick up the slack for Lucy and from whom, as the novel progresses, she must wrest control of the narrative that is her life. The end result is a lovingly crafted coming of age story that gradually (and almost without warning)  builds to a hard-fought, spirited declaration of independence.

Triangulation: Dark Glass – Review by Tom Powers

With the holiday season bearing down upon us (not to mention a ton of end-of-semester grading to take care of), I’m glad to have my good friend Tom Powers helping me out with another review. This week, Tom takes a look at PARSEC Inc’s Triangulation: Dark Glass, a self-described “Annual Confluence of Speculative Fiction.”

Short story anthologies usually work for me, in that, like a decent sushi buffet with a cross section of underwater delicacies, they provide a sampling of authorial styles and genre approaches. This appetite for such an eclectic literary feast was thankfully satiated as I read Triangulation: Dark Glass, the 2009 Edition of PARSEC Ink’s Annual Confluence of Speculative Fiction.

Starting off the anthology in a tongue-in-cheek style that channels Harlan Ellison, Mark Onspaugh’s tale “The Milton Feinhoff Problem” cleverly articulates the repercussion of a seemingly endless stream of Miltons, each different in some way, converging in one Milton’s home. From there, one is exposed to ghosts possessing living bodies in order to experience physical ecstasy in D. K. Thompson’s quirky supernatural detective story, “Saint Darwin’s Spirituals.” Then one can read an unnerving virtual-reality thriller set on an alien world in Kenneth B. Chiacchia’s “Imaginal Friend.”

To be honest, I am quite partial to the fourth tale in Triangulation: Dark Glass: “Monstrous Embrace,” Rachel Swirsky’s tale of a mysterious dark spirit that offers a Catch-22 scenario to a prince who is saddled with a duplicitous fiancée. The twist, however, without revealing too much, is that the spirit’s offer, as twisted and morbid as it stands, works in a convincing manner. In short, this story’s winning combination can be found in the story’s plot, which, when coupled with the talented Swirsky’s eloquent writing style, forms a tale that contains a true literary vibe.

In Aaron Polson’s “Dancing Lessons,” a girl poignantly encounters an animated carnival monster who may be her dead father while Lon Prater’s “Deadglass” depicts the courageous efforts of a priest to unravel the truth behind an otherworldly, religious-themed mystery. The subject of religion continues when the recently deceased man encounters quarrelsome representatives of Earthly faiths in the whimsical “Perchance to Dream,” by D. J. Cockburn, while Gerri Leen’s “Windows to the Soul” portrays a bar-owner complicated moralistic struggle with his partner, a supernatural force that want to feed upon the life forces of the bar’s customers.

“More Things in Heaven and Earth,” by Jason K. Chapman, thoughtfully illustrates the efforts of a lieutenant as he tries to convince others in his military organization that the Children of the Dying Sun, a religious group he infiltrated as an agent provocateur, do not need to be obliterated. Additionally, the influence of Chinese mythology is felt in Kelly A. Harmon’s intriguing “On the Path,” as a farmer deals with the awkward truth one of the souls powering his farming reincarnation engine belongs to his long-deceased uncle.

Kathryn Board’s “Broken Things” presents a lonely woman becoming acquainted for the first time with her dead mother’s genie. Another interesting female lead can be found in Amy Treadwell’s humorous “Audition for Evil,” in which a temperamental sorceress prepares for her audition with the snotty Hexagonal Alliance for Glamourie, while her Chancellor, whom she had transformed into a bird, serves as her comic foil.

A teenage girl’s first job experience working for a mysterious, slightly dangerous old sculptor who has a dark secret is shown in David Seigler’s “One Touch to Remember.” One can next find a parallel Earth, where people hang their souls in their front windows in Kurt Kirchmeier’s appropriately titled “Souls on Display.” The subject of the soul likewise permeates the following tale, Loretta Sylvestre’s “A More Beautiful Monster,” as it delineates the attempts of a sorcerer to undo his deal with the devil.

Closing out the anthology, and working as an old-school-sci-fi-style bookend to Onspaugh’s “Milton” story, Craig’s Wolf’s “Seeing Is” delightfully, and wickedly, tells the story of an all-knowing eyeball’s attempt to corrupt a nine-year-old boy as he is walking home one day. While reading this enjoyable tale, I easily pictured it tele-dramatized in spooky black and white as a Twilight Zone episode.

If your literary palette has now been sufficiently whetted to sample Triangulation: Dark Glass’s smorgasbord of contemporary fantasy and sci-fi writing, then be sure to pick up this great anthology, which showcases the writing of sixteen talented writers.

Tom Powers is the co-author of The Greatest Show in the Galaxy: The Discerning Fan’s Guide to Doctor Who.


Despite its overt reference to “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Girl” by April Lindner feels, as do many of the works in Skin, as if it is in dialogue not only with the Keats poem but with all of Western culture on the issue of beauty. Ezra Pound’s “Portrait d’une Femme” leaps immediately to mind, if only for Lindner’s suggestion that our postmodern, media-driven conception of beauty has “shipwrecked” a generation of women, much as the Sargasso Sea of Pound’s poem has claimed metaphorical “Strange spars of knowledge and dim wares of price” from those caught in her doldrums. The difference, of course, is that for Pound, the “femme” addressed in the poem is, in her own way, the Sargasso Sea, whereas for Lindner, the female narrator of the poem is among the shipwrecked. To put it another way, “Girl” gives a voice to the “femme” of Pound’s poem, allows her to be a subject rather than an object, allows her, in essence, to reject Pound’s assessment of her and, in so doing, to assert her own identity. “God dammit, Ezra,” the poem seems to say; “Don’t blame me. You’re the one who made me this way.

And what is “this way”? It’s artificial. It’s scripted. It’s airbrushed and Photoshopped. In other words, it’s shallow and lifeless, much like the object of Pound’s poem. Yet “Girl” doesn’t simply rail against the artificial ideal of beauty that life in the computer age has created for us. In fact, its narrator finds some things about that ideal quite attractive. Contemplating the digitally enhanced image of an online dream girl, she opines, “Hell, I want her, too/or want to be her, sometimes, in the buzz/after I’ve stared too long, my flesh exhausted/by its own weight.” This confession, however, ultimately leads to the realization that Keats, like Pound, got it all wrong. Beauty is not truth, but “the lie we carve and starve for.”

Perhaps it’s this final realization in “Girl” that makes all of the poems in Skin such a joy to read: they recognize the joy of imperfection, that our humanity lies not in the hyper-idealized vision of the world that saturates our digital landscapes but in the gritty, grainy details of our day-to-day lives. Lindner’s, after all, is a world of half-empty spice jars, bloody milk teeth, and fading physical beauty. It is a world where lovers long for the gross physicality of each other even though their minds are connected by cell phones and email. It’s a world where the bare arms of strangers brush against each other on the subway, a world of worry and (occasionally) despair, but also one of hope. We are not fallen from some perfect, ideal state, Lindner challenges us to believe. Our glory is in our imperfection.

Note: Very similar in theme and tone to Nuala Ni Conhuir’s short story collection Nude. If you like either of these titles, I highly recommend the other!