Month: June 2011

After Lyletown

In After Lyletown, K.C. Frederick presents the story of Alan Ripley, a man in search of a defining moment. The trouble for Ripley is that while his small circle of radical friends was busy botching their own version of a political revolution in the late 1960s, he was laid up in the hospital with appendicitis. As a result, Ripley missed out on a robbery that got one of his friends killed, landed another in jail, and sent the rest into hiding for the remainder of their lives. As a result (and despite his best efforts at putting the past behind him), Ripley spends the better part of the next two decades wondering what might have happened if he’d been in good health on the night of the heist. Would he have gone through with the plan? Would he have kept the plot from unraveling? Or would he have ended up dead, in jail, or on the run like the rest of his crew?

When his friend and co-conspirator Rory Dekker turns up after completing a twenty year jail sentence, all of Ripley’s questions and insecurities come boiling to the surface. Complicating matters is the fact that Ripley has made a comfortable life for himself. He has a law practice that pays the bills and, more significantly, gives his life a sense of purpose. He also has a wife and son who know nothing of his revolutionary past. Within this context, Dekker’s return presents a series of related quandaries for Ripley, not the least of which is reconciling who he is with who he used to be, all the while seeking the moment that will allow him, once and for all, to define his life.

Throughout the novel, K.C. Frederick proves himself a genius at engineering suspense. His preferred modus operandi is to lull his readers into a sense of complacency by offering stretches of calm that threaten to give way to calamity at any moment; whenever a sense of domestic bliss begins to settle over Ripley and his family, the proverbial other shoe is hovering somewhere nearby, waiting to drop as it inevitably must. What’s more, Frederick also endows his protagonist with a contemplative bent that takes Ripley beyond the realm of the merely sympathetic and into that of the philosophical.  Indeed, what separates After Lyletown from other novels of its kind is that Ripley’s dilemma is as much about evading the ghosts of his past as it is about searching for meaning amidst the chaos of life in the present. A profound, thoughtful, haunting tale.

-Review by Marc Schuster

Love at Absolute Zero

Love at Absolute Zero represents an experiment for Christopher Meeks in more ways than one. First off, it’s only available as an e-book, as Meeks, whose previous (wonderful) works include Months and Seasons and Brightest Moon of the Century, is working to generate some buzz for his latest project through e-sales in order to attract the attention of the book industry. Second, he’s stepping a little further afield of his usual comfort zone with this novel insofar as his protagonist, Gunnar Gunderson, is a physicist working on, among other things, creating new, theoretical forms of matter that exist only at absolute zero — an effort that Meeks, who teaches creative writing for a living, might otherwise know nothing about if not for his investigation of the topic for the purposes of writing this book. Yet despite the experimental nature of this, his latest work, fans of Meeks will be pleased to see that he’s still at the top of his game and more than capable of generating the kind of quirky character-driven fiction that we’ve come to expect from him.

This time around, the quirks belong, for the most part, to the aforementioned Gunnar Gunderson, a 32-year-old physicist who has just earned tenure at the University of Wisconsin only to realize that he’s more than a little bit lonely. His quest, then, is to find a mate–and find one quickly, as a glitch in his latest research project has just opened up a three-day window of opportunity within which to find true love. Apparently, though, Gunnar has never heard Diana Ross’s admonition against hurrying love — nor, for that matter, any love songs, for his romantic ineptitude is rivaled only by his brilliance in the physics lab. Indeed, among the especially comedic touches in the novel is Gunnar’s decision to employ the scientific method to attract a mate. And so Gunnar bleaches his teeth, gets braces, dyes his hair, opts for Lasik eye surgery , and eventually goes so far as to move to Denmark in his dubious quest for love. Thus while Meeks is, in fact, doing new things with this novel (as all artists must!), he’s also allowing his natural talents to shine through by focusing on that which makes his other works especially gratifying —  the quest for love, the quest for self-knowledge, and the quest for personal fulfillment.

As engaging as it is amusing, Love at Absolute Zero is, ultimately, a heartfelt study of the tension between the head and heart, science and emotion, calculation and chance.

Review of Ben Tanzer’s “My Father’s House” – by Lavinia Ludlow

It’s not Ben Tanzer’s fault, but after three paragraphs into his novella My Father’s House, it dawned on me that I’ve been reading a lot of cancer lately: Damascus by John Mohr, A Heartbreaking Work of a Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, the science section of every major newspaper, and each time I’ve had to put them down, on hold maybe, even still with Eggers’ masterpiece, because the topic of cancer induces a lot of stress. Chalk it up to early impressions in childhood, but cancer is a personal phobia, which made it extraordinarily difficult to read many of Tanzer’s passages, “maybe they will wheel us into some cold and antiseptic hospital room and put tubes into our lower back and then very slowly draw the bone marrow that could very well save my dad’s life. That would be something wouldn’t it? Sure it would, though this is assuming of course that he doesn’t die on the operating table, that his body doesn’t then reject the transplant or that some opportunistic infection doesn’t wreak havoc on his now compromised immune system.”

I know Tanzer’s work best in seriocomic form, themes usually include therapy sessions, running, a distant wife, cheating on that distant wife, beating the goo out of some guy’s face (even if it is imagined), but My Father’s House was a march in a different direction, packed with the dismal, the ugly, the realities of terminal illness. For me, it was like seeing my favorite comical movie star taking on a serious role, or vice versa. The vice versa tends to be a lot more lighthearted, seeing Christopher Walken on SNL is always a treat. But this wasn’t the vice versa, this was Tanzer exploring the complexities of a relationship, at times the lack thereof, between a grown man, his father, and his father’s deathbed.

