Month: January 2011

Ruts and Gullies

In Ruts and Gullies, graphic novelist Philippe Girard recounts a trip he took to Saint Petersburg, Russia, with fellow graphic novelist Jimmy Beaulieu. Though the story itself is fairly straightforward — Girard and Beaulieu tour Saint Petersburg, attend a comic book convention, and lose a passport (among other things) — the author uses the trip as a backdrop for a number of musings on life and death in the postmodern world. As is the case in any travelogue worth its salt, Ruts and Gullies does an admirable job of examining the cultural and linguistic differences between the denizens of Saint Petersburg and those of Quebec, where he makes his home. Yet he also uses the adventure to reflect upon the death of a close friend; through a series of surreal dream sequences, the narrator-cum-author makes peace with the past and gains an opportunity to move on with his life.

In this sense, Ruts and Gullies suggests that being away from home and finding oneself plunged into an alien culture emerges not just as a form of therapy, but a way of finding oneself. Not that this notion is anything new, but Girard does a nice job of helping us understand why this is the case: as he and Beaulieu struggle to understand the curious cartography of Russian street maps, they practically step out of time and space — or, at the very least, they are displaced from their normal, habitual perceptions of time and space and are forced to reorient themselves to the world at large. Likewise, explaining their own cultural idiosyncrasies to their hosts forces Girard and Beaulieu to examine their own lives in greater depth than usual — the whys and wherefores behind everything they have, up until now, taken for granted as “normal.”

Stylistically, Ruts and Gullies doesn’t take many risks. Each page consists of six square panels, and the illustrations contained therein are somewhat reminiscent of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. It is, however, interesting to read Girard’s work alongside that of Beaulieu — especially, I would imagine, for fans of the latter. Where Beaulieu tends to depict himself as uncertain and relatively timid in much of his own work, he comes off as the more daring of the two in this volume. In this sense, Girard’s depiction of Beaulieu underscores what may be the most important theme in Ruts and Gullies: the best way to figure out who we are is to look at ourselves through someone else’s eyes.

Codename Prague

Codename Prague is the second book that D. Harlan Wilson has asked me to review. The first was They Had Goat Heads, which left me completely baffled, and I’m still at a loss as to what to say about the man’s writing. Given that he appears to have my mailing address, however, I should probably say something nice, like the novel is a smart, witty, mind-bending techno-thriller (which is true). In fact, it’s probably the smartest of the bizarro novels I’ve read since stumbling upon the genre. Like Andersen Prunty’s The Beard, Codename Prague flaunts many of the rules of traditional storytelling to reveal that such rules are, at best, artificial and, at worse, completely arbitrary. And like Jess Gulbranson’s 10 A Boot Stomping, the novel has the feel of a whacked-out Philip K. Dick novel. What separates Codename Prague from other bizarro works, however, is its apparent literary pedigree.

Among the more “literary” touches in the novel are an (implied) army of insectoid assassins known as SAMSAs (Syncretic American Metaformulaic Stock Agents), a pair of Keatsian lab assistants named Truth and Beauty (who are ugly and tend to lie), and a psychocorporeal fusion of John Keats and Adolph Hitler known as the Sans Merci. To keep things interesting,Wilson also throws in a number of references to pop-culture icons like Michael Jackson and James Cagney. And a plot, which has something to do with an assassin (codename: Vincent Prague; real name: Vincent Prague) trying to stop the Sans Merci from being unleashed upon an unsuspecting world. Or something along those lines. To be honest, I’m not really sure. At this point, I’m wondering whether I actually read the book or it was all just a dream.

Let’s just put it this way: D. Harlan Wilson’s latest novel is a highly-polished, really weird and (sometimes) really funny example of metafiction. If you’re into that kind of thing, then you’ll definitely love Codename Prague. If not, well, you probably stopped reading this review two paragraphs ago.