The petite chapters were so symmetrically crafted that they could stand alone as flashes, one of Tanzer’s many talents. Most focus on the human experience, taking the reader through what it’s like to undergo overwhelming hopelessness: “It’s like once I allow myself to think about the possibility of his death all sorts of roads open up…He told me today that it isn’t his time yet, that he has things to do. I know that, and want to believe it, but this is bad, and who knows what’s going to happen. Also, let’s be honest, I can do other things, go to work, go for a run or watch the Knicks, but this is all I think about. In fact, I can’t even remember a time when this wasn’t our reality, and this is despite the fact that we’ve only been in this place for a week or so.”

I kept searching for some lightness in this book, and maybe I found it in the drop of some guy’s pants and then an Entenmann’s cake, but that was over in an instant, and then it leapt back into Debbie Downer: “Killing time, I never realized how terrible that phrase sounds when you use it at the wrong time, like when someone is actually dying.” I think the “Debbie Downer” SNL reference is appropriate, in fact, here is a quote from the book: “The show [SNL] is not funny anymore, but I watch it because my dad liked to watch it…because my dad will likely be dead sooner than later and I need to hold onto whatever I have of him.”

The writing is incredible, no surprise for a writer like Tanzer, and his storytelling ability has always been incomparable, but the incessant mention of grief, dying, wasting away, and the sheer hopelessness of his protagonist’s tortured soul overtook me like Mavericks’ surf. This book read more like a funeral filled with regretful and resentful eulogies, not necessarily one that celebrated life. Definitely worth checking out, just don’t start reading it on the way to a wedding or your kid’s birthday party.

– Review by Lavinia Ludlow

The Great Lenore

Imagine, if you will, a cocktail party attended by the greats of American literature. Washington Irving is there, asleep under a tree, perhaps. Emily Dickinson is busy being nobody in a corner somewhere. And Mark Twain is regaling a crowd of admirers, including Ernest Hemingway, with tales of the mighty Mississippi when in walks J.M. Tohline looking for Edgar Allan Poe and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who are both boozing it up on opposite ends of the room.

“Excuse me, Mr. Fitzgerald,” says Tohline . “Do you mind if I call you F?”

“That depends,” slurs Fitzgerald. “Do you mind if I call you J?”

“As in Gatsby?” says Tohline.

Fitzgerald stares at him, unblinking.

“Anyway,” says Tohline, “I was wondering if you’d mind having your photo taken with me and Edgar Allan Poe.”

Tohline nods in Poe’s direction. For reasons unexplained, Poe is asking where the nearest polling station might be found. He’s been promised a drink, Poe is in the middle of explaining as an old-timey photographer sets up his equipment and Tohline positions himself squarely between his literary heroes, an arm draped proudly over the shoulders of each.

“Hold still,” says the photographer as the flash powder goes up in a puff of smoke.

And out of the camera comes a sepia-toned Polaroid (don’t ask, just go with it, but if you insist, would you buy that the photographer’s into steampunk?) of an incongruous pair forced together by fate and the wide-eyed admiration of a heretofore unknown debut novelist.

Such is the effect, more or less, of reading Tohline’s The Great Lenore, a novel that, as the name suggests (and as my perhaps overwrought introductory remarks should make clear) takes its inspiration from Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Poe’s “Lenore” and “The Raven.” Given the stature of the company that Tohline has chosen to keep, the author holds his own remarkably well.

The narrative follows the efforts of a struggling writer to get started on his second novel while simultaneously dealing with the comings and goings of the incredibly rich (and incredibly idiosyncratic) family living next door to his borrowed Nantucket estate. Things take a turn for the worse when a member of the family — the young, impossibly beautiful and equally charming Lenore — dies in a plane crash, and then a turn for the weird when (no spoilers here, as the twist is revealed on page one) she shows up one rainy night alive and well.

Complicating matters even further is the fact that a non-moneyed interloper name name Jez (perhaps pronounced Jay, if we give it a French twist?) is in love with Lenore despite her marriage to the uber-moneyed Chas Montana. The result is a tale of doomed romance with a Gothic twist — Gatsby on absinthe, as it were.

What makes the novel especially fun to read is watching Tohline weave the two strands of his narrative together in a way that’s strikingly contemporary. The Gatsby touches, for example, range from the subtle detail of untouched books in the family library to the borderline plagiarism of the concluding pages; compare Fitzgerald’s “we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning—” to Tohline’s “We will run with heads held high, arms stretched farther… forever believing that someday—.”

Which isn’t a bad thing.

If imitation is, indeed, the sincerest form of flattery, then Tohline’s borrowing — some might say “riffing” — isn’t a bad thing at all. The novel is Tohline’s homage to his literary heroes and, as an author, he has the good sense to steal from the best. What’s more, he brings enough of his own imagination to the table to make The Great Lenore entirely his own.

A tribute. A riff. An homage. A mash-up.

Whatever you decide to call it, The Great Lenore is, in the final analysis, a page-turner that introduces the literary world to an author with a clear and profound appreciation for the American literary canon.

– Review by Marc Schuster