Lillian the Legend

Kerry Byrne’s Lillian the Legend is a historical graphic novel that traces the journey of Lillian Alling from Russia to the United States and back again by way of the Yukon trail. Throughout the work, Byrne’s art is both playful and intricate. When her characters smile, they smile broadly; when they frown, their sadness is unmistakable. The most engaging art in this graphic novel, however, is that which depicts setting. Her streets of New York circa 1920 are crammed (even cramped) with fine detail and stand in stark contrast to the wide-open, almost spare, landscapes she uses to depict the Alberta prairie. Likewise, her cutaway views of things like steamships and overcrowded textile mills reveal what may be the theme at the heart of Byrne’s work: the world within a world that a knowledge of history provides.

The narrative itself is as spare as Byrne’s depcition of the Canadian countryside. For the most part, Byrne offers exposition to underscore the story that’s unfolding in each panel of Lillian’s tale. When Lillian does engage in dialogue with anyone she meets, the exchanges are brief and, more often than not, fraught with miscommunication, thus drawing attention to a second theme inherent in the narrative: that of isolation. With little means of communicating with the denizens of her adopted country, it’s no wonder that Lillian prefers the solitude of a long journey home. All she wants, it would seem, is to connect.

Why I Love Small Presses

Just a quick note on one of the many reasons why I love small presses.

A few days ago, my friend and publisher Martin Shepard of the Permanent Press sent me a few books he thought I might like. One of them was a novel that was published in 2007 and sold about 400 copies. A subsequent novel by the same author, Marty explained, only sold 140 copies. Yet Marty and his wife, Judith, decided to go ahead and publish a third novel by the same author. In Marty’s words, “Hey, if you like a writer, no reason to give him or her up just because sales are almost non-existent.”

As someone who’s spoken to a good number of editors and agents (and who reads extensively about the publishing industry), I can say with complete certainty that I’ve never heard anyone associated with a major publishing conglomerate say anything even close to what Marty said in his brief note. He publishes books because he loves them — and loves sharing their work with the world — not because they might make a buck or two.

To me, this is what the small press movement is all about.

Lambs of Men – Review by Janice Rodriguez

Sergeant Hiram Tobit finds little comfort when he returns to the hill country of South Carolina after World War I. His mother has committed suicide in his absence, and he has no intention of contacting his estranged father, Sloane. But the epigraph of Lambs of Men, a fragment of the Biblical story of the sacrifice of Isaac, tells us that the father-son relationship will form the heart of the novel. Author Charles Dodd White dresses acts of appalling violence in haunting, exquisite language—flashbacks of the trenches, campfire stories of tragedies long past, and the murder that brings the Tobit men back into contact. Midway, the narrative shifts from Hiram’s point of view to Sloane’s, granting readers glimpses inside both taciturn men as they struggle for a measure of redemption.

Hiram begins his literal and figurative uphill journey from the Low Country to the place of his birth amid swirling fog, melting snow, and torrents of rain. White paints a fierce and foreboding landscape. There’s no misty romanticism here but rather an intimate portrait of a majestic land that takes no heed of the people who live, fret, and die upon it. The fictional Sanction County and its citizens, including the Sloane, with his hardscrabble existence, his grief, guilt, and alcoholism, are presented with dignity, not as curious local specimens thrust under the lens of the wider society.

The keenly observed landscape and secondary characters form an authentic regional setting in which father and adult son strive to come to terms with each other and put troubled ghosts to rest. For readers and protagonists alike, the road is harrowing and beautiful.

Editor’s note: Special thanks to Janice Rodriguez for contributing this review!

Standing At the Crossroads

Standing at the Crossroads by Charles Davis is both harrowing and hypnotic but, above all, it’s a touching paean to the power of literature. The novel’s protagonist and narrator — a nomadic African known only as the barefoot librarian — exhorts the reader to call him Ishmael before moving on to a tale of survival and heartbreak in his war-torn homeland. In due time, the librarian’s references to a good chunk of the canon of nineteenth-century western literature reveal him to be an old soul deeply rooted in the (sense and) sensibilities of a bygone era, yet his attitude toward books emerges as distinctly contemporary.

In one passage, the narrator explains, “I like books and the play we make with them… because they resist the withering regulation of small minds, are wayward and intricate, full of unpredictable patterns, like life itself.” Elsewhere, he opines that the hunger for books “is an appetite that implies hope and independence, not despair and dependence.” Together, these two observations about the power of literature more or less sum up the overall tone of Standing at the Crossroads. Set in a world that is wracked with the trappings of despair, the novel is, nonetheless, filled with hope and wonder, and it’s the long, winding perambulations of the narrator and his cohorts that allows both of these elements to emerge.

Of course, there’s more to the novel than the barefoot librarian’s musings on the nature of literature. There’s also a riveting plot that involves his efforts to protect a young American researcher named Kate from a monomaniacal band of misogynistic religious zealots. That Kate dares to speak truth to power (indeed, that she dares to speak at all!) makes her a target for those with much to lose, yet it’s her quiet strength that captures the heart of the barefoot librarian and allows him to ruminate at great length not just on the nature of words, but on the nature of the human heart as well.

The world “is not made up of discrete bodies but of bodies connected to one another,” the narrator notes at one point in the novel; “the real beauty and value of living is to be found in the links between things.” Such inspiring sentiments abound in Standing at the Crossroads. That Charles Davis can weave them into a taught, dramatic narrative and still leave room for a crash-course in literary theory is a testament to his skills as a thinker and a writer. To say it as succinctly as possible, Standing at the Crossroads is a profoundly moving read.

You Can Finish This Later

Let’s start with the dimensions: seven inches tall by four-and-a-quarter inches wide by about an eighth of an inch thick. In other words, You Can Finish This Later is, at least in physical terms, a small book — or perhaps “portable” is a better word. You can keep a copy in the breast pocket of a dress shirt, if you’re so inclined, or in the back pocket of your blue jeans, or in the front pocket of an overcoat. I mention this because I think everyone should, in fact, keep a copy of this tiny gem on hand, at least for a little while, and page through it from time to time the way others might page through a pocket copy of the New Testament or the US Constitution. It will make you feel better about yourself. It will make you feel less alone in the world. It will give you hope.

Though this particular chapbook is actually a collection of very short fiction, I was convinced from page one that I was reading the confessions of an actual human being. Thoughts on abandoned dogs. Ruminations on how to meet women. Lamentations on the lack of decent chairs in the universe. What begins to emerge from the blurry edges of Mike Parish’s micronarratives is not just a portrait of a lonely artist as a young man, but a portrait of humanity’s shared loneliness — an image of the thoughts we all have, or variations thereof, that we hesitate to share for fear of further alienation. Parish strips away the self-consciousness of his narrators and allows them to share their deepest secrets, their most uncertain moments. That these moments and secrets are, more often than not, of the most mundane variety underscores the humanity of this collection.

And, now, back to the dimensions. What if each of us carried a tiny chapbook around at all times? Thirty pages or so of tiny vignettes? Slices of our lives? The sad moments, the lonely moments, but also the happy moments, the moments of quotidian transcendence? And what if these vignettes weren’t fictional but true? What if we gathered the most telling moments of our lives and shared them with each other in trim, elegant volumes like this one?

When we met new people in such a world, we could exchange our tiny books, sit down for about a half-hour or so, and peruse each other’s souls. It would be like handing over  passports as we cross the infinite country that spans the borders between us: I’ve been here and here and here and here, and I see you’ve been there and there and there and there, and — look at that! — we’ve both been here and there, and we both came back alive! Isn’t that something?

Imagine the implications… The dating scene (one focus of You Can Finish This Later) would become infinitely less complicated as the unattached passed tiny books back and forth in an effort to get to know each other and search for like-minded mates. And car accidents! Imagine swapping a collection of tiny narratives along with your insurance information at the site of your next fender-bender: suddenly the asshole who rear-ended you isn’t so bad. I mean, sure, he’s still the asshole who rear-ended you, but he’s a human asshole, just like you. And as each of you takes some time to read the other’s book, your passions cool, your heart rates return to normal, and you can discuss the situation like rational adults.

What I’m saying is that it would be a truly wonderful world if everyone wrote a little book like You Can Finish This Later, but the next-best thing would be a world in which everyone were to read a book like this one. Illustrated by Dan Tarnowski with a series of child-like drawings that call to mind the art of John Lennon’s early fiction collections In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works, You Can Finish This Later offers a glimpse of the exquisite loneliness of the human animal in a way that never gives into despair but, on the contrary, offers hope for us all. We can connect, Parish insists on every page. We only have to try.